Rhinestone cowboysI was there. Twice. The first time was in San Francisco in '78 when Dan White shot and killed Harvey Milk and George Moscone. The second time was at the Castro theatre for the opening week showing of Milk, almost 30 years later. It was a special, bittersweet night.
Milk is directed by Gus Van Sant, an openly gay director known for diverse films including Drugstore Cowboy and Good Will Hunting. Harvey Milk was a gay rights activist with political aspirations. Dubbed "The Mayor of Castro Street," he was ultmately elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors-not because he wanted to be a politician per se, rather he saw it as the right thing to do.
I lived on Castro Street for two years as an outcast - the slob-hetero of the neighborhood. This year, as the token straight waiting in line for the movie, I had a similar feeling, but this time we all shared the communal interest and a kind of sublime reverence.
The Castro is an ornate art deco theatre at the corner of Market and Castro streets. Virtually unchanged to this day, the theater was shown prominently in Milk. After waiting in the huge line and finding a seat, I was relieved to see The Mighty Wurlitzer was still there-a gigantic church organ with all the bells and whistles that appears from under the stage. The guy playing launches into schmaltzy tunes for pre-movie entertainment, ending with the customary "San Francisco Open Your Golden Gate." There were a couple of speakers who praised the film and then it was time to see Milk.
As the opening credits started with stock footage of gays being arrested simply for being gay, I was expecting a lot of hoops and hollers from the crowd, but they all seemed silently focused. Milk immediately takes on a sympathetic viewpoint. The film is a bio picture telling the straight (pardon the pun) story of Harvey Milk's (Sean Penn) rise from hippie camera shop owner to Supervisor Milk and all his relationships along the way. Of particular interest is his on/off butting of heads with fellow politician Dan White (Josh Brolin). There are skimmed versions of his run in with the Advocate (the main gay newspaper at the time), his joining forces with union bosses to eliminate Coors distribution, but the main focus sheds blinding light on the fight against ultra-conservatives Anita Bryant and douche bag John Briggs (this finally elicited boos and hisses from the crowd). Their mission was to pass Prop 6, a law designed to ban homosexuals from jobs, especially teaching. The correlation of Prop 6 and the recent Prop 8 which retracted the rights of gays to marry gives an eerie relevance to the debates and proves as a disservice to how far we think we've come in social and political ventures today.
There are a lot of excellent performances. Sean Penn so immerses himself in the role that it ceases to be a mere portrayal. Brolin amazes with his seething version of White as a repressed ex-cop. He plays the character with such angst that it never comes off as evil or cartoon-like; you believe him and his demons.
Milk is sadly foreboding and the story moves right along to the disastrous end. My only criticism is that it seemed too carefully constructed and controlled in the story telling. The bio pic formula detracted from the engrossing story, which needed to be delivered with more urgency.
Regardless, the real-life footage shown of the candle light vigil march down Castro Street, taking up what appeared to be most of San Francisco, is one of the strongest visuals in cinematic history. Milk is quoted as saying, "I am 40 years old and have never done a thing." By 48 he had accomplished something major: civil rights for a minority, and national if not global attention to his cause. He brought tolerance to the forefront in the coolest city in the world. I know...I was there.