“There’s no other movie that I would want to be a part of as much as this one; it’s everything.”
For James Franco, being a part of Gus Van Sant’s latest film “Milk” was more than just another role. It was personal – a chance to be an active participant in a cause he deeply believes in: the gay rights movement.
“Milk” is a stirring portrait of the final decade in the life of Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), the first openly gay man elected to public office in the United States.
Milk moved to the Castro District of San Francisco in 1972 and opened a small camera shop with his longtime partner Scott Smith (Franco). Amid the riots, chaos and police brutality against the gay community, Milk’s Castro Camera became a safe haven for gays across the city.
A series of deadly attacks against gay men, some perpetrated by police, inspires Milk to run for city supervisor in 1973, beginning the most successful crusade for gay rights the country had ever seen.
Brash, opinionated and infectious, Milk wins over more than the gay community. Seemingly overnight, his struggle for gay rights becomes the rallying cry for union workers, blacks, Asian-Americans – any oppressed or minority group in need of a leader.
After a series of tight defeats, Milk is finally elected city supervisor in 1977, serving for nearly a year and successfully opposing anti-gay initiatives across California until he is assassinated by political rival Dan White (Josh Brolin) in November 1978.
Director Gus Van Sant (“Good Will Hunting”) worked for over 12 years to make this, his magnum opus. And his passion is obvious.
His lensing is inspired but unobtrusive. There are no fancy sweeps, no overwrought zooms or interminable, “ooh-ah” tracking shots. Known for his modest direction, Van Sant allows his actors room to breathe, taking care not to distract from the simplicity and humanness of his film.
“I believe movies are a director’s medium, so if I believe that, then I have to realize as an actor that I have to turn everything over to the director,” Franco says of the actor-director relationship.
The screenplay by newcomer Dustin Lance Black is the foundation upon which the brilliance of “Milk” is built: bitingly funny, at times breathless and always poignant.
Van Sant and Black do not glorify homosexuality. They present it with the same passion, the same discretion and the same authenticity heterosexuality has been treated with throughout the past century of cinema.
Homosexuality is no gimmick in “Milk.” It isn’t reduced to simple physicality or bastardized to the point of sensationalism.
Amorousness is tasteful and sincere, portrayed with the same tenderness and restraint characteristic of the heterosexual love scenes in Van Sant’s previous pictures.
Van Sant and Black present homosexuality as more than mere sexuality. They give it a face, a voice, a culture. “Milk” humanizes the gay community as no other film and few other works of any art form have done.
The acting ensemble is the best of this year and one of the finest this decade.
Penn is positively transfixing. He completely embodies the persona of Harvey Milk, and he does it without resorting to mere impersonation.
Unlike the stale “impressions” of many recent biopic performances, Penn captures more than the mannerisms and idiosyncrasies of his subject. His transformation goes beyond voice mimicry and matching nervous ticks.
Franco is another standout among standouts. His courageous and heartfelt performance is one of the most memorable parts of a film that is anything but forgettable.
When asked the obvious question, whether or not he was uncomfortable doing love scenes with another man, Franco replies, “I have such an admiration for Sean. It was different, but I didn’t think much about it.”
“We just did it,” he says. “I never rehearsed sex scenes with female actors, and I didn’t rehearse with Sean. We both knew how to kiss. So we just did it.”
Emile Hirsch (“Into the Wild”) delivers a clever performance as activist Cleve Jones, and Brolin portrays one of the most incensing and pathetic men in American history with an appropriately squirm-inducing turn.
Alison Pill (“Pieces of April”) rounds out the stellar cast with a feisty turn as Milk’s tenacious campaign manager, Anne Kronenberg.
Diego Luna, whose disastrously irritating turn as Milk’s over-sexed Latino boy-toy Jack Lira, is the one blemish on an otherwise immaculate ensemble performance.
“Milk” is a bona fide Oscar contender in every conceivable way. Nominations are virtually guaranteed in nearly all major categories, including a best supporting actor nod for Franco.
Franco comments about his awards buzz, saying, “It’s just such an honor. Anything I say is going to sound so stupid and cliché, but it is really an honor.”
If all that isn’t enough to win it best picture (and it is), a blunder in recent Academy history might better its already solid chances.
When AMPAS delivered the biggest upset in Oscar history in 2005 by passing on “Brokeback Mountain,” the most critically-acclaimed and all-around best film of that year, many believed homophobia to be the one and only reason it was not awarded.
“Milk” presents the Academy with a veritable second chance to absolve itself of the nonsensical and cowardly decision it made three years ago – a chance they may be hard-pressed to pass up.
But if “Milk” does in fact land the Oscar this coming February, it won’t be because of its politics alone – it will be because it is unarguably one of the best films of the year.