Since the Oscars are coming up, and “Milk” has been nominated for eight of them, now seems like a good time to run this piece here. This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.
Because it was so strikingly different from the way sex gets depicted in almost every major Hollywood movie.
Not just different. Better. Way, way better.
You’ve no doubt heard about “Milk,” the new biopic about the history- making San Francisco gay activist and city supervisor Harvey Milk, directed by Gus Van Sant and starring Sean Penn. If you haven’t already seen it, you’ve probably heard that it’s brilliant, that it’s inspiring and moving and tear- jerking and funny, that Penn’s performance is nothing short of astounding. All of which is true.
But today, just for a change, I want to talk about sex.
See, unlike most Hollywood movies about gay people, the sex in “Milk” is not downplayed. It gets a starring role. And unlike most Hollywood movies, period, sex is treated, not as a joke, not as a source of easy fearmongering and/or cheap titillation, not even as a source of dramatic angst and despair a la “Brokeback Mountain,” but as a source of joy and liberation, a central part of a human life, worthy of value and respect.
(Warning: Spoiler alert. Spoilers are all over this review like a cheap suit.)
The story begins with Harvey (Sean Penn) meeting his soon- to- be lover, Scott Smith (James Franco). And they don’t meet cute. They don’t meet by fighting over the last chocolate cake at the bakery, or accidentally getting each other’s dry cleaning, or being stuck together on a cross- country car trip. They meet when Harvey hits on Scott in a New York subway station and takes him home to fuck. (Well, I guess that’s sort of meeting cute…)
The pick-up is a bittersweet scene in some ways. Harvey is a buttoned-down, closeted, middle-aged gay man who’s turning 40 that day, and the hip, dishy Scott at first treats his advances with skepticism and disdain. But the pick-up is also a sexy and funny and joyful scene. And the pick-up turns into a real relationship, with the couple moving across the country to San Francisco together and soon launching Harvey’s political career.
Lesson: Sex can spark love, and sex can change lives.
What’s more, the reality of casual sex in the gay male community of the 1970s is handled with a rare and delightful combination: an attitude of laughing appreciation, and an attitude of “No big deal.” It’s not shoved behind the curtains like a dirty secret; it’s not luridly flaunted for the audience to simultaneously leer and condemn. It’s folded into the story as smoothly and as naturally as spices being folded into batter.
Important political alliances are started with guys flirting and trying to pick each other up. A meeting with a major gay publisher is accented with Harvey’s lover swimming naked in the man’s pool. Two men celebrate a major political victory by blowing each other in a broom closet. And the topic of bars and bathhouses and the anonymous sex that happens therein is woven into the dialog as casually and unapologetically as the topic of jazz in “Some Like it Hot,” or the topic of spaceships in “Star Wars.” It is acknowledged as a potential political liability, to be sure… but it’s never treated as something to be ashamed of.
Lesson: This is a community, and a movement, that is built largely around sex and sexual liberation. And hooray for that.
As for the sex itself… well, there’s not a huge amount of it. But when it’s there, there’s no turning away from it. It’s not explicit, there’s no full-frontal or anything. But it’s lusty, and it’s physical, and there’s no mistaking it for anything else.
Lesson: Sex is sex. It’s real, it’s a part of life, and it’s pointless to ignore it or pretend that it’s anything other than what it is.
Finally, the contrast between the loving, joyful, full- of- laughter life of Harvey Milk and the tight, drab, out- of- touch life of his fellow supervisor and eventual assassin Dan White (Josh Brolin) is made vividly clear. And it’s presented largely as a contrast between sexual repression and sexual liberation.
White’s resentment of Milk is complicated, of course. His political resentment of Milk’s freethinking politics and rapidly rising fortunes, his personal resentment of Milk’s popularity and perceived betrayal, are all probably more crucial than the sexual issues. But a key factor in his hostility and creepy fixation with Milk — as depicted in this movie, anyway — is sex. His bafflement and revulsion with the sexual libertinism of 1970s San Francisco, his envy of same, possibly even his own repressed homosexual desires… all of these converge into a toxic mess that focuses onto Milk and culminates in murder and eventual suicide.
Lesson: Sexual repression destroys. Literally.
I’m not sure where I’m going with this. I think I’m just trying to say: You have to see “Milk.” Not just because it’s brilliant and insightful and beautifully- made. If you’re at all interested in sexuality — in the history of sexual liberation, or the influence of sex on political and social history, or the depictions of sex in popular culture — you have to see “Milk.”
Trust me on this one.