In last week's part 1 of "The Brokeback Factor", I speculated that a posthumous Oscar win for Heath Ledger for his performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight may partly be due to his overlooked performance in Brokeback Mountain. But there is another Academy Award hopeful this year that may benefit even more from the infamous Oscar snub of Ang Lee's landmark modern classic. That film is Milk.
The story of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official anywhere, already has a history with the little gold man: Rob Epstein's The Times of Harvey Milk won the documentary prize back in 1984. This new Milk is a dramatic retelling of his life, with Academy Award winning actor Sean Penn in the title role and Oscar nominated director Gus Van Sant at the helm. In other words, Milk will certainly be on the radar of most Oscar watchers based on its pedigree alone.
In addition to Penn and Van Sant, other potential Milk nominees include screenwriter Dustin Lance Black and a slew of possible Best Supporting Actor nominees (who would, ironically, compete against Ledger), including James Franco (as Milk's lover Scott Smith), Emile Hirsch (as Milk ally and friend Cleve Jones) and Josh Brolin (as Milk's assassin Dan White). And then of course, there's the big one: Best Picture.
If Milk lives up to expectations at the film festivals, among critics and with such precursor awards as the Golden Globes, and if it is nominated for Best Picture, it may give the Academy a chance to overcome those nasty rumors of Hollywood homophobia that have been swirling around Tinseltown since that notorious Oscar night over two years ago. You recall that dark night when the over-rated mess of a movie Crash defied all predictions and won instead of the favored Brokeback, which was still the most honored movie of the year among every other major awards group. Certain pundits tried to insist that it wasn't due to Brokeback's gay content, that the Los Angeles-based Academy simply thought Crash was better (uh, have you seen it?) and/or that they wanted to honor a home-grown product (Brokeback was filmed mostly in Canada). Hogwash.
As the public statements of such moronic members as Tony Curtis and Ernest Borgnine attested to, some Academy members didn't even bother to watch Brokeback Mountain, proving that, despite its liberal reputation, homophobia still reigns in Hollywood (just ask all those actors and actresses cringing in the closet). In addition, the constant belittling of Brokeback by late night talk show hosts (mainly that idiot Jay Leno) and on the internet didn't help the film's chances, as some just viewed the whole thing as one big "gay cowboy" joke instead of just, you know, viewing the movie and judging it on its own merits.
Nevertheless, with its frank and honest portrayal of two men in love, Brokeback may have been too much for some people in the Academy, but it did pave the way for a possible victory for Milk. First off, Milk isn't primarily a romance (thereby not making all those straight guys in the Academy feel all funny inside), but a biopic, and the Academy loves biopics, especially about martyrs (see: Gandhi). Also, they especially love honoring actors when they play real people (the list begins with third Best Actor winner George Arliss as Disraeli and ends with last year's Best Actress Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose), so Penn could be looking at Oscar #2. And if Van Sant were to win, he would be the first out director to win for a gay-themed movie (and no, John Schlesinger for Midnight Cowboy and George Cukor for My Fair Lady don't count).
Of course, the jury is literally still out on this one until Milk is actually seen; it is scheduled to open December 5.