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Category Archives: Sean Penn

Sean Penn in "Milk"

Sean Penn gives one of his most fearless and thrilling performances in “Milk,” director Gus Van Sant’s recounting of the life and violent death of the first openly gay man to be elected to a significant municipal position in America. The year was 1977, the position was on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, and the man was Harvey Milk, a disarmingly cheerful but determined gay-rights activist. Milk was a major figure in the battle against social intolerance, but he never lived to see the major changes his modest political triumph helped facilitate. After being sworn into office, he had less than one year to live before being murdered by an unbalanced fellow supervisor.

Van Sant takes up Milk’s story in 1970, in New York, where he’s a closeted gay man (and a Republican) working for an insurance company. It’s his fortieth birthday, and down in a subway station he strikes up a conversation with a younger man named Scott (James Franco), who’s friendly, but not especially available. “You’re cute,” he tells Harvey, “but I don’t date guys over forty.” Since Harvey comes in just under that particular wire, they return to his apartment and eventually make love.

Scott is surprised that Harvey is still in the closet. He suggests they relocate to San Francisco, where a new gay neighborhood is coming together in the Castro district. The ’60s hippie era is definitively dead, but Harvey, flushed with liberation, goes longhair anyway. Now completely out of the closet, he organizes a gay boycott of homophobic businesses. “We can change things,” he says, “but we have to start with our neighborhood.” Next, he strikes an unlikely alliance with the Teamsters for a gay boycott of the non-unionized Coors beer company, in return for which the Teamsters agree to accept gay truck drivers as members. Now thoroughly hooked on politics, Harvey cuts his hair and takes to wearing three-piece suits. He runs for various offices and keeps losing, but by smaller margins each time. His self-deprecating demeanor is hard to resist: “I know I’m not what you expected,” he tells one group of potential straight supporters, “but I left my high heels at home.”

Milk is sworn into office in January of 1978, along with another new supervisor named Dan White, a conservative ex-fireman. White is a man of deep and unpredictable dark moods; he seems obscurely conflicted, and Harvey is intrigued: “I think he may be one of us,” he tells some friends. Maybe, maybe not. One day in November of 1978, in a spasm of rage at a perceived political injustice, White goes to City Hall with a gun, shoots the mayor, George Moscone, in his office, then seeks out Milk, luring him into another office and shooting him, too. (White served just five years in jail for this double homicide; a year and a half after his release, he committed suicide.)

The most striking thing about Van Sant’s film is the carefully muted dignity with which it presents Milk’s story, never descending into melodrama or gay-rights boosterism (except at the very end, which perhaps should have been re-thought). Instead, he builds up an intimate portrait of the man through an accretion of simple human details. (He makes little attempt to canonize his subject, either, scrupulously highlighting Milk’s distasteful insistence on outing closeted gays, and his unattractive desire to impose his liberal political agenda in every direction.) And in Penn, the director has a near-perfect star: a straight actor capable of playing a gay man without holding back in depicting Milk’s mannerisms, but without treading anywhere near gay caricature, either.

Penn receives extraordinary support from the rest of the film’s cast. Franco, especially, conveys a luminous affection for the man who’ll eventually drive him away in his obsession with politics; Diego Luna is alternately hilarious and heartbreaking as Milk’s new boyfriend, the loveably whacked-out Jack Lira; and Emile Hirsch, as a street-cruising Castro kid converted to Milk’s political activism, and Alison Pill, as the candidate’s pretty but hard-nosed lesbian campaign manager, create fully inhabited, memorable characters. But Penn presides over the movie with complete and unforgettable conviction. When he tells a friend who’s asked if it’d be all right to visit him in City Hall that he certainly should, “and wear the tightest jeans possible — don’t blend in,” you marvel at the precision of his tone and delivery. He’s a wonder to watch.

James Franco

BEVERLY HILLS, California — Look beyond “Twilight” and “Four Christmases,” and you’ll see that it was a small-budget Gus Van Sant film that hauled in four times their per-screen averages this past weekend while entering the top 10 on only 36 screens. Read the reviews, listen to the Oscar hype or check the news, and you might find it hard to believe that a ’70s-set biopic about a homosexual politician could prove so popular and relevant with all kinds of audiences. But there was only one Harvey Milk — and appropriately enough, the movie that tells his story is similarly becoming a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon.

“It’s funny, I grew up in the Bay Area in Palo Alto, 45 minutes away from San Francisco,” marveled “Pineapple Express” star James Franco, who shows tremendous range alongside Sean Penn‘s portrayal of the nation’s first openly gay elected official, but grew up never having heard of Harvey Milk’s nearby Castro Street revolution. “I’m a huge Gus fan and really wanted to just work with him on anything. When I heard he was doing this movie about Milk, I did a little research on who Harvey Milk was. I remember when I first watched the Oscar-winning documentary, ‘The Times of Harvey Milk,’ that something about Milk kind of looked familiar, like maybe I had seen a picture or something when I was in the city as a kid or something, but the fact was that I didn’t learn anything about him in school or growing up. And here I am in the Bay Area! So the rest of the country, I’m sure, knows absolutely nothing about him.

“That’s sad,” Franco added. “One of the great things about this movie is that I hope it really raises the awareness of who Harvey was and what he did.”

But one of the main obstacles in making the film was finding the right lead actor — if you could count our greatest leading actors on one hand, listing the number who could effectively portray Milk would probably limit you to a finger or two. Luckily, four-time Oscar nominee (and winner for 2004’s “Mystic River”) Sean Penn was eager to dig deep and give what some are calling the best performance of his career, all in the name of raising that awareness.

“When I went to the set, the first day I was there, like, two or there weeks after they’d stared shooting, [Penn] was a different person — not the guy I met a few years ago at a film festival, not the guy I had been rehearsing with,” said Diego Luna, who, like Franco, portrays one of the influential lovers Milk was forced to put on the back burner during his all-absorbing quest for civil rights. “Sean found that character, and it’s very different from everything that he has done before. Normally, his characters are more dark, and this guy is a guy that knew that love was the only thing that mattered.”

Unfortunately, those familiar with the story of Harvey Milk also know that the tale has a villain: fellow city supervisor Dan White. And while the Twinkie-fueled assassin certainly deserves to be remembered as a bad guy, it was the job of Josh Brolin to put the humanity back into a historical madman.

“You don’t want to misrepresent [White]. The thing is, you want to represent him in a way that is accurate, and he is seen as the bad guy. He is the monster of the story, but that’s the result of the story,” Brolin said of his own awards-worthy work, another facet of “Milk” that is building huge awards-season buzz. “The more interesting question to me is ‘Why?’ How did the guy get to the point that he felt [murder] was the only thing that he could resort to? So you follow this guy’s life, you follow his frustrations, you follow — at least from my character’s point of view — that he did have a relationship with Harvey. He was trying to be diplomatic and open himself up to diversity in order to work with people he wasn’t used to being around, especially gay people at that time. … [His supporters] wanted San Francisco to be what it used to be, built on this Catholic, white mentality.”

To be sure, the film is a powerhouse of acting performances, led by the work of Penn, Brolin, Franco, Luna and “Speed Racer” star Emile Hirsch.

“This is an opportunity for a whole new generation of people to learn about who Harvey Milk was — especially young people — and I think it’s high time,” said 23-year-old Hirsch, who plays Milk protégé Cleve Jones in the film. “After I learned about his life and his story, I had such a different perspective of gay people in general, and the gay-rights movement. I had so much more sympathy, because it humanized the movement and gives you a very close-up view of gay people’s lives in the film; you see it in a different way. Most people don’t know that many gay people, so they can make judgments on things they don’t fully understand.

“What Milk says in the film so eloquently is, ‘People vote two to one for us when they know one of us,’ ” Hirsch remembered, quoting one of Harvey’s equal-rights-for-all lines from the film. “And it’s so true.”


LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Even in liberal Hollywood, an openly gay actor with a marketable name is a hard commodity to find, and if anyone should know, it is the filmmakers behind new movie, “Milk.”

Fortunately for them they had Sean Penn, the very straight Oscar winner who has loyal fans and seems able to play any role in front of him, including San Francisco’s gay politician Harvey Milk who was murdered on the job in November, 1978.

“He came in kind of ready made” for the role, director Gus Van Sant told Reuters about winner of the best actor Academy Award for playing a hardened ex-convict in 2003’s “Mystic River.”

In real life, Penn has maintained a tough guy image ever since getting into scrapes with the paparazzi early in his career. Yet in the movies, he has shown wide versatility, whether playing a mentally retarded man in “I Am Sam,” a jazz guitarist in “Sweet and Lowdown” or a death row inmate in “Dead Man Walking” — all which earned him Oscar nominations.

Harvey Milk may be his best role yet, many critics say. Writing for USA Today, reviewer Claudia Puig called Penn’s performance “magnificent, career-topping” and Kenneth Turan, in a generally mixed review of the overall film, called Penn’s performance “strong and convincing.”

In recent years, several A-list actresses have come out of the closet as lesbians, including Ellen DeGeneres and Rosie O’Donnell. But it has been a rare event for gay men. Perhaps the highest profile actor to do so was TV star Neil Patrick Harris.

“It was hard to find gay actors who were out,” said openly gay director Van Sant. “There really aren’t (many). You could do it, but they would be unknowns and that would be fine with me, but the money (financiers) would start to get nervous.”


The fact that Penn and his co-stars — James Franco, Emile Hirsch and Diego Luna — could feel comfortable playing gay roles, coupled with how small the pool of marketable gay actors truly is, shows at least one thing: times have changed in Hollywood for gay men but they have also stayed the same.

In watching “Milk” amid the current U.S. political battles over gay marriage, audiences can’t help but ponder progress on gay rights because in looking at Harvey Milk, writer Dustin Lance Black has chosen as a backdrop the politician’s battle against California’s Proposition 6, which would have banned gay teachers in public schools in 1978.

In this past election cycle, the state’s voters approved a proposition banning gay marriage and since the November 4 balloting, gays have taken to the streets to protest what they see as an assault on their civil rights.

What would Milk have done in the same position? “He’d be right there on the streets with the marchers,” Van Sant said.

“Milk” picks up on the politician’s life after he moves from New York to California, and it focuses almost exclusively on Milk’s political involvement in San Francisco.

Milk lost several early campaigns but finally was elected to the city’s Board of Supervisors, becoming the first openly gay man to hold a major public office in the United States.

By using broadcast film footage of the 1970s gay rights battles, Van Sant offers not just a portrait of a man, but a look at the times and the city, too.

After numerous false starts over more than a dozen years, “Milk” finally was made when marketable stars like Penn got involved. Also pivotal was the financial success of 2005 gay romance “Brokeback Mountain,” which raked in more than $175 million worldwide by winning fans among mainstream moviegoers.

A key factor for the success of “Milk” will be whether it, too, can cross over from strictly gay fans to the mainstream.

“I think it will,” said Neil Giuliano, president of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). “The culture has clearly changed with regard to acceptance and visibility of gay people. Having said that, our public policy has changed not as much as we would have liked it to.”