But what about Penn's expressive use of his body? His clenched-fist joy in the scene where Milk becomes one of America's first openly gay elected politicians? His robust articulateness at a mass rally, pumping his arms in full rhetorical flight?
Yet Penn's powerful body language in Gus Van Sant's "Milk" represents an aberration as well as an evolution in the history of Hollywood's representation of gay characters. For decades, the major studios have offered a long parade of gay male characters as comic buffoons ("The Birdcage"), tragic, self-hating victims ("The Boys In the Band") and closeted sociopaths ("Rope," "The Talented Mr. Ripley"). Of course, in that time there've also been dozens of movies with richly imagined, fully three-dimensional gay characters, many by European auteurs and U.S. independents.
But Penn's Milk, pounding the Haight-Ashbury pavement with a bounce in his step, brings a new stride, even a swagger, to the Hollywood history of gay representation.
It's worth noting that no such milestone has yet been reached by a lesbian character in a major-studio film, despite the increasing prevalence of lesbian characters in prime-time television. In some ways, gay female characters are still trying to break free from the stifled hysteria of "The Children's Hour," the 1961 William Wyler film about sexual repression at a New England girls' school. Looking back over the last three or four decades, for every "Desert Hearts" or "Lianna" you can spot two or three schlocky gay-chick exploitation flicks like "Basic Instinct" and "Wild Things."
To appreciate the achievements of Penn and "Milk" it helps to review a few key Hollywood movies that encapsulated their eras' prevailing attitudes and prejudices about gay men's identities and lives, focusing on how they depicted their characters' bodies and body language.
The Maltese Falcon (1941)
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In the Depression era, "gunsel" meant either a hired gun and/or a young, submissive homosexual. Humphrey Bogart's Sam Spade sneeringly flings the pejorative at Wilmer (Elisha Cook Jr.), the anxiously buttoned-up young thug working for Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet).
Spade's dismissive contempt for the callow Wilmer is no more (or less) casually sadistic than his behavior toward the pitiful, imploring women in his life, including his ex-partner's widow and his femme fatale client Brigid O'Shaughnessy (the ethically challenged private eye has flings with both of them).
But when Wilmer fleetingly confronts Spade, he produces the movie's most startlingly intense emotional moment in John Huston's film noir masterpiece. Enraged and humiliated by Spade's incessant needling, the shaken Wilmer raises his gun and, teary-eyed, tells Spade in a choked voice, "Get up on your feet! I've taken all the riding from you I'm gonna take! Get up and shoot it out!"
Soon after, Spade cold-cocks the poor sap, reducing Wilmer to an all-too-recognizable Hollywood archetype: the gay man as weak-willed and sneaky, the implied consequence of leading a double life.
Partly under pressure from the bluenoses administering the Hays Code, Hollywood went back into the closet during the Eisenhower presidency and more or less stayed there until the late 1960s (although Sal Mineo and a few others managed to slip out once in a while). Coyness and euphemism were the order of the day, with the likes of Rock Hudson and Randolph Scott impersonating big-screen macho men.
Then in 1969 (the year of the Stonewall Riots in New York's Greenwich Village, where gays and lesbians fought back against an early-morning police raid), John Schlesinger unleashed "Midnight Cowboy," the tale of a Texas dishwasher turned Manhattan street hustler ( Jon Voight), which despite an X rating earned Oscars for best picture, director and screenplay.
William Friedkin's enigmatic thriller "Cruising" picked up on "Midnight Cowboy's" urban-gothic backdrop of New York City in decline and turned it into an S&M fever dream set in the bump-and-grind bars of Manhattan's meatpacking district. Al Pacino plays an undercover cop stalking a gruesomely savage gay serial killer who dismembers his victims. Employing a familiar pop-Freudian trope, the murderer turns out to be a dissolute Columbia University student (doing his thesis on the American musical theater, no less!) who never made peace with -- surprise! -- his disapproving father.
The movie tries to emphasize that this leather-clad milieu isn't representative of all gay culture, only one dark sub-strata of it. Yet "Cruising" inevitably reinforced an image of gay life as sordid, sex-obsessed and marginal. One of its most enduring images is of a victim pleading for mercy while lying naked and bound on a bed. His flayed torso symbolizes the confused gender relations of the late disco era, which produced a number of other movies ("Dressed to Kill," "Looking for Mr. Goodbar") featuring killers with serious sexual-identity issues.
My Own Private Idaho (1991)
This warmly funny, nonjudgmental reimagining of Shakespeare's "Henry IV," written and directed by Van Sant, takes place in the gray Pacific Northwest, where Scott ( Keanu Reeves) and Mike ( River Phoenix) earn their living as hookers. Their picaresque adventures form a bittersweet tale of sexual hypocrisy, as Scott finally renounces both his vagabond lifestyle and his love for other men to gain acceptance into the world of hetero-bourgeois conformity.