THE OSCARS / ESSAY
Much already has been said, written and blogged about the merits of Sean Penn’s performance as Harvey Milk. About his uncanny channeling of Milk’s nasally eloquence, his skill in replicating Milk’s puckish intelligence and his striking physical resemblance to the former San Francisco supervisor, underscored in recent newspaper ads touting Penn for this year’s best actor Oscar.
But what about Penn’s expressive use of his body? His clenched-fist joy in the scene where Milk becomes one of America’s first openly gay elected politicians? His robust articulateness at a mass rally, pumping his arms in full rhetorical flight?
In “Milk,” Penn gives us the most credible, emotionally layered performance in a Hollywood drama of a gay man who’s smart, witty, charismatic, determined, utterly comfortable in his own un-closeted skin and powerful. Not coincidentally, “Milk” is one of relatively few Hollywood movies in which a gay protagonist’s sexuality per se is depicted as only one facet of a deep and varied persona.
Yet Penn’s powerful body language in Gus Van Sant’s “Milk” represents an aberration as well as an evolution in the history of Hollywood’s representation of gay characters. For decades, the major studios have offered a long parade of gay male characters as comic buffoons (“The Birdcage”), tragic, self-hating victims (“The Boys In the Band”) and closeted sociopaths (“Rope,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley”). Of course, in that time there’ve also been dozens of movies with richly imagined, fully three-dimensional gay characters, many by European auteurs and U.S. independents.
But Penn’s Milk, pounding the Haight-Ashbury pavement with a bounce in his step, brings a new stride, even a swagger, to the Hollywood history of gay representation.
It’s worth noting that no such milestone has yet been reached by a lesbian character in a major-studio film, despite the increasing prevalence of lesbian characters in prime-time television. In some ways, gay female characters are still trying to break free from the stifled hysteria of “The Children’s Hour,” the 1961 William Wyler film about sexual repression at a New England girls’ school. Looking back over the last three or four decades, for every “Desert Hearts” or “Lianna” you can spot two or three schlocky gay-chick exploitation flicks like “Basic Instinct” and “Wild Things.”
To appreciate the achievements of Penn and “Milk” it helps to review a few key Hollywood movies that encapsulated their eras’ prevailing attitudes and prejudices about gay men’s identities and lives, focusing on how they depicted their characters’ bodies and body language.
The Maltese Falcon (1941)
In the Depression era, “gunsel” meant either a hired gun and/or a young, submissive homosexual. Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade sneeringly flings the pejorative at Wilmer (Elisha Cook Jr.), the anxiously buttoned-up young thug working for Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet).
Spade’s dismissive contempt for the callow Wilmer is no more (or less) casually sadistic than his behavior toward the pitiful, imploring women in his life, including his ex-partner’s widow and his femme fatale client Brigid O’Shaughnessy (the ethically challenged private eye has flings with both of them).
But when Wilmer fleetingly confronts Spade, he produces the movie’s most startlingly intense emotional moment in John Huston’s film noir masterpiece. Enraged and humiliated by Spade’s incessant needling, the shaken Wilmer raises his gun and, teary-eyed, tells Spade in a choked voice, “Get up on your feet! I’ve taken all the riding from you I’m gonna take! Get up and shoot it out!”
Soon after, Spade cold-cocks the poor sap, reducing Wilmer to an all-too-recognizable Hollywood archetype: the gay man as weak-willed and sneaky, the implied consequence of leading a double life.
Partly under pressure from the bluenoses administering the Hays Code, Hollywood went back into the closet during the Eisenhower presidency and more or less stayed there until the late 1960s (although Sal Mineo and a few others managed to slip out once in a while). Coyness and euphemism were the order of the day, with the likes of Rock Hudson and Randolph Scott impersonating big-screen macho men.
Then in 1969 (the year of the Stonewall Riots in New York’s Greenwich Village, where gays and lesbians fought back against an early-morning police raid), John Schlesinger unleashed “Midnight Cowboy,” the tale of a Texas dishwasher turned Manhattan street hustler (Jon Voight), which despite an X rating earned Oscars for best picture, director and screenplay.
William Friedkin’s enigmatic thriller “Cruising” picked up on “Midnight Cowboy’s” urban-gothic backdrop of New York City in decline and turned it into an S&M; fever dream set in the bump-and-grind bars of Manhattan’s meatpacking district. Al Pacino plays an undercover cop stalking a gruesomely savage gay serial killer who dismembers his victims. Employing a familiar pop-Freudian trope, the murderer turns out to be a dissolute Columbia University student (doing his thesis on the American musical theater, no less!) who never made peace with -- surprise! -- his disapproving father.
The movie tries to emphasize that this leather-clad milieu isn’t representative of all gay culture, only one dark sub-strata of it. Yet “Cruising” inevitably reinforced an image of gay life as sordid, sex-obsessed and marginal. One of its most enduring images is of a victim pleading for mercy while lying naked and bound on a bed. His flayed torso symbolizes the confused gender relations of the late disco era, which produced a number of other movies (“Dressed to Kill,” “Looking for Mr. Goodbar”) featuring killers with serious sexual-identity issues.
My Own Private Idaho (1991)
This warmly funny, nonjudgmental reimagining of Shakespeare’s “Henry IV,” written and directed by Van Sant, takes place in the gray Pacific Northwest, where Scott (Keanu Reeves) and Mike (River Phoenix) earn their living as hookers. Their picaresque adventures form a bittersweet tale of sexual hypocrisy, as Scott finally renounces both his vagabond lifestyle and his love for other men to gain acceptance into the world of hetero-bourgeois conformity.
The movie arrived amid a wave of earnestly well-intentioned films including “Longtime Companion” and “Philadelphia” that attempted to portray gay men, who’d been devastated by the AIDS crisis, in a more positive and sympathetic manner than they’d been shown in the ‘60s and ‘70s. “My Own Private Idaho,” a much hipper movie than most of its contemporaries, stood out for its erotic frankness, casually worn street cred and mytho-poetic vision of young men coming of age in America’s rugged western landscapes.
Key image: In the opening frames, the camera lingers over Mike’s face as he receives oral sex from a client, who then tosses two $10 bills on his bare chest. The sequence is as jarring, oddly funny and fearless as a Robert Mapplethorpe nude.
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
This movie significantly placed gay/bisexual characters in the American heartland rather than the usual big-city mean streets. The main characters first meet in 1963 as star-crossed bunkmates while herding sheep on horseback. Their decades-long romance is a classic love-that-dare-not-speak-its-name scenario, in keeping with the societal constraints imposed by the story’s pre-Sexual Revolution milieu.
But although they hailed from wide-open spaces, the terse, vulnerable Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and the glibber, slicker Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) were trapped metaphorically in the celluloid closet. To a degree, the movie’s period setting imprisons the characters in the retrograde Hollywood role of tragic, passive victims. Yet the searing integrity of the acting, capped by Ledger’s towering performance, along with the visual lyricism and acute sensitivity of Ang Lee’s film (Oscars for direction, adapted screenplay and soundtrack) make this a landmark in the history of cinema, gay or straight.
Most memorable body language: Ennis slumped to the floor and pounding a wall in frustration after he and Jack go their separate ways.
Since the silent film era, we’ve usually associated great physical acting with the great screen clowns (Chaplin, Keaton). Penn has few, if any, peers among his contemporaries in using every fiber of his being to summon a character.
His Harvey Milk occasionally evokes some of Penn’s past cinematic portrayals: the tortured muscularity of the grieving father in “Mystic River”; the blustery showmanship of rabble-rousing Willie Stark in “All the King’s Men.”
In “Milk,” Penn conveys Milk’s sinewy force of personality, whether crouching solicitously at a lover’s feet, exhorting a crowd at a rally or dropping to his knees like a doomed opera diva as Dan White’s bullets drain away his life.
“Milk” opens with archival black-and-white footage of gay men in Miami bars cringing and shielding their faces with their hands as they’re being rounded up and herded into police paddy wagons. Penn’s Milk has no need to hide who he is, and neither, by implication, does the audience. With tough words, a gently amused smile and an athletic gait, Penn’s Milk empowers those around him and those watching him on screen.
In the liberating spirit of Walt Whitman, he sings the body electric.