- The Washington Times - Friday, January 16, 2009

Hollywood is in the high phase of a new era of social-problem movies.

In the tradition of racial melodramas such as “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “12 Angry Men” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” film-industry elites have fashioned what might be called the gay prestige movie.

Movies with gay themes are accorded immediate cachet, if not the quasideified status of films about the Holocaust.

Harvey Milk, the subject of director Gus Van Sant’s biopic about the slain San Francisco politician and gay rights activist, is an object of saintly, Selma-like veneration - indeed, a martyr to his cause.

The trouble is, at the same time that Hollywood toasts itself for forward thinking, some of its leading lights - including “Milk” star Sean Penn - are toasting (not for the first time) totalitarian leftists such as Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Fidel and Raul Castro.

This is akin to sawing off the branch on which you’re sitting.

Put simply, there can be no civil rights - for blacks, gays or any other humans - without the rule of law.

Significant social changes in America haven’t always been the result of legislative deliberation; rather, they sometimes have been provoked by novel judicial interpretations, street demonstrations, even violence.

Yet these are arguments within the democratic family, not outside or in opposition to it.

Looking back, the emergence of the gay prestige movie probably dates back to 1993’s “Philadelphia.” The film, which stars Tom Hanks as a lawyer fired by his firm because he has AIDS, eventually afforded the actor a platform to deliver an impassioned pro-gay acceptance speech at the Academy Awards ceremony.

However, the genre has gained serious, consistent traction only in recent years. “The Hours” (2002) was, foremost, a cri de coeur of feminism, but it also was a meditation on the fluidity of sexual identity.

The other big winner that year was the musical “Chicago.” Decidedly lighter fare than “The Hours,” “Chicago” nonetheless was a milestone, with an openly gay screenwriter (Bill Condon) and director (Rob Marshall) at its helm.

Mr. Condon went on to direct 2004’s “Kinsey,” a biopic about the late sex researcher Alfred Kinsey. Like “The Hours,” only more forthrightly, it asserted that human sexuality is a protean affair, acted out with morally neutral variety.

The following year brought Ang Lee’s celebrated “Brokeback Mountain,” an unconventional Western about an uncommonly rugged pair of outcasts from the heterosexual mainstream.

Mr. Lee won the best-director Oscar, but “Brokeback Mountain” failed to bring home trophies in other major categories - the result, some charged, of lingering homophobia among older Academy voters.

“Milk” seems poised this year to triumph where “Brokeback” was snubbed.

All of which makes Steven Soderbergh’s recent bloated hagiography “Che” and Mr. Penn’s blithering apologia for the Castro brothers and Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez - published in the Nation magazine - that much harder to digest.

Why do an intellectually benighted actor and one director’s infatuation with a dead Argentine revolutionary implicate Hollywood’s broader espousal of gay rights?

At the very least, we have a serious case of cognitive dissonance on our hands.

As Paul Berman, the New-Left-intellectual-turned-liberal-hawk, wrote of Mr. Guevara at the time of another filmic whitewash, “The Motorcycle Diaries,” (2004): “Che presided over the Cuban revolution’s first firing squads. He founded Cuba’s ‘labor camp’ system - the system that was eventually employed to incarcerate gays, dissidents, and AIDS victims.”

In a coruscating piece in the Advocate, journalist James Kirchick had this to say about Mr. Penn: “Gay rights are human rights, as Milk said, and Penn discredits both when he rationalizes illiberal ideologies as ‘anti-imperialist’ and rushes to the defense of thugs who posture as victims of the West. Penn’s ignoble political side projects taint a noble cause.”

Will anyone call Mr. Penn on his barefaced hypocrisy when, as is likely, he collects another Oscar?

Doubtful, to put it mildly.

The pity is that many in the audience have let anti-American pique intermingle with their opinions about social justice for so long that they’ll never notice the hole in their logic.

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