The Magazine

Rose-Colored Milk

A sexual liberationist gets the sainthood treatment.

Dec 15, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 13 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts


Directed by Gus Van Sant

Sean Penn is no sweetheart. As an actor, he goes farther and deeper than any American performer of his generation in his meticulous depictions of flawed, unlikable, and dark-souled men. His three films as writer and director are portraits of obsessive self-destruction. And as one of Hollywood's most peculiar political journalists, he feels no compunction shilling for such worthies as Saddam Hussein and Hugo Chávez, perhaps because he has spent so much time humanizing monsters on the big screen that he feels compelled to do the same for real-life monsters.

Who could have known that inside Penn's breast secretly beats the heart of a politically correct sentimentalist? His performance as Harvey Milk, the 1970s gay rights advocate who was murdered by a political rival inside San Francisco's City Hall, is an unblemished portrait of a martyred saint. For much of the movie, Penn wears a beatific smile that is so warm, kind, and unshadowed that he is almost unrecognizable. This is the kind of transformation that separates genuinely great actors from their peers, and Penn is nothing if not a genuinely great actor. He takes the
Harvey Milk that was conjured up by tyro screenwriter Dustin Lance Black and lets that Harvey Milk take him over.

The thing is, the Harvey Milk of Milk is not the real Harvey Milk, and Milk the movie is a sham. The movie turns an incendiary, mau-mauing, take-no-prisoners radical of the 1970s into an ingenuous teddy bear. In the telling of the late gay journalist Randy Shilts-whose biography, The Mayor of Castro Street, is the unofficial inspiration for the movie--the real Milk was a smart, aggressive, purposefully offensive, press-savvy attention hound who believed the cause of gay rights would be advanced if there were riots in the streets of San Francisco. He was always on the hunt for a casus belli. By contrast, the cinematic Milk convinces the San Francisco police to let him organize an impromptu march to prevent a riot.

The real Milk was a sexual liberationist of a very specific 1970s type. "As homosexuals, we can't depend on the heterosexual model," Shilts quotes him as saying to one boyfriend in San Francisco by way of explaining why he had another boyfriend in Los Angeles. "We grow up with the heterosexual model, but we don't have to follow it. We should be developing our own lifestyle. There's no reason you can't love more than one person at a time." Shilts adds: "That ultimately was what his politics were all about, Harvey decided."

Milk was murdered three years before researchers identified the AIDS virus, which was the horrifying natural refutation of his doctrine (and which took the life of Scott Smith, the man with whom Milk moved to San Francisco from New York in 1970). It is understandable that screenwriter Black and director Gus Van Sant do not want to muddy their iconographic portrait with the inconvenient truth about Milk's polyamorous views or behavior. They no longer represent the vanguard of the effort to expand gay rights, which is now focused almost solely on the institution of marriage. But it is a distortion, and a significant one.

Milk was an extremist, far more comfortable on the margins than in the center, and committed to the proposition that the center should move to accommodate him. He went from being a Goldwater Republican to a hard leftist in a few years, and from being an insurance executive to a long-haired, bearded pseudo-hippie in less time than that. He despised rival leaders of the gay community in San Francisco he deemed insufficiently revolutionary. He was one of the early users of the reductio ad Hitlerum, throwing the Führer's name around to discredit and disqualify those who might have the temerity to disagree with him.

Whether Milk was a figure of any real significance during his lifetime is hard to say. He was one of the first openly gay elected officials in the United States, though the office he finally won-as a San Francisco supervisor, one of the city's 11 legislators-was not an important one. He was killed 11 months into his tenure by Dan White, one of his colleagues on the Board of Supervisors, and only after White had shot Mayor George Moscone dead. Milk's contrarian nature does not suggest he would have made a particularly effective working politician. He spent much of his time in office threatening Moscone with the loss of the "gay vote" if Moscone refused to do his bidding, which is the act more of an agitator than a legislator.