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doi: 10.1097/01.COT.0000358153.96506.99
Turrisi Takes on the Movies


Directed by Gus Van Sant. Screenplay by Dustin Lee Black. Starring Sean Penn (Harvey Milk); Josh Brolin (Dan White); James Franco (Scott Smith); Emile Hirsh (Cleve Jones); Diego Luna (Jack Lira); and Alison Pill (Annie Kronenberg); Rated R, 124 minutes

Figure. B

Figure. B

Got Milk? Did you get to see Milk, or was the subject too troubling for your morality or sense of propriety and morality?

It is so hard to believe that 1978 is now more than 30 years ago. I had just bought my first house. As the stunning November Jonestown mass suicide brought “drink the Kool-Aid” into national parlance, I was a clinical associate in the then NCI-VA Medical Oncology Branch, and thinking about the opportunity to switch from medical oncology to radiation oncology, where there was a newly opened trial of chemotherapy alone versus chemoradiotherapy in limited small-cell initiated by my mentors.

Within a week of Jonestown, the Moscone-Milk assassinations followed. San Francisco was still the flower-child, drug haven of the late Hippie-Vietnam war era, and not yet transformed to the “Gay Mecca” with the Castro as the epicenter of what seemed like the dawning of acceptance of gay people: a place of tolerance and self acceptance.

Little did I know what these next 30 years would bring. Society reacted against gay acceptance then, and moved to a “Don't ask; Don't tell” compromise.

Milk had uttered: “My name is Harvey Milk, and I am here to recruit you.” I was recruited to radiation oncology to be an enlightened messenger familiar with both camps. Those bringing “enlightened messages”: Christ, Martin Luther King Junior, Malcolm X, David Koresh (of the Branch Davidians in Waco), and Harvey Milk meet ignominious ends, but perhaps only time tells if their message witnesses truth or proves false prophecy.

As religious intolerance and civil rights barriers seem to have officially crumbled, today seems a new day of gay people asking for equal rights and military service, rather than their more colorful sort prancing half-clad or in clerical garb at Pride Day festivals. Perhaps the concern about the “recruiting” that Milk mentions goes to the heart of the matter: Is being gay a choice or is it sexuality hard-wired?

Contemplating this review, I re-viewed the 1984 documentary Oscar-winner “The Times of Harvey Milk.” Apparently Gus Van Sant, and others, recognized that movie was not as I erroneously remembered: “The Life and Times of Harvey Milk.” That movie is about the mission and the barriers of an ordinary man aspiring to extra-ordinary, transformative things. Harvey Milk evolved from working at Bache Securities and a Barry Goldwater supporter, to a trans-coastal voyage of self discovery; moreover, and importantly, self acceptance.



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Utterly at Peace with Who He Is

In Milk, Sean Penn becomes Harvey Milk in a credible portrayal of a man transformed, utterly at peace with who he is, and driven by a consuming passion to raise issues of fundamental rights for gay people.

Milk was an odd mix of a scarecrow of a man with oversized ears and a mop of flopping dark hair and a face with a prominent nose. In the movie, he boldly seduces Scott Smith (James Franco), a man half his age, and the seduction cements a long-term relationship. Together they travel across the country to the Castro, and open a camera shop. The Castro was then a culturally mixed neighborhood of working-class whites, and many of the long-time residents resented the gay crowd's attempt take over.

Milk was relentless and strategic in his pursuit of coalition building and in-your-face politicking. Sean Penn possesses an incredible range as an actor, and enlivens this Academy Award-winning performance with comfort and aplomb.

Milk and Scott meet resistance from neighborhood shop keepers, as well as the closeted gay establishment, who wanted to select “safe” non-confrontational standard bearers, and Milk was more a W.E.B. DuBois radical changer than a Booker T. Washington accommodationist/incrementalist, advocating keeping old boundaries and achieving within the old social order without overthrowing it. His soap box rant of being “here to recruit you” sent shudders down the spines of accommodationist people not wanting to tell their parents, their boss, or their wife that they were gay.

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Built Connections

Milk lost Board of Supervisor elections thrice, but on the way built connections to labor by boycotting Coor's Beer and forging alliances with the Teamster's Union. His pursuit of elective office also lost Scott Smith, but he picks up a series of characters such as Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch) and Jack Lira (Diego Luna).

In 1977 San Francisco went to a district vote for supervisor rather than the previous at-large method. This brought Dan White (Josh Brolin), a southeast working class Irish Catholic and former police and fireman a chance for election as well, and Milk and White became uncomfortable political allies.

Josh Brolin plays this part better than Dan White played himself in the newsreel footage used in the 1984 documentary. Brolin shows the character's confusion and obsession, a man with many guiding principles, but a contrasting uncertainty as to who he was and what he really stood for. Brolin has proven himself to be a versatile actor, drawing unpopular roles and playing them to the hilt. For example, he plays George W. Bush in last year's W, a movie well worth viewing if you can disarm yourself to see Bush in an unusual, and to some, sympathetic light.

Both White and Milk are elected—Milk as the first known-to-be-gay official elected in the country.

The movie focuses on Milk's story via his relationships and situations. After Scott Smith, who could not endure another campaign, and Jones, there is Lira, who becomes a clinging, needy, demanding spouse. Milk acquired new love interests but consistently kept important people in his life. He recruited Annie Kronenberg (Alison Pill), portrayed here stereotypically as a leather-clad, butch lesbian, to manage his ultimately successful campaign.

The most fateful relationship is between Milk and White. There are attempts at bridge-building but also stereotyping. White is seen as a devout family man and Catholic, but there are undercurrents that White himself may have been a repressed gay man. The erratic and confused White resigned his supervisor post, and then felt he deserved re-instatement. Milk conspired with George Moscone to block re-instatement, and this was the flashpoint for White's solution: assassinate both.

The subsequent trial, later release, and then suicide of Dan White are a footnote to this tragedy. He served a brief sentence for manslaughter, claiming that “Twinkies” and sugar-highs caused his momentary insanity. We attend national meetings in San Francisco at the Moscone Center, named for the slain mayor.

Milk, the martyr to his cause, is aptly memorialized in this movie. Penn brings him back to life. The hot-button political issues of 1978 are echoed in today's political market place. Milk in life, and Penn on the screen, urged people to be themselves and open their lives to their families and friends.

Milk succeeds as a biopic and tribute to a leader of a movement still in progress. Many may claim that this violates their personal religious convictions, but as Roger Ebert intoned in his review, sometimes it takes someone brave enough to stand up like Milk, or as in the case of Rosa Parks, sit down.

As for Milk, sit or stand as you will on these issues, agree with him or loathe him, “No man is an island…. Any man's death diminishes me, because I am [and all care givers are] involved in mankind; and therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

Rest in peace, Harvey Milk. Your dream is being brought to fruition.

© 2009 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.
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