Monday, January 12, 2009

Sing Out Sister

Photo: David Benjamin Sherry

“It’s like blackface to me … it’s a continuing Hollywood minstrel show, co-opting queer stories and perversely building up the careers of these heterosexual bastards with the plumage of effeminacies, that they can wear this plumage of effeminacies without having to really be accountable” - Antony Hegarty on Sean Penn's turn as Harvey Milk

I have to say I was really pleased to read this. When I first heard news that Sean Penn was playing the penultimate gay hero, Harvey Milk, I was incensed (Exhibit A). But then I sort of chilled out a little bit and got completely sucked in by the marketing campaign for Milk - Gus Van Sant can make a movie, okay - and then I saw Milk and wanted to hug Emile Hirsch, murder Diego Luna, and had surprisingly little venom left over for Penn. However, this quote really brings it all home.

As someone who can walk down the street and pass for straight - just don't get me talking... period - I am both shamed and unapologetic that I take a little bit of pride in this fact. There's a pretty hefty caché in the gay community built up around this very phenomenon which is why it's so GD important for someone like Antony Hegarty, who's never exactly had the opportunity pass as straight (you can read all about it here in this New York Magazine article), to come out and say something about how it's really irrelevant whether or not Sean Penn is a competent actor. Would a gay man in the same role even be considered for a nomination since, he's just playing himself?

So thanks Antony for reminding me how Penn's just riding the coattails of hetero-normative privilege and gay pantomime all the way to the Oscars.


BG5000 said...

(I want to preface this comment by acknowledging that as a straight dude, my opinion on this matter probably doesn't hold as much weight as someone who is immediately affected by it, that i have not yet seen Milk, and that i fucking hate Sean Penn.)

You raise an interesting question about whether or not a gay actor would be nominated for the same role. I'd have to say yes, they could be, assuming they did a great job in it. Mickey Rourke has received a lot of praise and even a Golden Globe for playing a washed up wrestler, which given his past career as a boxer isn't that much different from playing himself, so it's not impossible. But i do think it would be harder for them. When judging the strength of a performance, one of the leading factors (for me, at least, but i think this holds true for a lot of critics as well) is how different the character is from the actor and if they're able to play them convincingly. Cate Blanchett's performance in I'm Not There was so great because after the first few minutes you stopped thinking about the fact that it was a woman playing Bob Dylan. The same kind of thing could certainly be at work in Milk. As you said in the earlier post, "Penn's infamous bravado and overwrought machismo is at direct odds with Milk's image as peace-keeper and bridge-builder." If he is convincing in the role, then his history and reputation only make the performance seem stronger.

But this does lead to another, just as important question, raised by both you and Anthony: should only gay actors get to play gay characters? If so, what about characters who's sexuality is incidental to who they are, like Val Kilmer's character in Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang? Would that fall under the banner of minstrel show or is that only when the character is famous? Like i said in the beginning, my opinion on this isn't worth much, so i'm interested to hear what else you have to say about it.

Baptizedingin said...

Good point about Mickey Rourke essentially playing himself in The Wrestler, and might I add, he does this to perfection. Although I'm also giving him bonus points for taking a staple gun to the chest. Incidentally, Sean Penn did not allow someone to actually shoot him in the head at the end of Milk.

I think what makes Penn's performance problematic for me and so many others is that he is playing someone who is arguably the most pivotal gay figure of the twentieth century. Penn, while not my favorite actor, has the chops and his talent is not in question. I too was pleasantly lulled into watching him act out "The Times of Harvey Milk" for some two hours, but at the end of the day (and I think Hegarty's quote especially speaks to this) shouldn't we be asking why it's him that's playing Milk and not an equally talented gay actor? Does Penn look especially like Milk? Does his name carry enough clout to get asses in seats? Is the casting intended to be provocative?

Some might argue, hey, it's just a movie, no need to get all political about it but I don't buy that line of reasoning. This is a movie about a gay political figure that is coming out at a politically charged time. To ignore the over(under?)tones of hypocrisy present in Penn's casting and ensuing adulation is tantamount to saying that racism/sexism/homophobia is dead.