And the Winner Is ... Milk

By Greg Fieser

Originally published on Advocate.com January 13 2009 12:00 AM ET

Stanley Kramer
was the renowned director and producer of such great films
as Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Judgment at
Nuremberg, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,

and Inherit the Wind. He was also a great instigator
of social change and a champion for social consciousness.

Stanley passed
away in 2001, and his widow, Karen Kramer, a woman of
equally formidable intelligence and heart, keeps his legacy
alive by each year choosing the film to receive
the Stanley Kramer Award of the Producers Guild of
America. The qualities she looks for are simple -- the
recipient should be a film that embodies the strength,
compassion and social awareness that is
Stanley’s legacy.

This year Karen
Kramer has chosen Milk, the biopic about the
late gay San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk. In
this very busy awards season, Karen sat down with
Advocate.com to talk about Milk and why
selecting the film to receive the Stanley Kramer Award
was something of a no-brainer.

Advocate.com:Tell me about the Stanley Kramer Award and why
it’s so important.
Karen Kramer: I started the Stanley Kramer
Award in 2000 to celebrate films that promote social
consciousness. In the first year there really was no
one to give it to. It’s an area of film that
needs to be highlighted, but it’s not always an easy
job to find any that fit into that category.
Everything is so depressing these days. None of the
big films out right now are very uplifting. It’s a
sign of the times -- a reflection of
what’s going on. Maybe if we made more films
with a conscience and a happy ending more people would be
happy.

Why did you choose Milk to receive this award this year?Milk was the obvious choice for me. It was my
choice for the award even from just seeing the documentary
[The Times of Harvey Milk]. Of course, I saw all
the other films this year, but nothing was as worthy as Milk.

Why is this film so powerful?Milk dealt with Prop. 6 [a ballot measure that
sought to bar gay people from teaching in California
schools], but essentially it was talking about Prop. 8
[the state's anti-gay-marriage initiative]. It
epitomizes Stanley’s dedication to change. Stanley
fought for civil rights starting all the way back in
1947, and he would have definitely fought for gay
rights. This is a film Stanley would have made.
Milk needs to get recognized because of Prop.
8. The vote didn’t turn out the way we wanted. It
needs awards and it needs to be talked about -- now
more than ever. 

 Guess Who's Coming to Dinner still x390 (publicity) | Advocate.com

Why do you think the vote didn’t turn out the way
we wanted?
I think people were confused by the wording. I
think the whole thing was designed to confuse and
separate people.

Do you think that was intentional? Possibly. We always have problems when
Republicans are in office. It’s their way.

I’ve heard that you liken Milk to Stanley
Kramer’s very controversial and socially
altering Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.
Oh yes. When Guess Who’s Coming to
Dinner
was made, interracial marriage was still
illegal in 16 states. No one wanted to make that film.
People were scared of it. Our lives were threatened
[because of it]. But we knew it had to be made. It was the
issue of our times, and I truly believe that it helped
soften the blow that Americans were feeling around
interracial marriage. Fortunately, by the time it was
released, [a U.S. Supreme Court decision had come down]
legalizing interracial marriage in all the states.
Still the studio tried to hide it. We only opened in
one little theater in Westwood. But you know what?
When it opened, there was a line 15 blocks long just to get
into that one theater. People wanted to see it. They
needed to see it. You have to fight for change. It
doesn’t come easy. People are resistant to change.
But I’m a fighter. I’m a Kramer. That’s
what we do. I stand up because if you don’t,
things happen that you don’t want to happen. I
couldn’t be married to Stanley for 35 years if
I wasn’t like that.

Did you run into opposition when you chose
Milk for the award?
Yes, but I never wavered. People have told me
for years, “I’ll do your next film if
you give me the award,” but I can’t be bought.
The film has to be worthy. You know, Stanley was the
first person to break the blacklist. In 1957 he made
The Defiant Ones and hired two blacklist
writers and used their real names. At the time the
poor blacklisted writers were working under aliases for
practically nothing, but Stanley paid those two more
money than anybody had been paid in 17 years. He put
them in an office right next to him. He even hired
them as actors. And when the credits rolled, he put their
names right under their faces as if to say “not
on my watch, you don’t.” That’s the
kind of man he was, and that’s the kind of spirit
this award has to carry.

SEAN PENN AS HARVEY MILK X390 (FOCUS) | ADVOCATE.COM 

Do you think Milk has that kind of influence? Absolutely. I wouldn’t have picked it if
it hadn’t. When people saw Guess Who’s
Coming to Dinner,
it affected them -- it
changed their minds about the things they were thinking. I
pray that Milk has the same power. I’m
working hard to make it so. We release the name of the award
winner very early because we want to create a buzz. We
want to bring awareness to not only a great movie, but
a great cause as well.

You have a great enthusiasm for what you do. In this business there is no sure deal. We do it
because we’re hooked on it. We’re all
masochistic. Anyone will tell you that if you can do
something else you should. In showbiz, most of the time
you're unemployed. The rest of the time you’re
either trying to get money to make something or
you’re defending what you’ve already made.
I’m not in this to make money. I want to know
that when it’s all over, I’ve made some
change -- change in the world. What good is doing
something just for yourself? It’s got to effect
change in the world.

Do you think Stanley would be proud of Milk
and the changes it’s bringing about?
The quote that best describes Stanley comes from
his movie Judgment at Nuremberg. One of the judges
says, “This is what we stand for: justice,
truth, and the value of a single human being.”
That sums him up.

Sounds like something Harvey Milk would have said. That it does. That it does.