Off screen, Sean Penn is no Harvey Milk
by Kevin John Sowyrda
Wednesday Dec 24, 2008
I got Milk. I mean to say, I’ve seen the flick about the life and times of one of America’s first openly gay elected officials. Milk was a panoply of sexual identity, bigotry, spiritual conversion, seizing power, having it stolen away, revenge and twisted closure. The movie is also about a producer’s denial regarding sensitivity to the real world activities of an actor who is polar opposite to everything Harvey Milk would be doing right now had he survived his assassination in 1978. Sean Penn playing the role of Harvey Milk is rife with ironies that should not be ignored.
The cast is far from homogenized (I simply couldn’t resist) and instead the integral players are found to execute unique acting techniques worthy of the complex characters they try, sometimes too hard, to bring back to life for a younger generation of gay citizens who probably think 1972 (Milk’s debut in San Francisco) was when Cleopatra and Caesar were still dating.
Penn’s acting shows few if any flaws, but I found it almost overshadowed, ironically so, by a mesmerizing supporting cast. That guy Lipton with the pile of too many blue cards would lecture me sardonically here, but I find supporting actors the stuff of real movies. James Franco, as Milk’s love interest Scott Smith, seemed to be handing in his straight card for gay credentials, pulling off amazingly credible intimacy moments with Sean Penn that must have required a special imagination that can be found only in a true artist’s heart. Kudos likewise to Josh Brolin, who seems to be the new character actor du jour. Having mastered the idiosyncrasies of President Bush for his lead role in the Oliver Stone drama W, Brolin is compelling for his on screen brooding as City Supervisor Dan White in Milk. The leader of San Francisco’s conservative community -- yes there was once such a thing -- White would kill Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and commit suicide about five years later. History will note that Dan White was dealing with more demons than he would inevitably find when sent to perdition, and Brolin projects that in the best supporting actor performance of the year. Milk’s message, aside from documenting for us the unlikely political rise of a gay, Jewish man in conservative 1970’s San Francisco is, I suppose, that though heroes are not immune to a .38 revolver, their memories are indeed held harmless to even the most sordid tools of temporal life. Agreed.
But had Milk’s colleague White been captured on that fateful morning of Nov. 27, 1978 while crawling into a city hall window with his gun, and the murders thus avoided, would Milk cheer the fact that his stunning story of unlikely ascendancy is being portrayed by Madonna’s ex? I think not.
In today’s world Milk would be just shy of 80. No one with his energy would dare leave us before blowing out at least 95 or so candles. Therefore, upon getting the word that he’s to be portrayed by Sean Penn, I dare to imagine a present day U.S. Senator Harvey Milk summoning the congressional physician for those paddles needed for heart resuscitation. A modern-day Milk would be raising holy hell -- a technique he mastered -- regarding the treatment of gay people at the hands of our hemisphere’s growing supply of dictator-thugs, and would consequently find Penn’s bipolar existence -- championing gay rights in one event while praising those who literally kill people for being gay in other events, an ugliness far greater than anything Milk had to face in San Francisco.
Sean Penn is a nonsensical hypocrite whose acting may have matured beyond Fast Times at Ridgemont High but whose politics reads as if it were written in the detention room at that fictional school. His recent claim to infamy is a hell bent effort to legitimize the regime of Venezuelan Despot Hugo Chavez, whose sanity is almost as questionable as his deplorable human rights record. Tell Hugo Chavez of Venezuela you’re gay? No problem. Hugo’s thugs cut your head off and then you don’t have to worry about being gay in Venezuela anymore. Easy.
As James Kirchik recently scribed in The Advocate, "The same week that Milk premiered in theaters, The Nation published a cover story by Penn based on interviews he conducted recently with Hugo Chavez and Raul Castro, the dictators of Venezuela and Cuba respectively. The article is a love letter to the two men, defending them against all manner of Western ’propaganda.’ It hearkens back to the notorious dispatches penned by Westerners fresh from the Soviet Union who reported on the amazing progress of the workers’ paradise. These worshipful epistles, often published in The Nation, neglected to mention anything about the gulag, the ’disappearance’ of political dissidents, the Ukrainian famine, or any other such inconvenient truths about communism. Lenin termed the individuals who delivered these apologetics ’useful idiots,’ and Penn and his enablers are nothing if not that."
The nuclear bombs being launched at Kirchik, an assistant editor at The New Republic, are to be expected. The stereotype that card-carrying members of the gay community must also heap praise on any new Politburo infesting the Banana Republics of the world is too strong a misnomer to fight without opposition. But where’s the moral compass of sensible members of the gay community when personalities like Penn are suddenly canonized for what I’ll grant you is his masterful portrait of a gay icon, but not also called to task for embracing men -- Chavez and Castro -- who are known to support the imprisonment and torture of people for the "crime" of being homosexual?
By all means go watch Penn shine in the movie Milk. I recommend the Coolidge Corner Theatre as Brookline was founded for deep thought. But after falling in love with this production -- and you will -- send a snail mail to Penn care of his agent -- 2049 Century Park E Ste 2500, Los Angeles, CA 90067 -- and ask the actor/politician to stop making love off screen to people who hate us.
Harvey would have known better.