I wouldn’t have thought that the way to raise the Oscar broadcast’s viewership was to make it more like the Tonys (the only awards ceremony even deeper in the ratings basement), but I’d have been wrong. As with the Tonys, it turns out that you can make an entertaining and watchable awards show just by adding Hugh Jackman, a traditional tuxedo-and-walking-stick dance number, a decorated arch that makes the Kodak Theatre look more like Radio City Music Hall, plenty of awards for little-seen productions without recognizable stars (yep, even the creation of Oscar-winning Best Pictures is now being outsourced to underpaid kids in India), and a fair amount of proudly gay content.
Maybe all of red state America had already tuned out by the time, late in the broadcast, that Sean Penn gave his thanks (see video above) to “you commie, homo-lovin’ sons of guns.” I wasn’t sure if he was addressing just the assembled Academy members (many of whom were showing their support for gay marriage by wearing white knot emblems on their lapels), the Hollywood community at large (which has been active in the effort to repeal California’s Proposition 8), or America. When I first saw Milk, right around the time California voters passed Prop. 8 and banned gay marriage in their state, I was depressed at how little had changed in the 30 years since Harvey Milk won his uphill battle against another anti-gay California initiative, as depicted triumphantly in the movie. But after months of belated anti-Prop. 8 backlash, coupled with lavish (and deserved) critical praise for Milk (and Penn’s performance in particular) and a relative lack of complaint from the usual suspects about the film’s gay-rights politics, I’m thinking that maybe this really is a different America from 1978. Hell, it’s even a different America from 1996, when the openly homophobic Braveheart won Best Picture, and Academy voters still thought Tom Hanks was unimaginably brave for playing a gay man with AIDS a couple years before in Philadelphia. Back then, no one dared greenlight a mainstream Hollywood movie about Harvey Milk (though many tried to develop such a film and failed). Since then, however, Ellen DeGeneres has become a fixture in daytime TV, Will & Grace (and its syndicated reruns) became ubiquitous, and no-big-deal gay couples have popped up everywhere in both popular culture and many people’s real-life families.
The Academy voters may have rewarded Milk because they admire screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, director Gus Van Sant, and Penn for successfully bringing a story once thought unfilmable to the screen, or they may have done so because they agree with the film’s politics (sorry, Mickey Rourke, but sometimes that trumps even a great comeback story like yours; at least you got to make that extravagant acceptance speech the night before at the Independent Spirit Awards). Or they may have done so strictly on merit (Black did write a terrific screenplay, the most exuberant and joyful script about the political process since The West Wing went off the air, and Penn really did transform himself as never before to inhabit the role). But I think the Academy also figured America was ready, not just for Milk, but also for Jackman sitting in Frank Langella’s lap and for at least a fleeting glimpse of Penn kissing James Franco. America may not be ready to legalize gay marriage in all 50 states yet, but we’re getting there, one serving of Milk at a time. We’re a nation of commie, homo-lovin’ sons of guns — or we will be, soon.