Rebel with a cause

Text: Jörg Schiffauer Fotos:

Sean Penn has established himself as one of the most exciting artists Hollywood has to offer nowadays. Approaching his 50th birthday, there is still plenty to expect from the charismatic and sometimes controversial actor/director.

Hollywood’s domination of world cinema has – at least in economic terms – undoubtedly taken a steady rise in recent years, with the record breaking success of James Cameron’s Avatar being the icing on the cake. But the global success of those blockbusters at the box office is primarily due to spectacular high-tech movies like Avatar or CGI-films like Shrek or Toy Story. This has made the Hollywood Majors stronger and put a smile on their shareholder’s faces, but it is also undeniable that American cinema is more and more missing it’s charismatic figures. In Hollywood’s Golden Age, directors like John Ford, John Huston, Frank Capra and Raoul Walsh, actors like James Stewart, Katharine Hepburn, James Cagney or Humphrey Bogart – just to name a few – were not only key figures in artistic terms, they also were distinct representatives of US cinema. In the Sixties, New Hollywood took over, and a plethora of young, ambitious and highly talented artists gave American cinema a rather new face. Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and the late Dennis Hopper were the names every movie buff would easily associate with the new American picture show. Nowadays, it has become much tougher to depict such influential figures. Although still able to deliver decent works, the key personnel of New Hollywood no longer have a deep impact on American cinema. It may be telling that 80- year-old Clint Eastwood – undoubtedly an icon of popular American culture – has in recent years been recognized as one of the most advanced US filmmakers who continues to succeed with his very own style.

A distinct personal style which never adapts to a certain zeitgeist is also characteristic to Sean Penn’s work as a director and an actor – a quality which makes Penn, who will turn fifty soon, one of the few true charismatic figures in current US filmmaking.

Family ties

Born August 17, 1960, in Santa Monica, California, Sean Penn’s decision to become an actor was an almost logical choice regarding his background: His father Leo Penn was an actor and a highly successful director of TV Series like ”Matlock“, ”Kojak“ or “Magnum P. I.”, his mother Eileen Ryan was also an actress (his brother Chris, who tragically passed away in 2006 was a successful actor as well). After completing High School, Penn attended some acting classes before he was hired for a brief stint on Broadway. It didn’t take long before Hollywood took notice of the talented young man. In 1981, Sean Penn did his first feature film Taps: He played a cadet of a military academy who fights against the closure of the school. Although a rather conventional drama, Taps featured a handful of promising young actors like Timothy Hutton and Tom Cruise. After his next film, a larger audience was already familiar with Sean Penn. Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) was one of those typical High School comedies but Penn’s performance as the fast talking surfer dude Jeff Spicoli was a conspicuous effort in an otherwise not more than entertaining movie. It would have been easy for Sean Penn to embark on a career in that particular comedy genre and become a favorite of a juvenile audience but Penn obviously was not keen on becoming an actor restricted to stereotyped characters. Therefore he opted for the leading part in the drama Bad Boys (1983) in which he played a troubled young man who voluntarily goes to juvenile prison to take revenge on a fellow inmate for the death of his younger brother. Once again, Penn gave proof of his enormous potential but with its grim realism and violence Bad Boys was hardly the kind of movie to please a mainstream audience. Meanwhile Penn’s talent was widely recognized; renowned director John Schlesinger cast him for one of the leading roles in The Falcon and the Snowman (1985). Based on a true story, the film is about a young man (Timothy Hutton) who – for purely idealistic reasons – sells top secret information to the Soviet Union. Penn plays his best friend, a charming guy but a notorious braggart who deals cocaine and gets involved in espionage only for money and the thrill of it. His portrayal of the cheap crook was exactly the kind of intense performance of a meticulously prepared actor that has become Sean Penn’s trademark over the years. This was kind of a breakthrough performance which finally established Penn as one of Hollywood’s most exciting young actors, a status he easily confirmed with his effort in James Foley’s At Close Range (1986).

Hollywood outsider

Although undoubtedly one of the most gifted actors of his generation, Sean Penn never got comfortable with a publicly discussed lifestyle which Hollywood demands from its stars. Penn’s efforts to keep his private life mainly to himself came to an end when he married Madonna in 1985. The relationship with the singer, who has always maintained maximum effort to draw the attention of the media to herself, brought Sean Penn into the limelight of the yellow press. It was a situation he obviously didn’t handle in decent way. His frequent violent conflicts with paparazzi which occurred at that time contributed to the bad boy image Penn is associated with up to this day. His appearance in the low-key comedy Shanghai Surprise – where he starred together with Madonna – was one of the few artistic failures of his career. It was a frantic, tumultuous relationship which came to an end in 1989, when the couple got divorced. But the trouble with the yellow press did not impede Penn’s work as an actor. His performance as a police officer who fights the infamous gangs Bloods and Crips in Dennis Hooper’s highly acclaimed Colors (1988) was another milestone in his career. In the same year, he also took a supporting role in the courtroom drama Judgement in Berlin, directed by his father Leo. Never afraid to confront the audience with new and unexpected facets of his acting, Penn didn’t hesitate to accept a part in Brian De Palma’s Vietnam drama Casualties of War (1989) where he played an Army Sergeant who rapes and murders a female villager.

Although Penn was a much sought-after actor at that point of his career he remained critical of Hollywood’s celebrities and the mechanisms of Tinseltown. Just acting wouldn’t do for him, so Sean Penn turned his attention to directing. His first film The Indian Runner (1991) dealt with two brothers, whose very different views on life lead them into a serious conflict and received very good reviews. Penn’s non-compromising work style had already earned him much respect among Hollywood’s community, so it was no surprise that he could gather well-known actors for his debut film, although The Indian Runner was a low budget project. The main characters were played by Viggo Mortensen and David Morse, the supporting cast included Dennis Hopper, Patricia Arquette and – in a rather uncommon appearance – Charles Bronson. But Penn’s reputation as an exciting artist was not restricted to the film industry: When Indian Runner premiered at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival in the Un Certain Regard section, celebrities like David Bowie, Mick Jagger and Keith Rich- ards showed up to watch Penn’s directorial debut.

Never compromise

In the Nineties, Sean Penn put up a string of remarkable performances, which once again proved his versatility as an actor and established him as one of the great names in American Cinema. In Brian De Palma’s Carlito’s Way (1993) he convinced the audience as a devious lawyer, in the Dead Man Walking (1995) he portrayed a convicted murderer on death row, a performance which earned him his first Oscar nomination as best leading actor. But once again, Sean Penn showed that he was not intent to play by Hollywood’s rules – he refused to attend the ceremony to demonstrate his dislike of the film industry’s customs. Nevertheless, in the years to follow a great number of the United States’ most significant filmmakers were eager to work with Penn. He collaborated with Oliver Stone (U- Turn, 1997), David Fincher (The Game, 1997), Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line, 1998) Woody Allen (Sweet and Lowdown, 1997, for which he was again nominated for an Oscar) and Clint Eastwood (Mystic River, 2003). His part in Mystic River gained him yet another Oscar nomination, and Eastwood convinced him to show up at the ceremony – where Sean Penn received his first Academy Award. It seemed that Penn had come to terms with the Hollywood establishment without having had to compromise.

Like many people in Hollywood, Sean Penn expresses thoroughly liberal views; he has supported several political and social issues and offered harsh criticism on George W. Bush’s policy, especially about the war in Iraq. But he also had rather unconventional ways to demonstrate his political views when he took up an assignment as journalist for the “San Francisco Chronicle” to visit Iran and report his views of the country.

Penn’s critical view on American society was also reflected in his work: In The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004) – based on a true story – he portrays a man who unsuccessfully tries to obtain his share of the American Dream. As he fails in his private life as well as in his career, he begins to lose his grip on reality and sets up a bizarre plot to kill Richard Nixon. All the King’s Men (Steven Zaillian, 2006) was an explicit criticism of the way the political system is used to work. Penn plays Willie Stark – a character who is linked to former Louisiana Governor Huey P. Long – who runs for governor with an idealistic approach but becomes corrupted by the system sooner than later. Although the film was no success at the box office,Penn’s portray of an idealist who turns into a ruthless opportunist still remains as one of his finest efforts. In Milk (Gus Van Sant, 2008) Penn starred as the gay rights activist and politician Harvey Milk, who was assassinated in office, another great effort which earned him his second Oscar. While Penn has proved again and again that he is one of Hollywood’s most versatile actors who – even in rather run-of-the-mill movies like The Interpreter (2005) – always transforms his parts into round characters instead of presenting stereotypes, his work as a director established him as one of the true film auteurs of US cinema. Always picking and choosing his projects very carefully, he completed his second film, the revenge drama The Crossing Guard (1995) – starring Jack Nicholson, Anjelica Huston and Robin Wright, whom he married in 1996.

His third film, The Pledge (2001), was a bleak, disturbing adaption of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s novel. Penn focuses on the effects of the hunt for a serial killer, which becomes a journey of self-destructive obsession for the protagonist (Jack Nicholson, again). His latest work as a director has become probably the most emblematic one. Into the Wild (2007) is based on the non-fiction book by Jon Krakauer about the life of Christopher McCandless (played by Emile Hirsch), a brilliant college graduate who rejected a materialistic life style and, as a consequence, gave up his sheltered life completely. He travelled across the United States, strongly insisting on being self-sufficient and not being corrupted by modern civilization. McCandless thought he had found his right place in a remote region in Alaska but his attempt to live in perfect harmony with unspoiled nature took a dramatic and unexpected turn – he had to pay the ultimate price for his uncompromising attitude.

In some ways, this story may also reflect Sean Penn’s attitude towards his life and career: He has always maintained a clear cut course and stood up for his convictions as an artist - for better or worse. His résumé strongly indicates that much of his decisions were well made. As impressive Penn’s work as an actor and director already is, the best may yet be about to come. Clint Eastwood has directed his best films years way beyond his fiftieth birthday. If one dares to draw any conclusions from that, the future looks bright for Sean Penn.