2008 / Best Actor / Best Director / Best Picture / Best Supporting Actor

Film #421: Milk (2008)

Our final film in our Best Actor quartet comes courtesy of Gus Van Sant’s Milk – a biopic of the first openly gay man to hold office in the U.S.; Harvey Milk. Just like Capote, Milk looks at a specific point in Harvey’s life as he moves to San Francisco and later decides to run for office.

The film is presented as a tape recording our hero makes as he believes he’ll soon be assassinated and it starts on the eve of Harvey’s fortieth birthday when he meets arguably the love of his life Scott Smith. Together Scott and Harvey open a camera shop in the heart of a burgeoning gay community in San Francisco known as ‘The Castro’. Milk’s frustration with the way the gay community is being persecuted leads him to run for city supervisor; however his first two campaigns are unsuccessful. Meanwhile the campaigning puts a strain on his relationship with Scott, who eventually leaves him, reappearing every now and again in the film to praise his former lover’s success. After finally getting into office in 1976, Harvey constantly clashes with the boorish Dan White; another supervisor who takes offence at his colleague’s way of life. Dan’s jealousy appears to stem from the fact that he isn’t nearly as charismatic as Harvey and therefore finds it hard getting his voice heard. The other story is Harvey’s need to get the controversial Proposition 6, which states that all gay teachers be sacked, overturned in the state of California. This story provided its fair share of uplifting moments as Milk went head-to-head in debates with the bigoted John Briggs, who felt that all homosexuals were perverted. Even if you didn’t know the story going in, it was quite obvious that Harvey wasn’t going to make it till the end of the film and is eventual assassination at the hands of Dan White was well-handled. The candlelight vigil at the end of the film provided a heart-warming ending to what was another enjoyable and thought-provoking watch.

Of the four Best Actor-winning performances I’ve watched recently, Sean Penn’s is possibly the least-deserving of the prize. I personally feel he’s the one who is visibly acting while the other three performers deliver effortless turns. Although Penn’s performance isn’t as clichéd as it could’ve been I didn’t really feel that he was as at ease with Dustin Lance Black’s dialogue as he should have been. Maybe I’m a little biased, as I wanted Mickey Rourke to win Best Actor for The Wrestler, but I believe that Penn didn’t convey the full extent of Milk’s charisma. Reading around on the film it appears that, when the idea of a film about Milk was first conceived, Robin Williams was attached to play the role and I ultimately think that he would’ve suited the role much better. Penn was lucky that he was surrounded by such a fine ensemble of actors who beautifully portrayed the friendship between the men and women who became a family on The Castro. I really thought James Franco gave a grounded performance as the put-upon Scott who’d finally had enough of play second fiddle to the great Harvey Milk. Meanwhile Emile Hirsch and Allison Pill were similarly great as Milk’s supporters Cleve Jones and Anne Kronenberg.
However, the performance of the film came from Josh Brolin as the rather old-fashioned Dan White, a man who couldn’t understand just why Harvey was as popular as he was. Brolin received a Best Supporting Actor nod for his role in the film but I believe he should have won the awards but unfortunately that year saw him come up against Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight. Harris Savides’ cinematography is another of Milk’s positive elements as he gets in amongst the film’s many protests and makes the audience understand just how intense the gay protests were during the 1970s. Gus Van Sant appears to have devoted a lot of time into getting the area of The Castro as authentic as possible and transformed the area into looking like it would in the 1970s. I personally feel that Milk works as a study of the gay movement of the 1970s and the strength in numbers that the community experienced during the time. However, I’m in the minority of people who weren’t won over by Penn’s performance and don’t think he was as deserving of the prize as his predecessors.


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