Milk, Gus van Sant’s new movie about assassinated San Francisco gay activist Harvey Milk, features former Chicago actor Denis O’Hare in a key role. O’Hare, a Northwestern University grad, gained prominence here in the 1980s for his performances in two plays presented at the now-defunct Stormfield Theatre: Never the Sinner, a dramatization of the Leopold-Loeb murder case, and Hauptmann, in which O’Hare starred as Bruno Hauptmann, the man convicted of kidnapping the Lindbergh baby. (Both were written by John Logan, now a Hollywood screenwriter-producer whose credits include Gladiator, The Aviator, and Sweeney Todd.) O’Hare also appeared in productions at the Goodman, Victory Gardens, and Court theaters before heading off to New York, where he won a best-actor Tony for Take Me Out and also appeared in noted revivals of Cabaret, Assassins, and Sweet Charity.
In Milk–whose release this month coincides with the 30th anniversary of Milk’s death–O’Hare plays antigay California politician John Briggs. Several key scenes in the movie find O’Hare facing off against Sean Penn, who plays Milk. Briggs sponsored the infamous Proposition 6, a 1978 ballot initiative restricting homosexuals from teaching in public schools. Leading the successful battle against Prop 6 helped make a national celebrity of Milk. The film’s handling of Prop 6 is especially timely in light of the current protests against Proposition 8, the ballot initiative passed earlier this month that bans same-sex marriage in California.
Another erstwhile Chicago performer in the film is Shaun Landry, who plays Democratic activist Gwen Craig. An alum of Dunbar Vocational Career Academy and Columbia College, Landry founded the pioneering comedy group Oui Be Negroes, which she claims is “the original African-American impro/sketch comedy theater company in the United States.” (The troupe’s revues here in the 1990s included Absolute Negritude and One Drop Is All It Takes.) She also appeared with the Geese Theatre, a Chicago-based ensemble that traveled to prisons, leading theater workshops and creating original performance pieces with inmates. I wrote about the group for the Reader in 1988.