Before I answer the question I should say that if you are not conversant with the facts of the life of Harvey Milk, a pioneer of gay rights and the first openly gay individual to be elected to public office in these United States, then too bad for you, and spoilers are ahead. So. Conventional. Yes. In its foreshadowing: as Smith and Milk they gorge on post-lovemaking birthday cake whipped cream, Smith chides that if Milk keeps eating such stuff he'll be fat by the time he's 50. Milk laughs and says he's never gonna make it to 50. That kind of thing is peppered all over Dustin Lance Black's screenplay. There's even a scene in which an estranged couple reconnect...and sort-of renew their avowals of love for each other...on the dawn of the day of one of these characters' meeting with destiny! So all you (I hesitate to use this word, but what the heck) kids out there who couldn't get with Che because it didn't have any emotional beats, this picture's for you.
I see I'm getting flippant here, so let me back up. I enjoyed and was moved by Milk, and I didn't find its conventionality to be problematic. In fact, I found it entirely apt. Lee notes that Van Sant's film is "no major improvement" over Rob Epstein's magnificent 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, but he doesn't mind and neither do I—what this picture is, if you'll pardon the phrase, is a straight-across-the-plate pitch to midcult audiences fond of event films and potential Oscar contenders. It explicitly posits the gay rights struggle as a civil rights struggle, and uses a cast of charming movie stars to make its case. Penn's Milk is, as it happens, the first truly joyous character he's played since Fast Times' Jeff Spiccoli: he's a happy warrior. There's been a bit of frou-fraw going on around the intertubes about whether an earlier release of this picture could have been useful toward the defeat of California's odious Proposition Eight. I don't think such speculation is entirely off the mark. If nothing else, having this film out there might have underscored the fact of a relative vacuum of leadership in the contemporary gay rights movement—that as far as things have come, it still needs an organizer as charismatic and politically savvy as the late Milk. The film chronicles Milk's tireless efforts to defeat a similar measure in the '70s, and audiences would be sure to see the parallels and be affected by Milk's impassioned plea for his fellow gays to abandon the closet—tell your family, he says to his minions, for the simple reason that the people who are going to vote to take away gay rights are often people who don't actually know any gays—or don't think they do. Once a straight person knows there's one gay person in his life he cares about, then why would he want to hurt that person? Makes sense to me.
In this scene, Penn's Milk holds up a phone in a roomful of gay men and demands that someone step up and make the call. Milk's gambit is the compassionate, loving inverse of the "telephone game" that self-hating gay Michael forces on his party guests in the last third of 1970's The Boys In The Band, directed by WIlliam Friedkin from Mart Crowley's play. In this work, very much a product of its time, the closet is a given, even for the most flamboyant of its eight "boys" (that would be Emery, inspiredly conceived by Cliff Gorman as the queeniest Bowery Boy evah). Having drunk himself to a peak of self-loathing—inspired, it would seem, by the unexpected visit of a (we think) straight ex-college-roommate—Michael (Kenneth Nelson) demands that his players call the one person they've ever loved, and confess that love. It's a pretty stagy contrivance by which to elicit all manner of emotional truths, but in the context of this gay No Exit it's, again, apt.
As it happens, Boys was just recently released on DVD by CBS/Paramount. It's fascinating on a number of levels, and it happens to contain one of the best screen performance I think I've ever seen: Leonard Frey as Harold, the party's birthday boy. Harold is a self-described "32-year-old, ugly, pockmarked Jew fairy" and, it seems, completely comfortable in that skin. What keeps him so thoroughly self-possessed is anyone's guess, but any time Frey's Harold is on screen there's a kind of reptilian ooze emanating from him. It's not evil—he is at heart an entirely sympathetic character, the only one of the boys who's made a kind of peace with himself—but it is peculiar. And Frey makes it happen without his actorly mechanism seeming to lift a finger. Here's Harold with his "present," goofy hustler Cowboy (Robert La Tourneaux).
And to think that the very next year Frey would be playing that very nice fellow Motel in the film version of Fiddler on the Roof (by this time he was too old to play Mendel, the rabbi's son, himself a nice boy, the role he originated in the Broadway production). That Frey didn't do more, and better, work on the big screen is staggering to me; he was clearly a character actor of the first stripe. Frey died in 1988 of AIDS-related complications. AIDS claimed a number of other members of the Boys cast, including La Tourneaux. So many advances have been made in HIV treatment that it's possible—hell, it's downright cozy!—to get complacent about the disease, and how a certain contingent of American society did its damndest and is doing its damndest to propogate ignorance in its face. To watch the extras on Boys, and to see the "where are they now?" end credits sequence in Milk (told ya it was conventional) is to get angry and engaged all over again.
Which reminds me. And maybe I shouldn't go here. But what the hell. I was reading David "Yes you did, you invaded" Poland's "quickie" reaction to Milk a few weeks back, and was a kinda gobsmacked by his description of it as a "gay agenda" movie. "[A]ctually a gay agenda movie" were his exact words. And I thought, damn, Poland's a good liberal (a very good liberal, as we've all learned while following his election coverage), so why the hell is he using hateful social-conservative code to describe Milk's mission?
And the answer—as it frequently is—is "fuck if I know." I could make some cheap joke about precision of language not exactly being the Hot Blog's strong suit, but that would be cheap. Better perhaps to let the whole thing lie. But not before presenting some of my personal favorite examples of teh gay agenda in cinema.