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The whole Milk

By Bennett Cohen, Photographs by Daniel Nicoletta | October 10, 2008 | Lifestyle Story Reviews News and Features Culture

Cleve Jones isn’t used to Hollywood backbiting. The pio­neer­ing gay-rights activist and organizer, best known as a cofounder of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and creator of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, moved to Palm Springs nine years ago—but he still considers himself a San Franciscan, with all the prejudices that implies. “I didn’t care much for L.A.,” he says flatly, “and I didn’t care much about Hollywood.”

But the more deeply involved Jones became in the effort to make a film about his mentor and hero, Harvey Milk, the more difficult it became not to care. They met by chance on a Castro street corner in the mid-1970s: Jones was a curly-haired kid from Phoenix, Arizona, who had learned of San Francisco’s gay scene from a Life magazine he stole from his high school library, then fled there to escape an adolescence of bullying and self-loathing; Milk was a brash, middle-aged camera-shop owner who believed that gays would never overcome discrimination or their own demons unless they declared their sexuality and organized into a political force. “Meeting Harvey Milk was the single most important thing that ever happened to me,” Jones says. “I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that every single thing that has followed is directly related to him. Harvey revealed to me my strengths and made me see that I’m part of something that’s much bigger than my own life. Without him, I would not have survived.”

Three-plus decades later, with Milk’s inner circle ravaged by AIDS and age, Jones knows more about the man and his legacy than any other person still alive—a perspective that has put him squarely in the middle of the infighting surrounding the making of Milk, the Sean Penn/Gus Van Sant movie opening this month. The ragged emotions surfaced briefly this past January, just days before the start of production, during a gala event at the celebrity-packed Palm Springs International Film Festival.

Among those being honored was Penn—whose tour de force portrayal of Milk could win him his second Oscar for best actor—for directing last year’s wrenching Into the Wild. Seated at his table were Van Sant, Milk’s director and a gay icon in his own right; Emile Hirsch, who starred in Into the Wild and plays Jones in Milk; and Jones himself, who has a cameo in Milk and served as its historical advisor, chief cheerleader, and conscience.

Also in attendance were Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, who helped produce the Academy Award–winning Chicago and spent nearly 20 years trying to make their own Milk film, The Mayor of Castro Street, based on the book by the late journalist (and Jones’s great pal) Randy Shilts. Zadan and Meron were so identified with the struggle to bring Milk’s story to the big screen that when word leaked out about Milk, friends started calling to congratulate them on their hard-won success. No, they were forced to admit, another movie had beaten them to the punch; all their years of effort had been tossed on the slag heap. Now, as if to prove that the forces controlling the universe have a malicious sense of humor, their table at the gala was right beside Penn’s.

Despite his closeness to Milk and Shilts, Jones had never met the two producers. He figured they must bear some resentment to the Milk team, but he didn’t know how much until after the dinner, as he talked with Van Sant. “Craig walked by at the after-party and just…glared at Gus.” Jones, wryly handsome behind his wire-rimmed glasses, widens his eyes for emphasis.

“I’m sorry there’s this sort of bad blood,” he adds, “because I would actually like to talk to them about it sometime.”

For the past year or so, the buzz in movie circles has been over Zadan and Meron’s understandable frustration at seeing the project they’d nurtured for two tumultuous decades suddenly upended. It’s not uncommon for movies to be developed in Hollywood along similar, or even identical, lines (remember Armageddon and Deep Impact? Capote and Infamous?). What’s unusual, however, is for a film that has been in development for years to be overtaken by a mirror project that—against all odds—pieces together the elusive elements of script, director, cast, and financing in just a matter of months. Yet the perception that Milk is some upstart Eve Harrington that edged out the worthier Margo Channing is unfair and inaccurate—not to mention a typically Hollywood way of looking at the dispute. The truth is that, despite its rush to production, Milk can trace its origins back even further than Shilts’s 1982 book—to the enduring bond between Jones, who helped Milk win a seat on the Board of Supervisors and become one of the first openly gay elected officials in the country, and Milk, who taught Jones the tactical and organizational skills that would prove so crucial in the fight against AIDS.

Jones started dreaming about this movie on the mournful night of November 27, 1978, as 40,000 men and women marched from the Castro to city hall in honor of Milk and mayor George Moscone, the political ally gunned down with him that day. “When I saw Harvey’s body that morning, I thought everything that we had been fighting for was lost forever,” Jones, now 54, tells me as we chat in his pleasant Palm Springs bungalow. But later that night, as he gazed back at the solemn, silent procession along Market Street, candles flickering as far as the eye could see, “I realized that this is just the beginning, that his life and death would become a legend and have great power and touch people who never met him.”

Yet mere legend isn’t what Jones hoped to capture. “I want people to understand that this guy was not some....” and here he laughs, “some character in a Hollywood film. He was a very real human being, an ordinary man. His personal life was in disarray, he was drowning in debt, he had all of the sort of commonplace failures that we all endure.” Jones adds: “Especially when I talk to young people, who feel very, very overwhelmed and powerless against these enormous global forces that increasingly determine our destinies, I emphasize that he was not a genius. Harvey was not a saint. But he was honest and he was fearless, and that combination is almost unstoppable.”

It’s a story that Jones had almost stopped believing would ever be told. Yet it seems more important and relevant than ever. “I feel like we’ve come full circle,” he says. “I haven’t been this happy in 30 years.”

Even if you’ve never heard of Zadan and Meron, you know their musicals: from Footloose (the 1984 love child of Flashdance and Rebel Without a Cause that helped launch the parlor game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon), to the TV adaptation of Gypsy with Bette Midler channeling Ethel Merman, to the cineplex versions of Chicago and Hairspray. Their flair for transferring full-throated Broadway classics to the screen has earned them the reputation of modern-day Ziegfelds—producers with a fondness for sequins and an eye for the box office.

But that rep is misleading. From the start, they’ve shown a courage that’s rare in careerist Hollywood, coming out at a time when most gays in the film industry were still deeply closeted. They’ve also balanced their high-gloss confections with more challenging, if earnest, subjects—gays in the military (Serving in Silence, with Glenn Close), lesbian-mom custody battles (Brooke Shields and Cherry Jones in What Makes a Family), and racism (P. Diddy in A Raisin in the Sun). Harvey Milk’s story seemed like a natural fit for them.

At 59, Zadan is old enough to remember Milk’s explosion onto the gay scene, his journey from Jewish hippie populist to the still young gay movement’s most ardent civil rights advocate and then its most visible martyr. But Zadan’s first real exposure to Milk’s story came in the early 1980s, when his friend Vito Russo—the gay activist who later penned The Celluloid Closet, a groundbreaking 1981 book about homosexuality in Hollywood—implored him to read Shilts’s sweeping biography. So Zadan took a copy of The Mayor of Castro Street on vacation with him in Hawaii.

“I was glued to it the moment I arrived at the hotel,” he wrote in the Advocate in 2004. “By the time I finished it, I was trembling and weeping. When I came home, I said to Vito, ‘This is the most amazing book I ever read.’ And he said, ‘Don’t you think it should be a movie?’”

In fact, there would soon be an Oscar-winning film on the subject: San Francisco filmmaker Rob Epstein’s 1984 documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk. Watching it was such an emotional experience for him, Zadan recalled in the same Advocate article, that it became a personal litmus test. “I once showed the movie to a guy I was dating,” he wrote. “He didn’t cry, and I stopped dating him.” But the documentary focused almost exclusively on Milk’s political career, especially the battle he led to beat back the so-called Briggs Initiative, the 1978 ballot measure that would have barred gays from teaching in California’s public schools. Missing was much of the material that makes the Shilts book so memorable—Milk’s decades spent hiding his homosexuality from family and friends; his trajectory from Goldwater Republican to ultraliberal rebel; the suicidal boyfriends, the nasty wit, the generosity, the loneliness. Only a feature film could do justice to the whole Milk, Zadan and Meron concluded.

The biggest hurdle was obvious: In the late ’80s and early ’90s, “you couldn’t get a major Hollywood star to play a gay man, even an almost Jesus-style hero,” director-producer Rob Cohen, who was briefly attached to the project, told the Los Angeles Times earlier this year. “The history of this movie really mirrors the consciousness-raising that Hollywood went through over the last 15 or 20 years.” Longtime Companion, the 1990 film about a circle of friends devastated by AIDS, was considered a breakthrough, the first mass-audience movie to deal head-on with the epidemic, but its mood was elegiac and intimate. Milk’s importance to the gay movement seemed to call for epic treatment—more like a gay Gandhi.

At first, Zadan and Meron’s decision to go big seemed to pay off. They soon hooked Hollywood’s reigning political provocateur, director Oliver Stone (Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July), as well as its leading interpreter of smart-talking, streetwise schmaltz, Robin Williams. The San Francisco comedian had shown he could handle more serious material (Awakenings, Dead Poets Society), and he identified with Milk’s personal odyssey. “He came from New York,” Williams explained in 1992. “He was a handsome guy whose mother kept saying, ‘When you gonna get married?’ Finally, he moved to San Francisco and said, ‘I don’t have to lie anymore.’ He had a love of that city. It allowed him to come out, to be himself. I came out there, too, as a comic.”

Cleve Jones, though, had his qualms. A 24-year-old political insider when Milk died, he had risen to prominence over the next 15 years, but that dark period had left both him and his community devastated. Jones was among the earliest to address the AIDS crisis, only to be pilloried by some for cal­ling for safe-sex practices. (In 1992, he barely lost a race for the Board of Super­visors.) After he told 60 Minutes that he was infected with HIV, skinheads nearly stabbed him to death. Thousands around him did die, including many of his dearest friends. In response, Jones conceived the AIDS quilt, fashioning the first panel in honor of his late friend Marvin Feldman. By the time a Mayor movie was in the works, both Jones and Shilts had fallen perilously ill. Milk’s murder had predated AIDS, but the way the community had been ravaged by the epidemic only underscored the importance of his message—gays must not allow themselves to be victims. Jones worried that casting someone like Williams to portray Milk “seemed driven by the notion that they would blunt the horror of this story somehow, soften it, make it easier to digest. And, of course—this is a typical thing for gay people to be relegated to, this kind of amusing sidekick.”

Not that anyone had asked Jones what he thought. Although he was one of Shilts’s prime sources for the book, Zadan and Meron never contacted him. “Most of the folks I know who knew Harvey have never met them,” Jones says. Meanwhile, he heard stories about the research the filmmakers were doing on San Francisco’s gay scene, with Stone bar-hopping to check out its nightlife. “I was not impressed. I enjoy Oliver Stone’s films,” Jones adds, “but they’re all about Oliver Stone. I just wanted someone to keep Harvey in the forefront.”

Jones wasn’t alone in questioning Stone as director. After the release of JFK, movie critic David Ehrenstein, writing in the Advocate, called it “the most homophobic film ever to come out of Hollywood” and reviled Stone for por­traying John F. Kennedy’s assassination as the brainchild of some gay cabal. Queer Nation took time out from its guerrilla protests over the slow pace of AIDS research to threaten to disrupt Mayor’s set if Stone remained at the helm, and the normally hard-nosed director turned surprisingly thin-skinned.

“I’m tired of having my neck in the guillotine,” he complained in a bitter interview in the Advocate after quitting as director. “The gay community is extremely outspoken, and everyone in it is a movie critic. I don’t need that.”

Zadan later wrote that after Stone stepped to the sidelines (he stayed on as a producer for several more years), “the whole thing fell apart.” But at the time, Stone’s departure seemed to have a dazzling upside: It allowed Zadan and Meron to bring on Gus Van Sant, fresh from the success of the gay-themed My Own Private Idaho, to direct. Jones, for one, was over the moon.

“Gus knows a lot about people who live on the margins—street hustlers, skateboarders, drug addicts,” Jones says. “He’s able to turn the camera on dark subjects, showing all this crazy stuff without frightening the audience. He does it in a matter-of-fact way, without sensationalizing and without apologizing.” That capacity was crucial to Jones, who often speaks of Milk’s darkness, as well as his vision of hope. “Other than sexual orientation, I think the single most important fact of his life was that he was figuring out his identity at the height of the Holocaust. We’re talking about a Jew from New York coming of age when, just across the Atlantic, that was unfolding. I think that colored everything about him: his humor, his ambition, his cynicism, the sorrow that I felt just under the surface with him, and the empathy.”

But Jones’s sense of relief was short-lived. As Van Sant joined the project, so did a new, momentarily hot writer: Becky Johnston, whose screenplay of Pat Conroy’s unwieldy novel The Prince of Tides had been nominated for an Oscar. Van Sant wasn’t happy with her script and decided to write his own. And suddenly, to Jones’s profound disappointment, Van Sant was history, too.

Exactly what went wrong with the director’s screenplay isn’t entirely clear, but Janet Yang, Stone’s producing partner at the time, told Variety in 1993 that Van Sant saw Mayor as a “smaller, more intimate movie” than they did, adding that they needed a film whose scope “can justify the budget we’re talking about.” When I follow up with Yang about this issue, she says, “It didn’t feel like a studio movie. It felt like a Gus Van Sant movie. There was an almost quirky quality to it. It was very interesting, but not able to go beyond a smaller audience.” Cleve Jones, who still has a copy of the Van Sant script, will only say diplomatically that it’s the second-best version he’s ever read, though he jokes that he’ll get rich someday by selling it on eBay.

After that, Mayor seemed to devolve from a passion project into a pet project—tended to from time to time but rarely getting anyone’s full attention. An eclectic array of actors continued to show interest in playing Milk, including Richard Gere, James Woods, and—the rumors went—Joel Grey. (“A greater case of miscasting I cannot think of,” says Milk’s speechwriter, Frank Robinson, who, as coauthor of the book that became The Towering Inferno, had his own brush with Hollywood.) There was talk of taking the project to HBO, which had made a 1993 television movie of Shilts’s And the Band Played On, a chronicle of the early days of the AIDS crisis (Jones was a major character in that book, too). But then an adaptation of the play Execution of Justice, commissioned by San Francisco’s Eureka Theatre, was greenlighted as a movie by Showtime (with Peter Coyote starring as Milk), and Mayor headed back to movie limbo.

Zadan and Meron’s approach to making movies—get the biggest names you can to overcome Hollywood and audience discomfort with the material—made sense for their issue-oriented films, and for reviving the long-moribund movie-musical genre. But the downside was that it can be excruciatingly slow: Big names invariably have other big-budget commitments in their queues (this applies to Zadan and Meron themselves, who have brought more than 30 other projects to fruition since 1991). Yet while Mayor stalled, Tom Hanks was winning an Oscar for Philadelphia, Will & Grace and Ellen DeGeneres were fast making gays seem much less exotic and dangerous to general audiences, and aggressive indie filmmakers were getting smaller, gay-themed projects made, including Gods and Monsters, Capote, and Kinsey. An activist by nature, Jones grew frustrated with Zadan and Meron. “It just seemed to me that they were waiting for this perfect alignment of perfect talent and perfect money—and it all seemed oddly passive.”

Brokeback Mountain started relatively modestly, too. It was developed at Focus Features, an art-house subsidiary of NBC Universal, which has had outsize success with movies like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Atonement. Brokeback’s 2005 release, propelled by Heath Ledger’s richly understated performance as a closeted cowboy, changed all the rules, earning critical swoons and grossing $180 million worldwide. Suddenly, gay was hot.

Around this time, Mayor took its own indie-ish turn, hooking up with Warner Independent Pictures (Good Night, and Good Luck; In the Valley of Elah) and bringing in Bryan Singer, the openly gay director of the indie classic The Usual Suspects. “With Bryan,” Zadan told Variety in May 2005, “we feel, for the first time since Oliver Stone, that we have the right director with the right vision.” But in truth, Singer’s indie days were behind him; he had made the first two X-Men blockbusters and now had to finish Superman Returns, then the much troubled Tom Cruise World War II drama Valkyrie. Even Steve Carell’s interest in the role of Milk couldn’t overcome the inertia that set in once more.

But Cleve Jones had long since stopped paying close attention—he had too many other things to think about. From the moment he discovered that he had HIV in 1985, he had assumed the virus would kill him (he had no medication for the first nine years). In his mind, IRAs and pensions were for the rest of the world; he wasn’t making any long-term plans. To his great bafflement, however, Jones did not die—though as the years passed, he sometimes felt he had become something of a dinosaur, one who continued to be controversial in the gay community. In 1999, he had moved to Palm Springs, where he could afford to buy a house. Then, in 2004, a new crisis—his unceremonious ouster as head of the NAMES Project Foundation—triggered a realization that, with several decades still ahead of him, he needed to make some changes. He started working as an organizer for the progressive hotel and restaurant workers union Unite Here, spearheading its Sleep with the Right People campaign. The job came with the pension plan he’d never imagined he’d someday need.

In the old days, his frustration over Mayor stemmed largely from his fear that he wouldn’t live long enough to see the movie made. Now he had a different concern: Milk was on the verge of being forgotten. “I’m on the lecture circuit, and I speak to students constantly,” Jones says. “At every speech, I ask, ‘How many of you know who Harvey Milk was?’ If there’s just a sprinkling of hands going up, I’m happy. But very often, only one or two people in the whole room know, and they’re usually the older professors.”

Such thoughts became more bitter as the Bush years dragged on. “Harvey’s gift was making it very clear that change is possible,” Jones says, “and that ordinary people with all their problems can stand up to incredible injustice and change the world profoundly.” Now more than ever, he felt, Milk’s story needed to be told, but no one else seemed to feel his sense of urgency.

Then, three years ago, he met Dustin Lance Black.

If there’s a nicer guy in Hollywood than Black, I’d like to meet him. We first chat at a coffee shop in West Hollywood, where he can often be found typing on his MacBook or sending emails on his BlackBerry. Bryan Singer often sits in the same café, just a few seats away. The two men know each other; in fact, the director appeared in a documentary that Black made in 2003. That was before Black hit the jackpot as a writer for the critically acclaimed HBO series Big Love, about a polygamous Mormon family—and before his and Singer’s efforts to dramatize the life and death of Harvey Milk collided.

There’s little about Black that says Hollywood. In his late 20s, lean, boyish, shy, and self-effacing, he looks more like a divinity student than a rising-star screenwriter. Bring up the subject of Milk, though, and his passion is obvious.

“Harvey Milk saved my life,” Black tells me quietly. “I really believe that.”

If Jones is the spark that inspired Milk, Black is the person who made it happen. Born in Sacramento and raised Mormon, Black was a military brat who spent most of his childhood in Texas, until his stepfather was stationed at Fort Ord and the family settled in Salinas. Almost as far back as he can remember, Black sensed that he was gay. With no hope of support, he withdrew into himself, becoming, in his own words, “a very dark kid” for whom suicide loomed as a real possibility.

Theater became his emotional outlet. When he started heading up to San Francisco for auditions in the early 1990s, he heard stories about the man who had so profoundly shaped the gay movement in the Bay Area. “For the first time, I felt like there had been someone who felt the same things I did, and yet who accomplished so much. It gave me hope at a time when I didn’t have any. I mean, really didn’t have any,” Black remembers. In college, he saw The Times of Harvey Milk and was struck by a scene in which Milk talks about how there might be a kid who’s afraid to come out in San Antonio and needs something to give him hope. “I don’t know why he picked San Antonio, but my family lived there for a while, and...I just started to cry when I heard it. And every time I talk about it, it does it to me all over again.”

Jones first met Black in 2005, when a friend brought him to Palm Springs to discuss an intriguing project: a musical based on Jones’s improbable life. Milk’s story had been made into an opera 10 years before, and in its way, Jones’s was nearly as dramatic. But Black had another reason for tagging along: For years, he had dreamed of writing a screenplay about his long-dead hero—and longed to meet someone who actually knew him. “I liked him right off,” Jones says. “He’s very smart, and quite cute, and very genuine. But mostly I was just so touched that someone his age would even know who Harvey Milk was.”

Black didn’t just know about Milk’s life in some broad, generic way—he knew all the details. “He understood the centrality of the politics to the story,” Jones marvels. “I’ve read probably 40 treatments and screenplays over the last 30 years, and while many of them had a lot going for them, none of them really impressed me. I understand that in Hollywood, films are about relationships. But Lance had a clear sense of how important the political struggle going on in San Fran­cisco and the country was to this story.”

The musical never came together, but Black and Jones became friends. Jones nurtured Black’s interest in Milk, telling him stories that the younger man integrated into the screenplay he began to write. And, though Jones didn’t realize it, his father-son relationship with Milk became central to the script.

“I didn’t grow up with a father around,” Black tells me. “I eventu­ally had a great stepdad, but that was later, and I couldn’t help but be jealous of the relationship that Cleve had with Harvey. Harvey fostered Cleve in ways that I wished I could have been fostered.”

Jones was eager to read the script, but Black held back. “We’d make little jokes,” Jones recalls. “I would say, ‘Well, when you’re ready, I’ve got a director.’” The suggestion made Black uneasy. In Hollywood, when people talk about “friends” they think should direct a project, they’re usually talking about newcomers or poseurs. Black didn’t realize that Jones was referring to Gus Van Sant, Black’s own fantasy choice.

Van Sant had sought out Jones and Shilts back in the Oliver Stone days. After the director was booted off Mayor, he and Jones stayed in touch, having cemented their bond over a few months in 1992, when Van Sant crashed at Jones’s place on 19th Street while he was in San Francisco editing his adaptation of the Tom Robbins novel Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. “Gus, oddly, is a golfer,” says Jones. “Whenever he’d come to Palm Springs to golf, we’d go out to dinner and talk about Harvey Milk. And I’d say, ‘Gus, you have to make the story.’ And he would say, ‘Bring me a script.’”

When Black finally showed him his screenplay, Jones knew he’d found the one to send Van Sant. “I was just absolutely blown away. It made me laugh out loud, made me cry, gave me goose bumps, made me angry. I was quite amazed. And I called Gus, and I said, ‘Can we come see you?’”

On the drive over, Jones worried that both Black and Van Sant were so naturally shy that they’d just sit there tongue-tied. “I remember thinking of little conversation strategies I might need to employ,” Jones says. “But when we got there, it was just very cool to watch. These two gay men from very different generations”—Van Sant is 56—“were completely comfortable with each other in about two minutes, both truly determined not only to tell the story, but to tell it correctly. I don’t think I said more than three words. I just sat back and watched. And when we drove away, I knew it was going to happen.”

Compared to Zadan and Meron’s ordeal, the pieces fell into place with stunning speed for Milk. As word about the project leaked to the press, Focus Features (Brokeback’s studio) came on board, as did Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen, the producing team behind American Beauty and the TV show Pushing Daisies. The project resonated for reasons beyond their sexual orientation—Jinks was a teenager in San Jose when Milk was elected and killed (his father was the editor of the San Jose Mercury News), and both Jinks and Cohen saw parallels between the efforts to ban gay schoolteachers in the ’70s and attempts to ban gay marriage now. Still, there was the awkward fact that Jinks is a friend of Zadan’s, who was as committed as ever to Mayor. “I wouldn’t have initiated a project that competed directly with someone I knew,” Jinks says. “I don’t think that would have been ethical. But at the same time, we couldn’t have continued to call ourselves producers if we said no to Milk. Someone was going to produce this script. We felt it should happen with someone who would make sure that it was as good, and as true, as it could possibly be.” Jinks says he spoke with Zadan after signing on to the movie. “I told him that, hopefully, the fact that there were two projects out there would help one of them to be made.” He also says, “This was—and is—a story with tremendous significance to all of us. It had gone too long without being told.”

Over the last few months, I asked Zadan several times to tell me his version of the story, and after indicating that he might talk, he changed his mind. His assistant sent me an email stating that Zadan had “promised everyone involved that he would speak of the movie once, and only once”—to the Los Angeles Times, in June. It was in that article that Zadan said that when he and Meron found out another Milk movie would hit the screens before their own, they “felt as if Harvey Milk had died again.” (To Jones, this seemed the height of melodrama. “Oh, puh-leeze,” he says in response.)

Because Zadan and Meron owned the rights to The Mayor of Castro Street, Black and Van Sant had to be careful not to rely on any of Shilts’s reporting for their script. Jones had already called on everyone who knew Milk and arranged for the research-obsessed Black to drive to San Francisco­—even as he was working on Big Love—to interview them on weekends. But later, Jones and Black made a final, mad rush to double-check that everything in the movie was originally sourced. “I think we did it in 24 hours,” Jones says. Not having to tie his script to Shilts’s book—as much social history as brilliant biography—ultimately freed up Black, Jones believes. Untethered from Shilts’s broad journalistic vision, Black could focus on Milk’s own unique journey.

Having seen Milk, and having read both Black’s screenplay and an early script of Mayor, I’m struck by how well the movie manages to combine the personal and the nitty-gritty political. Mayor may have been more sweeping in scope, but Milk dramatizes a grassroots movement’s quintessentially human origins with a clarity I’ve not seen. In one striking scene, a rally is organized over the phone as the screen splits into ever smaller squares—deftly showing how change is made, one person at a time. Yet the characters don’t feel like archetypes or stereotypes, but real, specific people. The screenplay and performances most come alive in their depiction of Milk’s relationships—his fatherlike men­torship of Jones, and his passionate love of the long-suffering Scott Smith and the self-destructive Jack Lira.

Jones believes Shilts, who died in 1994, “would be OK with” Milk. “Randy wasn’t a screenwriter. I’m kind of on dangerous ground here, but though Randy’s name will not appear in the credits, I think that this is a tribute to him. It was his work that introduced the rest of the world to Harvey Milk,” Jones adds. “It was his beautiful book that got people thinking about making this movie. For a whole lot of reasons, it didn’t turn out the way we expected it. But I believe that if Randy were sitting at this table now, he would be very happy to see it done.”

By last fall, with a finished script and a looming strike, Milk had a huge edge over Mayor, whose latest screenplay was still a work in progress. Then Milk hit its own giant speed bump: Matt Damon, who had been tapped to play Milk and Moscone’s murderer, ex-supervisor Dan White, had to drop out because of a scheduling conflict. But instead of losing momentum, the Milk team replaced Damon with Josh Brolin, who was fresh from highly praised performances in American Gangster and No Country for Old Men. He turned out to be a revelation.

Jones was more familiar with Brolin’s father, James Brolin—Marcus Welby, M.D.’s sidekick in the late 1960s, Barbra Streisand’s husband today. (“I’m an old fart, OK?” Jones jokes.) “So Josh shows up at the production office out on Treasure Island, where he’s being fitted for clothes for shooting that day, and I talk to him for 20 minutes about what I knew about Dan White. Then I see him in wardrobe and makeup, and my hair stands on end. I was horrified, and it must have been clear on my face, because Josh took one look at me and said, ’I guess it works.’ It wasn’t just the physical resemblance. The way he inhabited that character was mind-boggling.”

Still, I was surprised by how few lines Dan White has in the film. But the part was underwritten intentionally, Jones says. “One thing I didn’t like in previous scripts was the attempt to get inside Dan’s head. One script had this whole completely fictionalized psychodrama around Dan’s childhood—and we don’t know anything about his childhood. I think Lance and Gus did it right in showing the complexity, the confusion, without trying to come up with some pat explanation for what he did.” Brolin’s per­formance lives as much between the lines as in them.

As affecting as Brolin is, what I found most surprising are the nuanced performances delivered by the trio of hunky up-and-comers who portray the young men entwined with Milk: James Franco (Pineapple Express) and Diego Luna (Y Tu Mamá También) as his lovers, and especially Emile Hirsch as the youthful Jones, whose mannerisms and inflections so uncannily echo Jones’s own. Hirsch, in fact, had been suggested by the real-life Jones, who first got the idea when he saw him in Alpha Dog while checking out a different actor for the role. “I thought, ‘This kid is a serious actor.’ That’s what I wanted all along. I mean, obviously I wanted someone who was cute, but...then, when I saw Into the Wild, that was it.”

As for Penn—even having read the script, I was unprepared for how dominant a presence he is. Penn has made a name for himself portraying edgy, passionate, often violent characters. But what’s most impressive here is how relaxed he seems as Milk. I had the feeling that the role may be closer to Penn’s nature than any other he’s played. He certainly shows a wider range of emotion—and humor—than I’ve seen in any other single role.

Penn was Jones’s (and everyone else’s) first choice. “I have to add that I love Robin Williams. I love his work, I love him as a person, as a San Franciscan. He’s been incredibly kind to many people that I know, very kind to me, very helpful with the AIDS Memorial Quilt—so, nothing but love and respect for Robin Williams,” Jones says. “But I did not want him to play Harvey Milk.”

“If you told me a year ago I would fall in love with Sean Penn, I’d have laughed at you,” Jones adds. “But I just love that man. In my work with the quilt, I’ve met kings, queens, movie stars. Most are disappointing, not to mention arrogant. Sean isn’t just a brilliant actor—he is just plain brilliant, period.”

According to Jones, Penn shares much of Milk’s intelligence, curios­ity, and gentleness. (When Jones asked how he would play Milk, Penn replied, “I’m going to play him as a kind man.”) But Jones also detects in Penn hints of the courage and empathy that defined Milk as a politician and a human being. As an example, he cites an incident involving Dan White’s son, Charlie White, who was an infant when the assassinations occurred.

“One day, Charlie called. He said he was concerned about the movie, said he wanted to meet Gus and the producers, and he sounded upset.” Having lived through so much sudden violence over the last 30 years, Jones couldn’t help but feel “very nervous,” though he knew he was being irrational. When Penn said he was going to have dinner with Charlie White, Jones panicked. But Penn insisted that the only course of action was to show Dan White’s son respect and give him a hearing. After all, in his way, Charlie had been as much an innocent victim of his father’s murderous actions as Milk and Moscone had been.

And Jones thought: That’s exactly what Harvey would have done.

After I had spent so many years expecting one movie about Harvey Milk, it was jolting to hear that another was being made instead. As someone who has written about events drawn from this same period of San Francisco’s history—and who hopes to see a movie of my own book, about the racially motivated Zebra killings of the early 1970s, made in the not-too-distant future—I felt a twinge of sadness for what Zadan and Meron must be going through. But that wistfulness dissipated the night I participated in Van Sant’s restaging of the massive candlelight march down Market Street that took place the night of the slayings.

I’m told that some 4,000 people volunteered to help with the production of Milk in one way or another, and judging from the mob on that January night, I wouldn’t be surprised if every one of them showed up. As with most big crowd scenes, the extras were festive as we waited for the cameras to roll—but people weren’t talking as much about their lives or the football playoffs or the presidential primaries as about Milk: his life, his death, what they remembered, and what they had been too young to know firsthand.

After seeing the movie, it was hard not to think about how, a generation after Milk fought off the Briggs Initiative, a proposition to deny gays the right to marry is on the statewide ballot. And that a generation after Milk made a series of speeches about the audacity of hope, Barack Obama is delivering an almost identical message. As we go to press, the outcome of the November 4 elections remains in doubt. But Milk’s relevance does not. As I stood in that crowd of extras, it seemed clear that all the ambition that has been poured into telling Milk’s story pales in importance to the story itself. The crowd was there not because of Sean Penn or Gus Van Sant or Dustin Lance Black, but because of Harvey Milk and what he meant to everyone present.

For the people who actually knew Milk and had waited so long for Hollywood to tell his story—not just Jones, he emphasizes, but Milk’s many other friends and supporters—the shoot was an exhilarating trip back to a time that had been snatched from them before they even understood its true significance to themselves and to the world. Van Sant and his crew could have shot the movie in Hollywood or Toronto, but they did it in the Castro, carefully re-creating Milk’s milieu, down to the same shabby storefront where he used to hang out with Jones and anyone who stopped by, talking politics and plotting a future dominated by progressive values. In the process, the moviemakers and participants did more than honor what was lost with Milk’s death—they paid homage to a whole era that was lost, a time before AIDS when everything had seemed fresh and thrilling and possible. It was a remarkable experience.

“And then it was over,” Jones says. “Just over. We ended up in Sean’s room at the top of the St. Francis. And Lance was just crying—he’s going to hate me for telling you that. I didn’t cry that night. I was still overwhelmed. And then I packed up my shit into my pickup truck and I came home. I’m back in my empty house, and I’m like, ‘Oh, no.’ I didn’t want this to ever end. And I went to bed—I just felt so sad.”

Four days later, the phone rang. It was Penn, checking in.

So it wasn’t over after all. “Every single person in that movie wanted to be part of something that means something,” Jones says. And now they are.

The community created by telling Milk’s story lives on, bound by a shared understanding that his story isn’t about what happened 30 years ago, but about what will always be possible. For Jones, this is one more gift to add to the many Harvey Milk has given him over the years.

Bennett Cohen’s last piece for
San Francisco was “The Chief, the Mayor, and the Meddlers,” in November 2007.


Photography by: