Out of 'Milk,' Perhaps a Little Human Kindness Toward Gay Rights

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 21, 2009

LOS ANGELES -- Does "Milk" matter? (Does any movie?) Did anyone really see it, outside of people who already knew its material or already approved of its elegiac message of gay rights? Or is it just another one of Oscar night's eat-your-veggies movies -- a biopic heaped with film critics' accolades and newsy relevance -- that is easily ignored by mainstream culture?

"Let me tell you," says Robin Tyler, 66, before launching into a rambling, rollickingly effusive estimation of "Milk's" immediate impact in her world. She knew Harvey Milk back in the day -- he was the gay-rights pioneer and San Francisco city supervisor who was shot to death in 1978. She had started to wonder whether the gay-rights fire was all but burned out. "Obviously the most posh fundraising dinner parties don't work when it comes to getting our rights. . . . Then ['Milk'] comes out and pours gas on the fire."

Tyler and her partner, Diane Olson, are original plaintiffs in the marriage license dispute that brought about Proposition 8, the measure that California voters approved last November banning same-sex marriages. A week or so later, in an aftermath of anger, protests and infighting among gay groups, came "Milk" -- some said too late to get out the vote, others said right on time to galvanize the protest:

"Suddenly there were all these young kids," Tyler says. "I call them the 'new' generation, and I'm in the Milk generation. They see this movie, with all this history they just didn't know about -- young people taking to the streets, getting involved. They thought no one had been on the streets before. I said, 'No, no, no -- we've been here waiting for you. Welcome to the movement.' " She describes this turn of events like a beaming grandmother, and is now focused on a March 5 state Supreme Court hearing that could overturn Prop 8 -- something a "Milk" Oscar or two could draw attention to.

In the gay universe at least, "Milk" is a blockbuster, and everyone involved with it -- from its producers and director to its stars, studio head and publicists -- is just bursting with pride on Oscar eve over the movie's eight nominations, including Best Picture.

Bets favor Sean Penn to win Best Actor for the title role, and many in the gay community hope the outspoken actor and others will eloquently stick it to Prop 8 all night long, through every microphone they encounter.

A group called WhiteKnot is trying to get as many celebrities as possible to pin little white bows on lapels for tomorrow night's ceremony, in support of gay marriage. (Last year it was orange ribbons and bracelets -- a Guantanamo protest -- because there is always a new way for Hollywood to tweak the culture war.)

"It's about equality," says WhiteKnot organizer Frank Voci, who has spent the week making sure that anyone going to the Oscars "at least has access to [a white knot] so they can make the decision to wear it." He really hopes Sean Penn will don one. "He or [director] Gus Van Sant or the producers could really connect the dots so simply to what we're fighting for."

Since its release three months ago, "Milk" has earned nearly $27 million at the box office, which is terrible money for a movie about a serial killer or a pratfall-prone mall cop but impressive for an arty hagiography of an outspoken civil-rights proponent.

"Milk's" biggest week came before Christmas, and even then it did not crack the Top 10 box office list; the Oscar nominations failed to provide much "bounce" in ticket sales, for "Milk" or most of the other nominees. At its greatest distribution, "Milk" played in almost 900 theaters -- barely one-third of what's considered wide release.

"This was not a movie designed to explain gay people to straight people but a movie about a specific piece of gay history, created by a gay director, a gay writer and two gay producers. Finally," says Mark Harris, an Entertainment Weekly columnist and the author of "Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood."

It's a mistake, Harris says, to expect more from "Milk" than it could give.

"I don't think movies change votes or write bills or get legislation passed," he says. "But for me, 'Milk' wasn't dutiful; it was maybe the first gay movie I've ever seen that showed gay men arguing with each other, smartly and realistically, about policy and tactics and strategy. . . . So it doesn't surprise me at all that the movie has only grossed, what, 26, 27 million [dollars]. . . . It's a prestige gay political period movie that has made almost twice as much as this season's prestige straight political movie, 'Frost/Nixon.' Harvey Milk getting twice as many votes as Richard Nixon? I call that progress."

Then there's the other world, the multiplex world, the America outside Los Angeles and San Francisco, starting in surrounding California exurbs and counties that voted to approve Proposition 8. Gay activists acknowledge that Prop 8 won partly because of voters who are opposed to homosexuality, but some say it also won because not enough people feel connected to, or take an interest in, the gay rights debate.

"I still have straight friends who haven't seen 'Milk,' " says Matt Palazzolo, 24, who co-founded the Equal Roots Coalition, a West Hollywood grass-roots group seeking to re-energize the gay rights movement in the wake of Prop 8. "Some of my closest friends wouldn't get that for them to go see 'Milk' means a lot to me. They say, 'I just don't want to see it,' or 'Maybe if can download it for free -- I just don't want to pay 12 bucks,' or something." It's not that they're unfriendly to Palazzolo's cause; "they're just not interested, I guess." Meanwhile, he says: "For me, it's the perfect movie for our time. . . . It's in the air, you can see it, you can smell it, you can sense it. It couldn't be more significant."

That feeling recalls Oscar night in 2006, when the good money was on "Brokeback Mountain" to win Best Picture (and the box office take was three times what "Milk" has made; it lost to "Crash," but Ang Lee won the directing prize). For as many people who did go see "Brokeback" in theaters, there remained a large segment of people who have nothing against gays but were unwilling to watch the love story of two male ranch hands. Culturally, "Brokeback" became a punch line as much as a breakthrough. As hard as it was to get "Milk" made, it's nearly impossible to draw crowds. It looks serious, and long, and . . . gay.

"Welcome to my world," says James Schamus, who produced "Brokeback Mountain" and is head of Focus Features (which released "Milk"). "Would I like for the box office to be stronger for 'Milk'? Of course I would. We can always want more for a movie. Do I think we made a great step forward? Absolutely. It's a modest success, and maybe it's a harbinger of more to come."

Schamus (who is straight and married, if it matters) still collects anecdotal evidence that "Milk" has made a difference in smaller cities and faraway states. And he has his own personal example of what he deems progress: "Milk" might not have been a blockbuster hit in flyover territory, but his 12-year-old daughter has watched it six times, and she's pretty picky. All her friends watched it, too.

"Her whole class," Schamus says. "They were honestly fascinated. I think it was transformative for them. It's a good message -- about standing up for your rights."

Wait, the students all came over to the house to see "Milk," or went to the theater, or . . . ? "No, the whole class," Schamus says. "We showed it at [the] school."

There's nothing like Oscar night to remind you that L.A. really is sometimes a different world. "My name is Harvey Milk and I want to recruit you," is a popular line that Penn delivers in the film, seen in all the trailers that tried to get America to buy a ticket and join the story and cause of Harvey. Consider Hollywood long since recruited, white knots and all.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company