Pioneering Gay Oscar Winner Offers Sam Smith a History Lesson (Guest Column)

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Rob Epstein

Rob Epstein, who won the documentary feature Oscar for 'The Times of Harvey Milk' in 1985, says "facts and history matter."

The long road to freedom is so easily forgotten. That was a crack a friend made while watching Sam Smith claim to be the first openly gay person to win an Oscar. By now the blogosphere has made hay of Mr. Smith’s misinformed statement. But the corrections, including blogs published by The New York Times and The Hollywood Reporter, have not adequately addressed the specific claim.

Thirty-one years ago at the 57th Academy Awards in 1985, I won the Oscar for best documentary feature for The Times of Harvey Milk.  My filmmaking partner and co-winner, Richard Schmiechen, and I knew that if we were to win, this would be a first. No other gay-themed film, made by openly gay filmmakers, had ever received this acknowledgement. We would have to make the most of our moment before an international television audience.

Before the ceremony, in my hotel room, we prepared our remarks and decided how to allocate our allotted 45 seconds. I wrote my speech on a Beverly Hilton cocktail napkin, thanking “my partner in life, John Wright, for his love and support over the six years it took to make this movie.”  At the time, same-sex partners were called “lovers,” but I knew that if I said that word on television, the greater public wouldn’t fully understand the nature of our commitment. So I coined the phrase “my partner in life” to more accurately describe the totality of our relationship.  

When we did win, not only was this a thrill of a lifetime, it was indeed historic. On stage, Richard, with his usual grace and poise, thanked “Harvey Milk for his courage, his pride in being gay, and his hope that one day we will all live together in a world of mutual respect.” That night after the Governors Ball, in our hired limo, the middle-aged male driver powered down the window dividing the front and back seats. “This is my partner, Jim,” the driver said.  “We’ve been together for 25 years. And this is one of the happiest nights of our lives.” They popped open a bottle of champagne, and we all toasted the historic occasion. To this day, the moment with the two limo drivers is my most vivid memory from that incredible night.

Making any independent film is difficult and each project has its own unique obstacles. When seeking financial backing for The Times of Harvey Milk,  one network turned us down because they were not interested in funding a “milk farm” project. Having no idea who Harvey Milk was, they assumed the project to be about a dairy farm. Four years later, during the AIDS tsunami, Jeffrey Friedman, Bill Couturie and I made Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt, which also won the best documentary feature Oscar. When we were pitching that project, one television executive asked rhetorically, “Why would anyone want to see a film about a bunch of gay guys in San Francisco crying about their dead lovers?”

With presidential candidates who regard truth, fact, and history as mere annoyances, we must be ever vigilant. I congratulate Sam Smith and Dustin Lance Black for taking their moments in the 45-second spotlight to acknowledge a community that has fought long and hard to have our very existence recognized. But, please, do your homework. The New York Times and The Hollywood Reporter should as well. Facts and history matter.

Filmmaker Rob Epstein, a two-time Oscar winner and former member of the Academy's Board of Governors, has directed such films as the 1995 documentary The Celluloid Closet, the 2010 dramatic feature Howl and the 2014 documentary And the Oscar Goes To...

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