Milk - a movie stuck in the closet

Milk is a typical gay-as-Issue movie. Where are the films about ordinary homosexual life, asks Philip Hensher

Gus van Sant's film Milk has been a long time coming. Its subject, Harvey Milk, was assassinated in November 1978. Fifteen years later, Van Sant started to try to make a movie on the subject. Legal problems, difficulties in casting and funding difficulties intervened. Tom Cruise, Robin Williams, Matt Damon and Richard Gere came under consideration for the lead roles and went away again. Finally, with Sean Penn in a career-defining performance, the movie is being released. Is this the coming-of-age of gay films?

The story of Harvey Milk is one of the most clearly adult and serious topics a gay film has taken on in recent years. A member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Milk was the first openly gay elected public official in the United States.

His murderer, a city official called Dan White, who also killed the San Francisco mayor George Moscone, was subsequently given the absurdly lenient sentence of seven years in jail after using what became known as the "Twinkie defence" – White claimed that his excessive consumption of sugary snacks, including Twinkies, had driven him to engage in murderous violence. White served five years in jail, and committed suicide two years after being released.

As a subject for a movie, Milk's story is far removed from the familiar topics of gay cinema. Certainly, his story is remote from anything that he could himself have seen. Until very recently, gay films ran along very clearly defined rails. They seemed mostly devoted to demonstrating what unhappiness lay in wait for the homosexual. Open treatment of the subject goes back to the early days of the cinema. In 1919, the Weimar Republic saw a Magnus Hirschfeld-scripted drama, Anders als die Andern (Different from the Others), pleading for recognition of the homosexual's condition. In 1931, Mädchen in Uniform, on a lesbian subject, was a huge hit all over Europe, and is still fondly remembered. Very little, however, seemed to change in the long decades following.

When, 40 years after Anders als die Andern, Dirk Bogarde starred inVictim, which also pleaded for equality of treatment and understanding, the subject still seemed utterly controversial. There is not much in Victim which suggests the condition might be something outside the psychiatrist's field of interest, and the proper response to the film might be pity rather than respect for the homosexual.

The 1960s saw some development in gay and lesbian society which was occasionally reflected in movies. Robert Aldrich's luridly enjoyable The Killing of Sister George dealt with lesbians in ways not always easy to square with reality. Outside the English-speaking world, great directors were starting to deal with alternative sexualities: Fellini's Satyricon, the wild ride of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's career, Luchino Visconti's later epics, including Ludwig and The Damned, and the proliferating fantasy of Pier Paolo Pasolini. Some careers were cut off short, but they ought to have shown what could be done.

Instead, for many years, English-language cinema stayed firmly, even oppressively within the bounds of genre, where the figure of the homosexual or lesbian could hardly be expressed in any recognisable way. Most frequently, there was a tragic ending. Sometimes, gays were welcomed as best friends, or sexless comic relief. The late Seventies specialised in dramatic acts of matchless self-hatred, and Mart Crowley's The Boys In The Band, or the Al Pacino leather-queen vehicle Cruising have now acquired a period curiosity.

Much gay cinema, and indeed gay writing, concentrated for the time being on two topics: coming out – in which somebody comes to terms with their sexuality and embarks, pale but hopefully, on a new life – and the Aids drama. These topics produced some good work. The 1990 American film Longtime Companion, is still a lovely, human piece of work on the first wave of the epidemic. Coming Out, one of the very last products of the East German film industry, showed how gay films could reach beyond their obvious constituency; this one, an elegant and well-crafted film, had the East Germans queuing to see signs of the new freedoms in the cinema. The American blockbusters, shortly to show at the new-built Leipzig multiplexes, would be much more restricted in ambition. We have seen a good number of gay-themed movies since, and the success of the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival has shown what a market there is for films about any aspect of gay and lesbian life. Some rules, however, about the substance of these films seem to have emerged. Rupert Everett observed, in his wonderful autobiography, Red Carpets and other Banana Skins that Hollywood has agreed that gay actors will do very well for the comic gay roles – the gay best friend, the bitchy queen in the office. For the serious gay roles, a straight actor must be found.

This is true for Tom Hanks in Philadelphia, Charlize Theron in Monster, Hilary Swank in Boys don't Cry, Sean Penn in Milk, and Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain. Nobody wants to insist that gay parts should only be taken by gay actors. But the limitations of Hollywood's interest in gay people is shown by the way they reward a straight actor playing gay, and announcing, as Jake Gyllenhaal did after the filming of Brokeback Mountain, that being asked to kiss a man was an extraordinarily traumatic and upsetting task. It is all a little bit like Kate Winslet announcing, in her turn in Ricky Gervais's Extras, that "you are guaranteed an Oscar if you play a mental".

In some ways, television series have done better – Russell T Davies's original Queer as Folk may have shocked the mainstream viewer with its frankness, but succeeded, too, in shocking the gay audience with its utter accuracy. There are few films, even now, that seek to present gay life, or even a gay character, in the same way that Davies's series did; as people with incomes, jobs, educations, hopes, desires, ambitions and friends. Aids and coming-out films may be declining or may have disappeared altogether, but what remains is a view of homosexuality as an Issue, and only interesting when it appears as such.

What we generally see in cinema nowadays are films of important moments in gay history, such as Milk and the occasional tragic love affair. When gay people enter into a wider drama, they are regularly depicted as psychotic loonies, longing for the poor old straight to yield their virtue, as in Notes on a Scandal or Enduring Love. When a film-maker tries to insert a gay thread into a film about a wider society, as in the case of Richard Curtis's Love Actually, which at one point had a story about two lesbians in it, that is often the first thing to be cut.

No wonder gay film fans have often found refuge, not in the limited and clichéd ways the film industry has found to render the facts of their lives, but in films and genres with no obvious gay content – musicals, melodramas, Douglas Sirk, Baby Jane and Mommie Dearest. In the century-long history of the cinema, gay men on the whole have much preferred to see one Bette in All About Eve or another in Beaches than any number of liberal gay-themed low-budget numbers. Camp is not the whole of the gay sensibility, and no longer even the dominating tone of it; but there seems no point in denying that it has proved a great deal richer and more nourishing to audiences and creators than any explicit homosexual or lesbian topic.

The one exception in recent years, I guess, was Brokeback Mountain, which was dragged around Hollywood with the reputation of a great screenplay that could never be made. When it came out, it took the gay audience by storm and spread, to some degree, into the wider audience. I say "to some degree" because there was obviously a lot of resistance even to the idea of going to see such a film among some parts of the audience, and it became a shorthand joke of obscure intention on cheaper chat shows. The response might have been open puzzlement: here is one reviewer of the DVD on "I was extremely confused. It started from a cowboy story in the 1960s, and all of a sudden, this one guy acts like he loves the other guy. Then there were men kissing in it. It really didn't make any sense at all."

Clearly, there are people out there who can only see the world through the apertures licensed by the film industry. In the case of the lives of homosexuals and lesbians, those apertures are unusually tiny – I've never seen anything in the cinema remotely resembling my life, or the lives of people I spend most of my time with, which seems, on the face of it, distinctly peculiar. Films like Milk enlarge the Hollywood repertoire. We shouldn't kid ourselves, however, that the movie industry is starting to think of us as human, or anything.


Brokeback Mountain(Ang Lee, 2005)
Complaints that gay love affairs in movies always had to be tragic fell silent before this sublime film. Based on a great Annie Proulx story and containing Heath Ledger's finest performance, the film is a laconic masterpiece of demotic poetry. Not likely to be matched in vision or intensity any time soon.

Querelle(Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1982)
Fassbinder had a queer aesthetic before anyone spoke of one in those terms, and his gloriously excessive last film hasn't dated a minute. The sumptuous, purple-lit beauty of Brad Davis, a stone phallus and Jeanne Moreau crooning Oscar Wilde; 'Querelle' is an unforgettable masterpiece.

Maurice(Merchant/Ivory, 1987)
Only after Merchant Ivory's lovely film, did readers start to see what a vintage piece of work EM Forster's novel is. The film looks divine, with some stellar performances, and has, despite all the styling, an unmistakable truthfulness about it.

La Cage aux Folles(Edouard Molinaro, 1978)
You would have to be dead not to enjoy this divine farce. Everyone knows the story; the situations work out like clockwork; the heterosexuals are grossly discomfited or sweetly rewarded; and the movie, despite its external ruthlessness, has a heart of gold. No remake or sequel comes up to the enchanting 1978 original.

Philadelphia(Jonathan Demme, 1993)
Demme made this movie, reportedly, as an act of reparation after accusations of anti-queer bias in 'Silence of the Lambs'. It turned out the great Aids tear-jerker, with unexpectedly bright-eyed chemistry between Tom Hanks and Antonio Banderas. I can't remember crying so much at a movie.

Bad Education(Pedro Almodovar, 2004)
Almodovar deserves a half-dozen entries in the best-ever gay movies. 'Bad Education' is only one of several triumphs, an alluring Chinese box of a movie where the men grow more gorgeous the more they occupy a realm of fantasy. Sly, disciplined and immensely well-crafted, it is a movie only a gay man could have made.

Celine and Julie Go Boating(Jacques Rivette, 1974)
Is Rivette's maddening, evasive masterpiece a lesbian movie at all? Or do its suave evasions on this, and every other subject make it the most sexually radical movie of all time? Two ladies of exchangeable identity, a girl trapped in a Henry James story, a cat and some magical boiled sweets – you decide.

Taxi Zum Klo(Frank Ripploh, 1981)
The early 1990s saw the rise of something called the New Queer Cinema. Nothing came up, in boldness, wit or cheap lurid tat to Ripploh's cinema-verité account of his daily life in pre-Aids West Berlin. Terrifically evocative and amusing, and wildly indecent.

Death in Venice(Luchino Visconti, 1971)
Much parodied, and, by modern standards, glacially slow, Visconti's epic rendering of a Thomas Mann short story spoke most directly to its generation. (My generation found it embarrassing, like a taste for Judy Garland). But the beauty is irresistible: a climax to the career of a great master.

Fire(Deepa Mehta, 1996)
This wonderful movie ought to be a classic. The Indian film industry, often characterised as song-and-dance, has always excelled at claustrophobic family dramas, and this gripping tale of same-sex attraction within an extended family is one of the best, as well as the most unexpected, of recent lesbian-themed movies.

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