If Sean Penn wins his second Oscar next February, he'll have a young, unknown screenwriter to thank for it. In Milk, directed by Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting), Penn plays gay civil rights revolutionary Harvey Milk, a charismatic San Francisco politician assassinated 30 years ago this week. ''If there's a gay Martin Luther King, it's probably Harvey Milk,'' Van Sant says. ''When something important was happening, whether it was a street fair or a fight with the cops, Harvey was always there the guy in front.''
It's a hell of a part, in other words, the kind that actors search for their entire careers. And yet no one in Hollywood had been able to get a movie about Milk off the ground for more than a decade. Not Oliver Stone. Not Bryan Singer. Not even Van Sant himself. Then Dustin Lance Black, a 34-year-old ex-Mormon, a neophyte writer on the periphery of the film industry, decided to take it on. ''I was tired of waiting for someone else to bring Harvey's story back to life,'' Black said at a tribute dinner for the activist last summer. ''The studios wouldn't listen to me, so I set out to do it independently.''
Thanks to Brokeback Mountain, gay-focused films don't face the same uphill climb at the cineplex that they used to, but a movie about Harvey Milk is still a tough sell. He's political. Sexual. Confrontational. And until recently, he was cinematic kryptonite. In 1991, producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron (Hairspray) had bought the rights to the acclaimed book about Milk, The Mayor of Castro Street, and had set the project up at Warner Bros. It remained in development there for 16 years, through five directors, the arrival (and departure) of star Robin Williams, and an endless stream of screenplays. ''The studio was afraid of everything that had to do with Harvey Milk,'' says David Franzoni (Gladiator), who wrote one of those early scripts for Oliver Stone, back when Warner was under different leadership. ''They didn't want to go out there with a big expensive movie about a gay politician.''
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