"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)
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).
Enraged and humiliated by Spade's incessant needling, 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.
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.
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 Pacific Northwest, where Scott (Keanu Reeves) and Mike (River Phoenix) earn their living as hookers.
Key image: In the opening frames, the camera lingers over Mike's face as he receives oral sex from a client, who then tosses two $10 bills on his bare chest. The sequence is as jarring, oddly funny and fearless as a Robert Mapplethorpe nude.
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
This movie significantly placed gay/bisexual characters in the American heartland rather than the usual big-city mean streets. The main characters first meet in 1963 as star-crossed bunkmates while herding sheep on horseback. Their decades-long romance is a classic love-that-dare-not-speak-its-name scenario, in keeping with the societal constraints imposed by the story's pre-Sexual Revolution milieu.
But although they hailed from wide-open spaces, the terse, vulnerable Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and the glibber, slicker Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) were trapped metaphorically in the celluloid closet. To a degree, the movie's period setting imprisons the characters in the retrograde Hollywood role of tragic, passive victims. Yet the searing integrity of the acting, capped by Ledger's towering performance, along with the visual lyricism and acute sensitivity of Ang Lee's film (Oscars for direction, adapted screenplay and soundtrack) make this a landmark in the history of cinema, gay or straight.Most memorable body language: Ennis slumped to the floor and pounding a wall in frustration after he and Jack go their separate ways.
Since the silent film era, we've usually associated great physical acting with the great screen clowns (Chaplin, Keaton). Penn has few, if any, peers among his contemporaries in using every fiber of his being to summon a character.
His Harvey Milk occasionally evokes some of Penn's past cinematic portrayals: the tortured muscularity of the grieving father in "Mystic River"; the blustery showmanship of rabble-rousing Willie Stark in "All the King's Men."
In "Milk," Penn conveys Milk's sinewy force of personality, whether crouching solicitously at a lover's feet, exhorting a crowd at a rally or dropping to his knees like a doomed opera diva as Dan White's bullets drain away his life.
"Milk" opens with archival black-and-white footage of gay men in Miami bars cringing and shielding their faces with their hands as they're being rounded up and herded into police paddy wagons. Penn's Milk has no need to hide who he is, and neither, by implication, does the audience. With tough words, a gently amused smile and an athletic gait, Penn's Milk empowers those around him and those watching him on screen".