Claudia Leisinger

Jan 26 - Feb 1 2009


To director Gus Van Sant, Sean Penn was perfect to play 1970s tragic hero Harvey Milk – apart from the fact that he’s not gay. Leigh Singer hears why sexuality is still a career-defining issue in Hollywood.


Gus Van Sant has just outed a closeted gay movie star and is a little concerned.

The director of Drugstore Cowboy and Good Will Hunting is discussing his new film Milk, a biopic of Harvey Milk, who, at the vanguard of 1970s San Francisco’s gay activism, became one of the first openly homosexual men to be elected to American public office and was tragically assassinated. In the film he’s played – brilliantly - by the almost aggressively heterosexual Sean Penn. Van Sant, 56, and his young screenwriter Dustin Lance Black are both openly gay and adamant that their preference would have been to cast an out-gay actor as Milk. Which begs the question, who exactly?

We come up with three names: Ian McKellen, Rupert Everett and Alan Cumming. “All Brits,” as Van Sant ruefully notes. Black adds American Nathan Lane, best known for The Producers on Broadway and a fine talent, but by no means the A-list name that producers would want to safeguard a major, potentially divisive, movie.

Various closeted-gay stars were apparently touted but rejected. “I thought, what a slap in the face of Harvey Milk,” argues Black, “the man who believed so passionately that gay people needed to come out, as the only way they could win their freedom. I would rather cast a straight actor than a closeted-gay actor.”

At which point Van Sant casually names one of these closeted actors. It’s an Oscar-winning star of blockbusters and acclaimed indie films alike, not without previous whispers about his sexuality. But to hear Van Sant so blasé is shocking. “You’re going to get in so much trouble,” laughs Black, shaking his head. Van Sant blanches, suddenly not quite so nonchalant. A brief discussion follows. We decide it’s best for everyone not to court trouble. The actor is hung safely back in his closet.

All very entertaining, but more importantly, instructive as to how, in 2009, one’s sexuality still remains a controversial, life-defining, let alone career-defining, issue. It puts into starker contrast the risks that Harvey Milk and his cohorts took some thirty-plus years ago: his persistence in harnessing the Castro district’s burgeoning political and economic power; his success – Milk became a member of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, the first elected gay official in California’s history – and his eventual martyrdom, shot in November 1978, along with Mayor George Moscone by a former colleague Dan White.

Van Sant claims that he “only heard about [Harvey] when he was shot” and wasn’t aware of his groundbreaking activism as it happened. But for Black, growing up in a conservative, military Mormon family in Texas and fearfully aware of his homosexuality, his subsequent introduction to Milk in 1990, with Harvey already a gay folk-hero, was a revelation.

“I didn’t know there was such a thing as an out-gay person, period,” he stresses. “I thought an out-gay person was a dead gay person. I didn’t come out until years later but I had this new idea in my head that, Oh my gosh, one day I might be able to have a boyfriend and even accomplish something. Harvey always said the election was not for him, it was for all those kids out there who would now know that there was an out-gay man who can do great things.”

Given Milk’s status, it’s no surprise that several film versions of his life have long been touted. Van Sant himself was attached to one based on the acclaimed biography The Mayor of Castro Street in the early 1990s, with Robin Williams as a potential lead.

“Oliver Stone had just dropped out,” he recalls. “I wanted it to get made but also I didn’t want the film to be misrepresentative or toned down to the point where it was missing the whole point.” Versions were in and out of development over the years, with at one point The Usual Suspects director Bryan Singer – also openly gay – taking an interest. “I kept an eye on the project,” says Van Sant, “but by the time Lance’s script turned up, times had changed as well…”

Black’s painstakingly researched labour of love, written under Hollywood’s radar no less, made its way to Van Sant through mutual friend Cleve Jones, one of Milk’s right-hand men (played in the film by Emile Hirsch). Once Van Sant committed, the list of actors – straight actors – to play their hero very quickly arrived at Sean Penn.

“He’s my favourite American actor and he’s also very politically active,” Black enthuses. “I remember showing Gus some of his speeches on YouTube. He’s intensely passionate and he says things that make people wonder, ‘Wow is it OK to say that?’ - then he makes really corny jokes in the middle of it. And you think, ‘That’s Harvey!’”

Penn’s uncanny performance along with a roster of fine actors – Hirsch, James Franco, Josh Brolin – in support, beautifully detailed 70s period reconstruction and Van Sant’s clever interplay of archive footage have given Milk near-universal acclaim. In the film, Milk defeats Proposition 6, a measure intended to ban all openly-gay people working in the public school system (lest they be perceived as ‘role models’). Yet just prior to the film’s release, California upheld Proposition 8, overturning same-sex marriage rights. So have we really moved on? Or do we need another Harvey Milk?

“I do think it needs to be shaken up by another Harvey Milk-type character or movement,” opines Black. “It’s something I think the gay and lesbian community needs to do with Obama. Harvey was always very insistent on, [politicians] will take your vote and your movement for granted. You’ve got to make it loud and you’ve got to make it personal.”

“But [Prop 8] also got to the point that a young gay contingent were on the streets protesting for their first time,” notes Van Sant. “That seemed to be very exciting.”

Compassionate yet fervent; momentarily bowed yet optimistic; Black and Van Sant clearly got Milk. If he speaks to you too, then come on out, support the cause.


Milk is out now.

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