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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Even in liberal Hollywood, an openly gay actor with a marketable name is a hard commodity to find, and if anyone should know, it is the filmmakers behind new movie, "Milk."
Fortunately for them they had Sean Penn, the very straight Oscar winner who has loyal fans and seems able to play any role in front of him, including San Francisco's gay politician Harvey Milk who was murdered on the job in November, 1978.
"He came in kind of ready made" for the role, director Gus Van Sant told Reuters about winner of the best actor Academy Award for playing a hardened ex-convict in 2003's "Mystic River."
In real life, Penn has maintained a tough guy image ever since getting into scrapes with the paparazzi early in his career. Yet in the movies, he has shown wide versatility, whether playing a mentally retarded man in "I Am Sam," a jazz guitarist in "Sweet and Lowdown" or a death row inmate in "Dead Man Walking" -- all which earned him Oscar nominations.
Harvey Milk may be his best role yet, many critics say. Writing for USA Today, reviewer Claudia Puig called Penn's performance "magnificent, career-topping" and Kenneth Turan, in a generally mixed review of the overall film, called Penn's performance "strong and convincing."
In recent years, several A-list actresses have come out of the closet as lesbians, including Ellen DeGeneres and Rosie O'Donnell. But it has been a rare event for gay men. Perhaps the highest profile actor to do so was TV star Neil Patrick Harris.
"It was hard to find gay actors who were out," said openly gay director Van Sant. "There really aren't (many). You could do it, but they would be unknowns and that would be fine with me, but the money (financiers) would start to get nervous."
The fact that Penn and his co-stars -- James Franco, Emile Hirsch and Diego Luna -- could feel comfortable playing gay roles, coupled with how small the pool of marketable gay actors truly is, shows at least one thing: times have changed in Hollywood for gay men but they have also stayed the same.
In watching "Milk" amid the current U.S. political battles over gay marriage, audiences can't help but ponder progress on gay rights because in looking at Harvey Milk, writer Dustin Lance Black has chosen as a backdrop the politician's battle against California's Proposition 6, which would have banned gay teachers in public schools in 1978.
In this past election cycle, the state's voters approved a proposition banning gay marriage and since the November 4 balloting, gays have taken to the streets to protest what they see as an assault on their civil rights.
What would Milk have done in the same position? "He'd be right there on the streets with the marchers," Van Sant said.
"Milk" picks up on the politician's life after he moves from New York to California, and it focuses almost exclusively on Milk's political involvement in San Francisco.
Milk lost several early campaigns but finally was elected to the city's Board of Supervisors, becoming the first openly gay man to hold a major public office in the United States.
By using broadcast film footage of the 1970s gay rights battles, Van Sant offers not just a portrait of a man, but a look at the times and the city, too.
After numerous false starts over more than a dozen years, "Milk" finally was made when marketable stars like Penn got involved. Also pivotal was the financial success of 2005 gay romance "Brokeback Mountain," which raked in more than $175 million worldwide by winning fans among mainstream moviegoers.
A key factor for the success of "Milk" will be whether it, too, can cross over from strictly gay fans to the mainstream.
"I think it will," said Neil Giuliano, president of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). "The culture has clearly changed with regard to acceptance and visibility of gay people. Having said that, our public policy has changed not as much as we would have liked it to."
Editing by Dan Whitcomb