Joy in the Castro as Penn wins Oscar for 'Milk'

23 Feb 2009

By: Tyche Hendricks, Chronicle Staff Writer, with contributions from Carolyne Zinko and Charles Burress

Hundreds of people who watched the Academy Awards from San Francisco's Castro Theatre on Sunday night gave polite applause to "Slumdog Millionaire" - which won best picture and seven other awards - but roared with foot-stomping standing ovations for "Milk" when it took the prizes for best original screenplay and best actor.

"You commie, homo-loving sons of guns," Sean Penn told the academy upon accepting the best actor award for his portrayal of the slain San Francisco Supervisor and gay rights leader Harvey Milk. "I did not expect this, and I want it to be very clear that I do know how hard I make it to appreciate me often."

Penn acknowledged the presence of anti-gay demonstrators outside the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles and said: "I think it's a good time for those who voted for the ban against gay marriage to sit and reflect on their great shame and their shame in their grandchildren's eyes if they continue that support. We've got to have equal rights for everyone."

The Castro Theatre crowd was thrilled by Penn's remarks and his award.

"It's wonderful," said the film's location manager, Jonathan Shedd. "The beauty of these awards is that it gives the movie more legs."

Shedd was among numerous "Milk" crew members at the Castro who drank champagne and basked in the Oscar excitement. They were especially proud that gay activist Dustin Lance Black received the award for best original screenplay.

"Harvey's message was one of hope and love and equality," said Matthew Riutta, assistant location manager for the film, which was nominated for eight Oscars. "It's a wonderful thing that Lance's word is going out into the world."

The crowd applauded when Black, in accepting his award, described learning about Milk as a 13-year-old.

"It gave me the hope to live my life openly as who I am," he said in his acceptance speech.

The San Francisco event took on a special importance and poignance in the landmark movie house that anchors the Castro district and sits just a block from where Milk and his partner, Scott Smith, ran a camera store in the 1970s. Castro Camera became a hive of gay political organizing and a launching pad for Milk's grassroots electoral campaigns, which were dramatized in the film.

Penn's award was greeted with a roar of approval also at a fundraiser attended by 2,700 people at Fort Mason for Academy of Friends, which supports HIV/AIDS service organizations.

"It's amazing to see somebody like him win an award for a gay character role," said Harshal Sanghavi, a Yahoo visual designer attending the fundraiser. "The institution, the Academy Awards, never stands for them. It's a stamp of acceptance from the academy."

At the Castro, the assistant art director for "Milk," Susie Alegria, said, "It's pretty exciting to be here tonight watching everyone who feels so strongly about his message." Alegria was in charge of the film's Castro Street location and spent months researching at the GLBT Historical Society to ensure the accuracy of the storefronts in the film.

"This evening means a lot to me," said Bill Longen, the theater's events coordinator who organized the Oscar-viewing party and who, as a customer of Castro Camera, knew Milk. "But it means more to the community because of 'Milk,' " he said. "Harvey was the Obama of gay politicians. He had a message of hope. This is a very important film to everybody in the community, gay and straight alike."

Black's screenplay award was especially sweet for Dan Nicoletta, a San Francisco photographer who came of age at Milk's camera store and advised Black as the script developed.

"Harvey and Scott were like my gay parents," he said. "I was 19 1/2 when I moved to the city, and to be asked to work at Castro Camera, which was a budding hub of creativity, was like a dream come true."

Milk first registered Nicoletta to vote and planted the seed of his long-time activism for LGBT civil rights, he said.

"I've worked on hundreds of projects about Harvey's life, but there's something magical about a feature drama," said Nicoletta. "It has a bigger scope, a longer shelf life. And it will be a great tool for education for a long time."

Others in the audience had no personal connection to Harvey Milk or the film, but they were enjoying the moment no less.

Maria Krogshede, 24, one of three Danish exchange students at San Francisco State University attending the screening in satin ball gowns, said, "It feels so much more special to watch and cheer for the movie in this theater with these people because it means so much to them."

Merrill Deskins, 64, a Castro district resident, said that the film, which opens with archival footage of men being arrested simply for patronizing gay bars, is a reminder of the bigotry and violence gay and lesbian people suffered just a few decades ago.

"Things are much better today, but the film came out at a great time in relation to Prop. 8," he said, referring to the successful state ballot measure banning gay marriage. "There's a lot of work still to be done, and it takes people standing up and fighting for it," he said.

Article taken from The San Fransisco Chronicle