Film | Gus van Sant | Harvey Milk | Matt Damon | News | Playing Gay | Sean Penn

Gus van Sant Snaps Up Penn and Damon for Harvey Milk Film

Sean Penn has reportedly signed on to play Harvey Milk in Gus van Sant's project about the slain openly gay SF supervisor, and could begin shooting as soon as December, according to the Hollywood Reporter.

Penn_damon_2Matt Damon is reportedly attached to play Milk's assassin, fellow supervisor Dan White, although the project's start date could affect Damon's participation.

Van Sant's project, as yet untitled, has a script from Dustin Lance Black (Big Love) and will be produced by Bruce Cohen and Dan Jinks (American Beauty)

In April I posted about the rival Harvey Milk projects that were racing towards production. At odds with Van Sant's project is the long-simmering Mayor of Castro Street, a project being produced by Craig Zadan and Neil Meron which currently has Bryan Singer attached as director.

In 1977, Harvey Milk became the first openly gay official elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. He would serve eleven courageous months before being brutally murdered at City Hall in a homophobic attack by supervisor Dan White, who had eluded metal detectors by climbing in through a basement window. White also murdered mayor George Moscone.

In a stunning sentence, White was convicted of two counts of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to seven years and eight months. The main defense that White's lawyer gave was that he had eaten too much junk food the day of the murders which had somehow influenced his actions. It was labeled by critics as "the twinkie defense." White was paroled after six years and committed suicide soon after.

Milk had been paranoid about a threat of assassination because of his outspoken role in the community and his views on gay rights. On one of many audio tapes that was discovered after his death, on which he had recorded a will, he said: "If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door."

According to the Reporter, "Penn has never portrayed an openly gay character onscreen, but he did play the sexually ambiguous Olivia Newton-John impersonator 'Groovin' Larry' in a section of Trent Harris' 2001 cult hit 'Beaver Trilogy.' Penn's video short was shot in 1981, then combined with Harris' 1979 documentary short on the amateur performer and his 1985 short narrative version 'The Orkly Kid,' starring Crispin Glover as Larry, to create 'Beaver.'"

You may have missed...
Singer and Van Sant Vie to be First with Harvey Milk Film [tr]
Harvey Milk to get Bust at San Francisco City Hall [tr]
Thank God for Harvey Milk [tr]

Feed This post's comment feed


  1. what, penn as milk ?? was clive owen unavailable ?
    we love gus van sant, but this casting is off target, unless harvey milk was a chain smoker. van sant needs to look outside of his rec-room clique for this one.
    and matt damon ??? what, was rob lowe otherwise booked?

    Posted by: A.J | Sep 10, 2007 10:29:26 AM

  2. Van Sant is one of the most overrated directors on the planet. "My Own Private Idaho" is only good in the scenes in which Reeves and Phoenix are alone and the "director" lets their natural repressed sexuality and bond with each other unfold. "Good Will Hunting" is the only good film with his name attached to it and that is primarily because of the great script and performances that he, by pure chance, was unable to smother to death as he has everything else. People remember "To Die For" only because someone Hipper Than Thou told them they were supposed to.

    If this casting is true, it is only further proof he is less auteur than autistic. Penn can act but one finds it impossible to imagine him acting his way suffficiently out of his perpetual soured beer expression to convey the joie de vivre that Milk had as well as his ability to inspire.

    Damon could work with a lot of work and a hair dye job.

    PS: It's too reductive to describe Milk's murder as a "homophobic attack." It was far more complicated than that or else straight Moscone wouldn't be dead. It was a revenge [for perceived political betrayal] murder further propelled by White's feelings that Moscone and Milk represented all that, in White's mind, a devout Irish Catholic from the wrong side of the tracks stuck in the 1950s, was going wrong in The City. There is some reason to believe he was something of a sociopath before he ever put a Twinkie to his lips laced with a severe case of narcissistic disorder.

    Read Randy Shilts' "The Mayor of Castro Street" and another book focusing in greater detail on the sociopolitical drama leading up to and after the double assassinations called "Double Play" whose author eludes me at the moment.

    Posted by: Leland Frances | Sep 10, 2007 11:17:23 AM

  3. You should also read my book "Open Secret: Gay Hollywoodn 1928-2000" for the whole story of how Gus nearly came to make "The Mayor of Castro Street."

    Leland, your taste is in your mouth. Gus is a great filmmaker. Sean Penn is actually a good choice to play Harey Milk who was quite a complex character. I'm very interested to know how far back the new script is going as Harvey

    began his career as a deeply closeted New York investment banker with a boytoy on the side. I knew said boytoy (now long-deceased) who was celebrated in life and song (by Lou Reed) as "The Sugar Plum Fairy." He can be seen on screen in action in Andy Warhol's "My Hustler."

    ANd it's NOT "too reductive" to describe Milk's murder as a homophobic attack.

    Get a clue and grow up!

    Posted by: David Ehrenstein | Sep 10, 2007 11:30:24 AM

  4. I think this casting is quite good if it works out.

    As far as Penn being perpetually sour, don't forget that one of his first roles was a carefree stoner in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

    Posted by: Gregg | Sep 10, 2007 12:26:10 PM

  5. I dunno, the whole project seems to lack imagination. Unless they delve deeply into the background of Dan White and Harvey Milk, the whole thing is very dated and obvious. We just had Zodiac, which did nothing in the box office, so I'd say a docudrama about crime is a risky proposition. It's like they felt a gay drama would be great--a la BBM--but they didn't want to work too hard. Here's an idea: what about a story of a closeted Republican in an anti-gay White House being either betrayed, blackmailed or outed by the press--now that sounds a whole lot more interesting and current.

    Posted by: anon ( | Sep 10, 2007 12:42:08 PM

  6. Davey, Davey, Davey. Remember what your therapist told you: "Wait 'til your anger management morning meds kick in before speaking." I'm sure if they had, a published author such as yourself, with whom I often agree, would have something better to offer than, "Get a clue and grow up!" and "your taste is in your mouth."

    If Milk's murder was simply a homophobic attack then Moscone's was what, a heterophobic attack?

    The average film goer can't name four movies by Van Sant, let alone four they actually treasure. It's dangerous using hoi polloi as a touchstone for much of anything but many could name at least one person they've heard is "a great filmmaker" and the chances of that being Van Sant are nil.

    We will also have to continue to agree to disagree about Penn's potential casting, while I add another reason he's a bad choice: he is hated by Middle America, to whom he is the equivalent of a modern day "Hanoi Jane Fonda." The unfairness of that characterization is beside the point. They, far more than the average gay person, need gay-affirming films and casting Penn would be just another excuse for them to stay away even if the film did turn out to be as excellent as you imagine it could be.

    Posted by: Leland Frances | Sep 10, 2007 12:58:06 PM

  7. That Zodiac "did nothing at the box office" has no bearing on the fact that it's one of the best pictures of the year, with Jake giving a truly teriffic performance for a change (rather than coast on his cuteness.) And recreating the world of Harvey Milk is exceptionally hard work.

    Posted by: David Ehrenstein | Sep 10, 2007 12:59:37 PM

  8. Sean Penn isnt bad casting. I think Adrian Brody would have been better.

    Posted by: Chris in Seattle | Sep 10, 2007 1:09:09 PM

  9. I can't STAND Adrian Brody. He was great in The Pianist and that was it.

    Posted by: Gregg | Sep 10, 2007 1:22:17 PM

  10. I agree with David here, though I would rather see an openly gay actor in the role I know that ain't gonna happen and Sean Penn is, I think, certainly better casting than Adrien Brody or Robin Williams. Also, Leland, this won't be a feel-good gay film no matter what--he gets killed in the end and his murderer gets his hands slapped. I think this movie will be a hard sell to the general movie viewing audience no matter who plays the lead roles and middle America won't flock to this movie even if the leads were Tom Hanks and Brad Pitt and it was directed by Stephen Spielberg.

    Posted by: DB | Sep 10, 2007 2:05:45 PM

  11. Paint me skeptical--I wouldn't give the GVS film a rave review just yet, Dave.

    Zodiac rates a mediocre 78 on

    Posted by: anon ( | Sep 10, 2007 2:21:12 PM

  12. Oof-what a mess! Sean Penn is the male Nicole Kidman...every film he makes is high-minded box office poison.

    He's a grand stander, and audiences H-A-T-E him. I have no clue why people conitnue to cast him. This is probably the worst casting I have ever seen...

    Posted by: Paul | Sep 10, 2007 2:26:43 PM

  13. Christ of the Andes, is the ability to understand what one reads in extinction? I wrote "gay-affirming" not "feel-good"! Other than that you only serve to restate my point that the film has enough innate challenges to attracting any measureable nongay audience that one need not handicap it further with poor casting.

    Only two of Penn's 30+ films have grossed over $50 million in the US. Even the six-Oscar nominated, icon Clint Eastwood-directed "Mystic River" only brought in $90 million, and he won the Oscar for best actor. Worldwide, even "Brokeback Mountain" brought in more. His last film grossed less than $9.5 million WORLDWIDE which, with a production budget of $55 million, means it lost $45+ million.

    Only four of Van Sant's films have grossed more than $20 million. Whatever else one might say about the director allegedly also working on a Milk bio, Bryan Singer, three of his five films have grossed over $150 million domestically.

    Posted by: Leland Frances | Sep 10, 2007 3:05:07 PM

  14. Bryan Singer directing this film will make no difference in the end. Singer's successful films have been based on comic books and have only subliminal gay content. This is not a comic book film. I think either director could do a good job with this movie. I would just like to see it made.

    Posted by: db | Sep 10, 2007 5:37:02 PM

  15. "Milk had been paranoid about a threat of assassination because of his outspoken role in the community and his views on gay rights."

    paranoid might be too strong a word, perhaps realistic expectation?

    Posted by: Robguy | Sep 10, 2007 7:05:43 PM

  16. Gus is over-rated, tending to style over substance. 'Good Will Hunting' is the best of a bad lot.

    For me, Singer is not a great director but since he also has 'House M.D.' notched on his belt, he might make the better film on this subject.

    Posted by: queendru | Sep 10, 2007 10:45:41 PM

  17. Harvey, like many political assassinated victims
    became saint-like in death, more than while they were living...
    grant you, I believe that Harvey's thumping against the anti-gay Briggs inactive was his most gallant fight. He was a masterful and talented leader... but not all gays supported him, especially the wealthy. They did not want him to win because of his socialistic-like views. You must remember the times, after the assassinations of JFK,M L King and RFK and the Vietnam war of the 60's and early 70's... most events were not local events... except in the bay area. Many beatniks, flower children, peace mongers and intellecturals were in the forefront of change, and among them...many elements of the gays community. All I hope, is that the any movie portray Harvey, flaws and all, but most of all...
    how he opened up gay men and women to
    everyday local and national politics.

    Posted by: jerry pritikin | Sep 12, 2007 11:13:02 AM

Post a comment


« «Sportrait: Novak Djokovic« «