‘MILK’ v. ‘Brokeback Mountain’

by Isaiah Webster III

Oscar ballots went in the mail last week, which means that Academy members have begun voting on which films, crews and actors who will be deemed the best of 2008 and therefore honored during the 81st annual Academy Awards on Feb. 22.

I’ve noticed lots of chatter within the gay media debating whether or not “Milk” will win best picture. Without fail, any discussion of “Milk” and its chances of winning best picture also includes discussion about “Brokeback Mountain.”

Even though “Brokeback” won every major award leading up to the Academy Awards, it was still beaten by “Crash” for the best picture Oscar in 2005. That upset remains one of the most second-guessed in Oscar history. (Perhaps only second to “Shakespeare in Love” defeating “Saving Private Ryan” in 1998.)

Michael Musto, columnist for Village Voice, said recently that he believes homophobia may have played a role in the “Brokeback” defeat. And there is no question that some Academy members still are not ready to embrace queer-themed films.

But I’ve always thought that “Crash” was simply a better film than “Brokeback Mountain,” therefore justifying its win. And I can’t find hardly any similarities between “Brokeback” and “Milk,” which is a good thing as far as I’m concerned.

When I watched “Brokeback” in the theater, I felt detached. Though the story is deeply compelling, the film is cold. It was as if I were watching a gay film made for straight people. There were only two scenes in the film that drew me in: midway through when Ennis (Heath Ledger) and Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) are reunited and share that powerful kiss that Alama (Michelle Williams) witnessed; and towards the end when Ennis confides in Jack about his struggles with his internalized homophobia, saying that it seemed as though “people know.”

And that was it. Those are the only two moments in the whole film that moved me. (Truthfully, I was also moved by the tent scene, but not in the ways you might think.)

This stands in stark contrast to when I saw “Milk” in the theater a few weeks back. From the opening scenes of police brutality to the closing scenes of the vigil, I was blown away. Even though Harvey Milk’s life has been documented previously, Sean Penn brought such color and depth to him. I felt as though I truly got to know Harvey Milk in the span of two hours.

I won’t bore you with a comparison of Ang Lee (director of ‘Brokeback’) and Gus Van Sant (director of ‘Milk’), but I will tell you, in my opinion, Van Sant is the far superior filmmaker.

It would be a service to us all if everyone would stop comparing “Milk” and “Brokeback.” It’s truly apples and oranges. Perhaps it’s because “Milk” is the biography of a real hero, while “Brokeback” was adapted from a short story. Maybe it’s the performances; Sean Penn, Josh Brolin and James Franco all delivered stellar performances in “Milk.” While Heath Ledger was the only actor who even came close to delivering an Oscar-worthy performance in “Brokeback.” Whatever the reason, these films should not be compared. While “Brokeback” was groundbreaking and riveting, it didn’t inspire me or give me hope the way “Milk” did.

In terms of advancing the queer community, there is no doubt, “Milk” did far better on that front.

I wasn’t too upset with the “Crash” win since it would have gotten my vote too. But I will be rooting for “Milk” to become the first “gay” film to win best picture.