Book Smart: Oscar Reads “Milk”

Gus Van Sant’s biopic “Milk” is nominated for Best Original Screenplay, but writer Dustin Lance Black drew heavily on “The Mayor of Castro Street,” Randy Shilts’ 1982 biography of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official, played onscreen by the fiery Sean Penn.

Something that sets this movie apart from the pack of plain old biopics is its use of actual archival and documentary footage. But Black also took some liberties with the story—here’s a rundown, so you don’t get caught revising Wikipedia with “facts” from the movie that are as real as Bernie Madoff’s money. INFLUENCE

  • On Screen: Gives you the impression that Harvey Milk basically single-handedly started the gay rights movement in San Francisco.
  • In Real Life: While Milk was totally a hero to the movement, and took on its mantle as he rose in prominence, he did not start out as an organizer. The main local group at the time was the BAGL (Bay Area Gay Liberation), which is not mentioned in the film.

  • On Screen: The smoldering romance between Harvey and Scott Smith (James Franco) heats up the screen from literally the very first scene, and forms the core of the story until Harvey ditches Scott for Jack Lira, played by Diego Luna.
  • In Real Life: In the book, Scott does not play a major role in Shilts’ biography. Although they were together for four years, and Scott was known as “The Widow Milk” after Harvey’s assassination, Lira was Milk’s main lover boy during his political years.

  • On Screen: When Harvey meets with Representative Phil Burton to talk about the fight over Prop 6, the bill to ban gay teachers in California that drives the movie, Penn plays the scene sitting in a chair; he quietly schools Burton on why he is furious that they left the word “gay” off of the literature. His ferocious calm gives the scene its power.
  • In Real Life: Real Harvey threw a huge fit, according to activist Cleve Jones, who told Van Sant that “Harvey had put on a real show, running around the room and flailing the paper in the air.”

    About telling a “real” story, Van Sant told Filmmaker Magazine, “using real people and their names in Milk was difficult because you can never really get it completely true….It’s like an opera about those people. You can never really get to the real place.”