Watching Gus Van Sant's moving new film, Milk, I was shocked to see a tiny piece of my own personal history -- the face of a person whose very name had embedded itself in my life more than 30 years ago -- appear on the screen, along with Sean Penn and the rest of the terrific cast.
There she was: Anita Bryant, speaking out about "the homosexual agenda." Back in 1977, Anita Bryant was hugely controversial -- so controversial that she wound up costing me my job as a critic at a newspaper in the so-called "New South." More about that in a minute.
Seeing Anita Bryant pop up in the movie shouldn't have been that much of a surprise. In his intriguing biopic, Van Sant mixes archival footage of the 1970s, when the late gay politician Harvey Milk made his name, with dramatized scenes that Van Sant created.
I guess I'd forgotten just how widespread the anti-gay-rights movement became in 1977, when Bryant was at the peak of her power, such as it was. Nor did I recall the 1977 battle against Proposition 6 in California. That referendum would have made it legal to fire schoolteachers for being homosexual (and to fire anyone who supported them).
Prop 6 failed overwhelmingly, a sad reminder of the similarly intolerant Proposition 8 that did pass in California on Nov. 4, rendering gay marriage illegal.
These days, Anita Bryant is an answer to a trivia question: Who was the pop-singing former Miss Oklahoma and spokesman for the orange-juice industry who became an outspoken opponent of gay rights?
And even in 1977, when our paths crossed, she was a joke already: a pop-star from the pre-Beatles era whose music seemed unutterably square. Hey -- she was doing commercials for orange juice! That seemed like as low as you could fall: "A day without orange juice is like a day without sunshine!" Then she hopped on the homophobia bandwagon and rode it back into the spotlight.
In 1977, I was a one-man entertainment staff for the Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger, covering everything that came to town: movies, theater, rock'n'roll, country music, black music (of which there was a rich and steady parade), even classical music.
In October, the Mississippi State Fair came to town, with a week of evening concerts by a variety of performers at the Mississippi Coliseum. The opening performer was Anita Bryant.
The booking caused a stir because, earlier that year, Bryant had led the charge against a regulation passed in Dade County, Fla., where she lived. The law prohibited discrimination in housing and employment based on sexual preference. In other words, it mandated the same civil rights for gay people that had been afforded African-Americans by civil rights legislation in the mid-1960s.
The newspaper itself was a strange place to be. I was hired in May 1977 by a managing editor named Don Farrell. As I heard it, Farrell had been brought in from the University of Missouri to drag the C-L out of Civil War era and into the 1970s. His solution was to hire a crew of reporters and editors in their 20s and 30s and give them a mandate to shake things up, with investigative reporting and sharp-eyed coverage of local government that had been casually, ineluctably corrupt for centuries. We also wrote sympathetically about black people -- something the paper had never been accused of in the past.
I never learned just whose idea it was to try to modernize the C-L, although it apparently belonged to the paper's executive editor Rea Hederman, then in his early 30s and a scion of the family that owned the newspaper. But it seemed that Farrell had been sold a bill of goods. He seemed to be at odds with the newspaper's publisher-owners from the moment I got there until he quit a few months later.
The owners were a family named Hederman, who apparently had run the newspaper since Reconstruction -- and who ran it like a plantation. Their newspaper had been an outspoken opponent of the civil-rights movement; the Hedermans resisted every change or innovation that Farrell wanted to implement.
In retrospect, my naivete was huge as I moved to Jackson. I was convinced I was part of a movement to change the Old South to that burgeoning New South that the media had heralded with the election of Jimmy Carter as president the year before. Change, it seemed, was as simple as turning a corner.
You have to understand the time as I saw it. At that point, we were barely three years removed from Watergate -- the journalist's crusade to retrieve the Holy Grail (the truth) that resulted in Nixon's resignation. As a young journalist, I felt like there'd been a seismic shift in the nation's consciousness. In fact, it was a brief hiccup - and what I didn't recognize was that, if mine was in fact a majority view (certainly not the case in Mississippi), the minority was nearly as large as the majority and not at all ready to concede our victory.
So there I was: young, Jewish, Yankee, liberal -- radical by standards of Jackson, Miss., in 1977. I was a mere four years out of a college experience that included the most heated anti-war movement of the century. I wouldn't say I was spoiling for a fight, but I certainly did love to provoke. And I thought that was my mission in Jackson.
I felt invulnerable with the power of youth and self-righteousness. But, as I learned, the fact that I was free to express my opinion didn't mean I had the wisdom to do so. I failed to recognize how strong the current was that I was trying to swim against - not even when it was slapping me in the face.
I should have taken a hint from an incident a few months before the Anita Bryant concert. I reviewed a concert at the Mississippi Coliseum by Donny and Marie Osmond, who were hosts of a weekly network TV variety show at that time. Not my cup of tea, to be sure, and I gleefully said so in my review. I believe I accused them of creating music that could cause diabetes in the listener. I went so far as to say that, were I the parent of small children, I would rather my kids watch the most violent, sex-laden movies available than expose them to the sappy sweetness of Donny and Marie.
The day the review appeared, I was overwhelmed by a wave of phone calls from angry readers. This was followed by a flood of letters to the editor. The Sunday paper ran literally a full page of angry missives.
But I didn't feel as though my job was in jeopardy because my editors - also young, Yankee and liberal -- just chuckled and marveled at my ability to poke a hornet's nest so blithely. And that was the end of it.
So when I set off to see Anita Bryant at the Mississippi State Fair in October 1977, I had no way of knowing that I was about to write a review that would cost me my job and change my life.
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