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September 29th, 2008:
The story of California's first openly gay elected official, Harvey Milk, a San Francisco supervisor who was assassinated along with Mayor George Moscone by San Francisco Supervisor Dan White.What to Expect:
Harvey Milk was America's first openly gay elected official. He served on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1978, until his career was tragically cut short when he and his ally, San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, were assassinated by disgruntled fellow supervisor Dan White. Milk, who was something of a polarizing figure during life, became a hero and martyr of the gay rights movement, and he is a folk hero in many quarters of San Francisco. A film about his life has been in the works since 1991, and finally, a biopic of Milk is coming to theaters this fall. Article continues below
Except the film being released isn't the film that spent fifteen years in development hell, but a completely different one. The convoluted history of "Milk" is the story of not one film, but two.
In 1982, journalist Randy Shilts wrote "The Mayor of Castro Street," a biography of Milk, and a few years later, an Oscar-winning documentary about Milk's life was made. It didn't take long for interest in a feature film surfaced, and in 1991, producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron ("Hairspray
" and "Chicago") approached cinema heavyweight Oliver Stone
to direct the project. Stone was very hot at the time, just coming off "Platoon" and "Born on the Fourth of July," and eagerly embraced the project, which for the time was a much riskier venture than it is today. Warner bought the rights and Stone cast Robin Williams as Milk, the comic having recently proven his dramatic chops in "Good Morning, Vietnam," "Dead Poets Society" and "Awakenings;" he seemed a good choice to bring Milk's offbeat personality to the screen. "Citizen Cohn" and "Gladiator" writer David Franzoni was hired to pen the script.
Then disaster struck in the form of three letters: JFK. Stone's hugely controversial conspiracy-theory film angered a large portion of the gay community with its portrayal of assassination conspirators as homosexual deviants. Stone, feeling his presence would not help the film, bowed out as director, but suggested openly gay filmmaker Gus Van Sant
, who'd just made "Drugstore Cowboy," to replace him. Van Sant was not happy with a new script that was presented, and after his own treatment of the story was ignored, he left the project. Zadan and Meron made overtures to many filmmakers and actors over the next decade, meeting with little success, until finally Bryan Singer
(also openly gay) committed to the project, intending to ask his old "Usual Suspects" and "Superman Returns" actor Kevin Spacey
to play Milk, and suggesting Brad Pitt
as Dan White, joking that Pitt would love a chance to murder Spacey again, after already doing it once in "Se7en." After going through another couple of rounds of screenwriters, Singer turned to writing partner and Oscar winner Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects) to write the script, and the project was once again back at Warner Brothers. Rumor had it that Singer was now favoring Steve Carell
to play Milk, after Carell expressed interest in the project; Singer was impressed by Carell's more dramatic turn in "Little Miss Sunshine
." Singer was to begin production once post-production was completed on his film "Valkyrie" starring Tom Cruise
(also once an actor mentioned to play Dan White). "Castro Street" seemed ready to go, although production was delayed by the WGA writers' strike.
And, then the bottom dropped out.
In 2007, word got out that Focus Features was putting another biopic of Milk into production, written by "Big Love" scribe Dustin Lance Black and directed by...wait for it... Gus Van Sant. This caused some confusion, especially given that Van Sant had, at one time, been attached to direct "The Mayor of Castro Street." Zadan and Meron fielded depressing phone calls, congratulating them for finally getting their movie made, only to be forced to tell people that it wasn't their movie being made. Van Sant had cast no less a Hollywood BAMF than Sean Penn
to play Milk, and had lined up a killer supporting cast including man-of-the-hour Josh Brolin
, James Franco
, Diego Luna
and Indie It Boy Emile Hirsch
, who Penn had directed in "Into the Wild
." Focus, which brought "Brokeback Mountain" to the world and loves going out there on a limb for risky, artistic films, gave Van Sant tremendous freedom to make his film, and the stigma against playing gay characters is not remotely what it was back in the early 90s, when Zadan and Meron started shopping their project. Shot on many historical locations in San Francisco, thousands of people turned up as unpaid extras, and those friends of Milk's who were still alive were invited to make appearances.
Now, "Milk" is set to debut this fall, poised for Oscar glory, and advance reviews are embarrassingly glowing. So what about "Castro Street?" It's dead. Dead as Zed. The film still has an IMDB entry, but it no longer appears on Bryan Singer's filmography as being in pre-production, and Singer seems to be moving on to his "Superman Returns" sequel
. I'm hesitant to say that the film is totally dead, but Zadan and Meron seem to be in mourning, and who can blame them? After fifteen years of being so close to production on a project that was so deeply personal and meaningful to them, it must rankle something fierce to have it swept out from under them by one of their own former directors. I have always admired Gus Van Sant, but I don't mind admitting that this seemed a little shady. Knowing that "Mayor of Castro Street" had almost made its way to actual photography, he mounts his own production of the exact same story? Sure, we've had a lot of instances of two similar films being released near each other. "Armageddon" and "Deep Impact." "The Prestige
" and "The Illusionist
." "Capote" and "Infamous." Sometimes both have even done well. But when two films cover such similar material, i.e. the key events in the life of a historical figure, it's hard to imagine releasing both.
All right, enough about the tangled, strange history of "Milk." What about the film itself? Dustin Lance Black is not a film screenwriting veteran, but the writing on "Big Love" is good, and given Van Sant's pickiness about the "Castro Street" scripts, which resulted in his leaving the project, he must have been happy with Black's script to go forward. Van Sant is a director of no small talent, although his commercial track record is spotty. His last really successful film was 1997's "Good Will Hunting," but for a project like "Milk," I think there's something to be said for a director without a commercially-driven sensibility. I'm sure the project has personal significance to him, as it had to Zadan and Meron, or else he would not have pursued it so diligently, and being a gay filmmaker making a film about a man who changed the gay rights' movement forever...well, I've no doubt that Van Sant feels the eyes of cinema history, not to mention the entire gay community with all their disposable income, watching him very closely.
As for the casting, Van Sant doesn't seem to have had much trouble convincing actors to be in his film. Sean Penn jumped at the project, and by the publicity he's pulled off another of his chameleon-like transformations (in photos he looks like he might be wearing a prosthetic nose, but it's hard to be sure). Penn does resemble Milk, even without the nose, and according to San Francisco supervisor Tom Ammiano, who knew Milk personally and plays himself in the film, Penn looks and sounds so much like Milk that it was startling at times. Matt Damon
was originally cast as Dan White, but had to drop out for scheduling reasons, and was replaced by the suddenly-everywhere Josh Brolin. James Franco plays one of Milk's lovers, baring all for the part...or not quite. According to Franco
, Van Sant suggested that he wear a prosthetic penis during a frontal nudity scene to preserve his modesty. His modesty, or his ego?
One question that I'm sure is on the minds of many filmgoers as well as the gay community is: how far will Van Sant take it? Will he shy away from showing any displays of physical affection between the film's male stars, as has been de rigeur in films about gay men, reducing them to sexless beings so as not to threaten straight audiences? The word on the street is that he won't. According to several sources, including star James Franco, the film depicts no less than four sex scenes, including one in a shower. What might become a bone of contention is that according to Milk speechwriter Frank Robinson, who was a consultant on the film and appears in it, the film does not cover the wildly controversial trial of Milk's killer, Dan White, who received a laughingly mild sentence of seven years for voluntary manslaughter by virtue of an undoubtedly biased jury and what has become known as the "Twinkie Defense," which claimed that White committed the murder of Milk and Mayor Moscone while suffering from diminished capacity brought about by emotional upheaval and an evening binging on junk food.
The verdict prompted city-wide riots and horrifying violence between the gay community and the SFPD. Robinson remembers that they were about two inches away from the National Guard having to be called in. Van Sant has decided to stick to the events of Milk's life, although one could argue that it was the aftermath of his death that created the lion's share of his legacy.In Conclusion:
Everyone who's worked on or seen advance screenings of this film has raved about it. It seems like a shoo-in for multiple Oscar nominations, and Sean Penn is one of those actors whose performances I never worry about because I know he'll be good. But excellence, sadly, doesn't always mean success. Audiences may be put off by what could be a lot more gay lovin' than we've ever seen onscreen (even Brokeback was pretty light on the gay lovin'), and Milk is not a terribly well-known historical figure outside San Francisco and the gay community. No doubt Van Sant hopes to change that, and Milk surely ought to be more famous than he is, but people don't go to the movies because it's good for them. I anticipate that this film will do good business. A lot of people will be curious. A lot of filmgoers still do appreciate a well-made film of significance. It will probably get an Oscar bump when nominations come out, if it's still in theaters (or if Focus re-releases it). I'd be shocked if it made more than $100 million, but then nobody thought "Brokeback Mountain" would make any money, either. The fact that "Milk" is about a man's life and political career, as opposed to being just about his love life, may help its box-office draw and let it avoid a belittling tag like "the gay politician movie."Similar Titles: Malcolm X
, Good Will Hunting