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December 1, 2008


Gus Van Sant's mainstream gay activist movie

Sean Penn and Victor Garber in Milk

Milk did really well in its opening weekend. It's only playing on 34 screens, but it broke a box office record for that size release--$1.9 million since Wednesday, and it sold out at the theater where I saw it. When was the last time a Gus Van Sant movie sold out any theaters? Forget selling out, when's the last time one of his movies even cleared $1 million gross? A quick IMDb scan suggests that 2003's Elephant made just over $1.2 million total, which is a lot better than anything else he's done since 2000.

I didn't see Elephant, or Last Days, or Gerry. Paranoid Park was released earlier this year, and it was great, but also really dark and non-linear, and had a dreamy, nostalgic atmosphere that placed it squarely in the art film category of Van Sant's movies.

Here's the thing about Gus Van Sant: he can do mainstream, and he can do arty, but he seems to lurch from one style to the other whenever he gets stuck. His career is an uneven mess of solid mainstream movies (Good Will Hunting, To Die For, and I'm going to include Milk here) and solid indie/art movies (My Own Private Idaho, Drugstore Cowboy, Paranoid Park) with all these embarrassing clunkers mixed in (Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Finding Forrester, Psycho) that make you wonder what he was thinking.

His latest run of small movies focusing on shaggy adolescents and their encounters with death (Last Days, Elephant, Paranoid Park) didn't make any money or have any big stars. So now he's got Milk, and it looks like he's not taking any chances--he's got a cast of famous actors and a pretty well-known assassinated civil rights leader as the subject.

The movie is about as a good as a conventional biopic can get. And that's in spite of some really cliched biopic devices, including an older Harvey Milk narrating his life story into a tape recorder for posterity or something, fast-forwards through mundane years to get to the important historic events, and an epilogue sequence telling us what became of the real characters we've been watching. Hardly any of the experimental, impressionist style that's in all his small movies.

For a movie about the gay rights movement, Milk plays it totally straight. It's like Van Sant looked back over his career, realized that he can draw big audiences when he makes movies like Good Will Hunting that have compelling characters, a few big actors, and an inspirational story about underdogs overcoming obstacles to fulfill their dreams. So he more or less just did that, and it looks like it's working again.

But this time, probably because the story of Harvey Milk is closer to his heart than some freak genius wiseass from South Boston, Gus Van Sant seems to have made an effort to advance gay actors in his casting choices. Sure, all the leads are straight, but as Van Sant pointed out at a press conference that Spout attended, there aren't any gay actors that have the "box office stature" he needed to get this movie made.

So we end up with Sean Penn, James Franco, Emile Hirsch, and Josh Brolin as the leads. And they're all really great. But Van Sant did get a whole bunch of gay actors for supporting roles. We've got Victor Garber (above, the guy from Alias and Legally Blonde) as Mayor George Moscone, Stephen Spinella (who plays lots of gay characters, with the notable exception of sexual harasser Miles Papazian from the last season of 24) as a high-powered lawyer, real-life Hollywood producer Howard Rosenman as rich businessman and gay media figure David Goodstein, and best of all, Denis O'Hare as California Senator John Briggs, the sponsor of the 1978 initiative to ban gay teachers from schools.

As Van Sant says, there may not be a lot of gay stars out there--at least not many young ones. (Once they get to be Ian McKellen's age, I guess they just stop worrying and come out already.) I'm glad Van Sant is using his big return to popular mainstream movies to help advance some careers other than just Sean Penn's.

categories: Movies
posted by amy at 1:55 PM | #

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