Sean Penn

Mystic River & 21 Grams

In light of his two well-reviewed perfs in awards-season dramas, Oscar handicappers are talking about 2003 being “Sean Penn’s year.”

“He’s thoroughly professional and thoroughly devoted to the role once he makes up his mind that he likes it,” says Eastwood, who cast Penn in “Mystic River” after initially discussing with him another project still in development.

“Sean said to me, ‘This is a tough film for a father,’ ” Eastwood recalls. “And it is. But for an actor, it’s a good film because it has a lot of tough material and a lot of dramatic elements.”

Last Oscar-nommed for 2001’s “I Am Sam,” Penn is now drawing pre-noms buzz for both his work in Warner Bros.’ “Mystic” and a similarly gritty performance in Focus Features’ “21 Grams.” So Academy members and other kudo-season voters will have to measure one against the other — or simply nominate Penn for both pics.

In “Mystic River,” Penn plays Jimmy Markum of Boston, a former juvenile delinquent grown into a small-time mobster. When Markum’s daughter is murdered, circumstances conspire to reunite Penn’s character with former childhood pals played by Tim Robbins and Kevin Bacon.

All three “Mystic” thesps have drawn positive press notices. But Penn’s nuanced take on the film’s central tough guy has been particularly well-received.

In “21 Grams,” Penn is cast as college professor and heart transplant patient Paul Rivers. It’s a role offering the veteran actor an opportunity to run the gamut of human emotions, while also serving up dramatic physical transformations in the course of the film.

Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu considered Penn for a couple different parts in the pic but ultimately cast the actor best-known for playing more hard-bitten characters in the less obvious part.

“I ultimately thought, ‘Let’s go against the obvious and let him play the opposite of what people might expect,’ ” Gonzalez says.

“Mystic” and “Grams” bookended the New York Film Festival, where Penn expressed satisfaction with being a part of two distinct approaches to filmmaking.

“As an actor in American movies, it’s such an encouraging thing for me to work with two great directors who have such different DNA,” he said.

Penn was named the year’s best actor by the National Board of Review on the basis of his perfs in both “Mystic River” and “21 Grams.” He next toplines a recently wrapped drama “The Assassination of Richard Nixon,” in which he again plays opposite “Grams” co-star Naomi Watts.

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