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Academy Awards embrace the unapologetically gay 'Milk'

CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

The film receives eight nominations. The true milestone will come when that is no longer news.

January 23, 2009|BETSY SHARKEY | FILM CRITIC

One day this thought won't matter.

One day this thought won't be relevant.

Today is not that day.

Today, the fact that "Milk" received eight Oscar nominations from the academy, including best picture, is significant and says much about where we are in our relationship, and comfort level, with the gay rights movement. In a word -- improving.

Why? Director Gus Van Sant's "Milk" is not a tentative film, rather it is openly, unapologetically gay. It begins with an introduction to a very fey Sean Penn as the still unrealized political activist Harvey Milk. On the night in question, he's a guy on the prowl for a hookup with another guy in the grimy underground of the New York subways.

From there we are taken to San Francisco, the heart of the gay movement in the '70s, as we watch Milk's political passions rise. But there is also sex, everywhere; the film is saturated with gay experience, the nuance and many textures of gay life and all that it means.

Milk's message -- one that screenwriter Dustin Lance Black has threaded through every moment, every word -- is a defiant one: If you are gay then face it, embrace it and live it.

That alone takes us miles beyond the world of "Brokeback Mountain" in 2005 with its beautiful cowboys locked for a lifetime in a tortured closet of shame, denial and pain. It also received eight Oscar nominations, and ultimately took home three: for Ang Lee's directing, Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana's screenplay adapted from Annie Proulx's short story, and its haunting original score.

Many thought "Brokeback's" overall artistry should have earned it the best picture Oscar too. But when it came to the top prize, "Crash" won out. Perhaps Hollywood -- yes, liberal, tolerant Hollywood -- was still uncomfortable with a gay love story.

Fifteen years ago the academy first dipped its toe into these troubled waters with "Philadelphia," a mainstream film both daring and cautious. The film starred Tom Hanks, the country's most-loved actor, as an attorney fired after the conservative law firm he works for discovers he has AIDS.

It was 1993, when the disease was still a death sentence, no appeals. Much was written at the time about how brave Hanks' performance was, that he risked his career playing a gay man. He took home an Oscar that year and though the performance was a good one, it does leave the lingering question of whether the votes were cast for the role or the risk.

Watching the film now, it is a study in restraint -- careful to focus tightly on the issues, with its characters largely stripped bare of any gayness. The film did not aim for acceptance as much as make an appeal to that sense of decency, compassion, humanitarianism in all of us. It was one thing to have a problem with homosexuality, the film seemed to whisper, but these are people who are dying.

For the next 12 years, there was virtual silence in the mainstream, while gay cinema flourished around the edges. Then came "Brokeback," lanced throughout with beauty and pain. Though set in the '60s, just a decade before "Milk," it feels far more a period piece.

The love discovered by cowboys Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal comes in a rush of joy that dies in an instant, replaced by regret that this other side exists. Their lives become a tortured apology and in this the film is exquisitely sad, the depths of the tragedy immeasurable.

And now three years later, along comes "Milk," with its proud swish and sway and an undeniable charm that is filling theaters even in the heartland. Of course that is due in part to the fact that "Milk" is not just a political statement, it is an extremely enjoyable movie in the most traditional of ways -- good story, good acting, good directing, moving, entertaining.

All this the academy has recognized with its nominations. But now "Milk" faces the ballot box again.

So if you check the best picture odds over the coming weeks, "Milk" is unlikely to top any list. But the recognition alone matters. Some day that won't be relevant. But today is not that day.

--

betsy.sharkey@latimes.com

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