‘Milk’ Snags Two Academy Awards

Biopic about late gay activist wins big

”Milk,” the acclaimed biopic about martyred gay rights activist Harvey Milk, won two Oscars at the 81st Annual Academy Awards in Los Angeles on Feb 22. The film fetched the coveted gold statues for Best Actor in a Leading Role for Sean Penn, and Best Original Screenplay for Dustin Lance Black.

Directed by Gus Van Sant, “Milk” depicts the final years of the Jewish native New Yorker who moved to San Francisco in 1972, and was spurred to progressive activism in his neighborhood, the Castro. He was elected a city supervisor in 1977, and assassinated by Dan White, a political rival, in 1978. Milk was 48. His legacy left a tremendous impact on the modern gay rights movement.

“You commie, homo-loving sons of guns,” said Penn, 48, to the audience in the Kodak Theatre upon accepting his Oscar. He previously won the Best Actor prize in 2004 for his role in “Mystic River.”

While characteristically wry, Penn also used the moment to express a serious point about equality in the wake of Proposition 8, the voter-approved ballot measure that overturned court-ordered gay marriage rights in California in November.

“I think that it is a good time for those who voted for the ban against gay marriage to sit and reflect and anticipate their great shame and the shame in their grandchildren’s eyes if they continue that way of support,” Penn said. “We’ve got to have equal rights for everyone,” he said to an outburst of applause.

Earlier in the evening, first-time nominee and winner Dustin Lance Black made an appeal for equality and tolerance when he accepted his Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for “Milk.” The writer for the HBO television drama “Big Love” recounted his upbringing in a conservative Mormon household in Texas, and how the story of Milk inspired him after he moved to California at the age of 13.

“If Harvey had not been taken from us 30 years ago,” Black said, “I think he’d want me to say to all of the gay and lesbian kids out there tonight who have been told that they are less than by their churches, or by the government, or by their families that, ‘You are beautiful, wonderful creatures of value and that no matter what anyone tells you, that God does love you, and that very soon, I promise you, you will have equal rights, federally, across this great nation of ours.’” 

“Milk” was nominated for a total of eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture. That nod went to “Slumdog Millionaire,” which also won Best Director for Danny Boyle. Kate Winslet won Best Actress for her performance in “The Reader.”

Since its release in November, “Milk” has earned nearly $30 million at the domestic box office. It is the highest-profile gay themed film since 2005’s “Brokeback Mountain,” which was nominated for eight Oscars and won three, for Best Director, Original Score and Adapted Screenplay. Though the favorite for Best Picture, it failed to take home the prize and led to charges of anti-gay sentiment in Hollywood.