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A ‘River’ of dreams for Penn, Robbins

'Ben-Hur' last pic with male thesps taking both awards

In a demonstration that nuanced drama can hold its own against bigscreen spectacle, “Mystic River” won an impressive combo of Oscars with Sean Penn for best actor and Tim Robbins for supporting actor.

Not since 1960 when Charlton Heston and Hugh Griffith took the two actor trophies for “Ben-Hur” have the two male winners been from the same movie. And before that it happened only twice.

Though Clint Eastwood was shut out in picture and director categories for “Mystic River,” the acting victories reflected both his iconic stature and the widespread critical acclaim for the film and its subtle evocation of the themes of violence and mistrust.

“I really thank Clint Eastwood, professionally and humanly, for coming into my life,” Penn proclaimed during his acceptance speech.

Penn’s win for his wrenching portrayal of a bereaved, vengeful father was his first in four noms following “I Am Sam,” “Dead Man Walking” and “Sweet and Lowdown.”

Oscar pundits believed Penn received an extra boost with his gritty work in last fall’s “21 Grams.”

Penn also may have helped his chances by proclaiming his affection for Eastwood during Oscar season, turning up at Hollywood events and pledging to attend the Academy Awards after skipping for his previous Oscar noms and no-showing at this year’s Golden Globes.

Almost an upset

Penn’s win was not viewed as a slam-dunk, due to the strong sentiment for Bill Murray in “Lost in Translation” and Johnny Depp for “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.”

In his acceptance speech, Penn made only one passing reference to politics, saying, “There’s only one thing actors know – other than that there weren’t any WMDs – is that there is no such thing as best in acting.”

However, Robbins was considered close to a lock for supporting actor on “Mystic River” due to his low-key, enigmatic portrayal of a victim of violence. Robbins also had attempted to soothe those Acad members worried about his antiwar stance by promising he would exclude politics from any acceptance remarks.

Instead, Robbinse concluded his acceptance speech by urging the victims of abuse and violence to seek help.

“If you are out there and you are a person who has had that tragedy befall you, there is no shame or weakness in seeking help and counseling,” he said. “It is sometimes the strongest thing that you can do to stop the cycle of violence.”

Had Robbins not won — and the most likely candidates would have been Alec Baldwin for “The Cooler” and Djimon Hounsou for “In America” — it would have been considered a major upset.

It was also Robbins’ first Oscar. Despite strong perfs in “The Player” and “The Shawshank Redemption,” his only previous nom came as director of 1995’s “Dead Man Walking.”

The Penn-Robbins combo also took home best actor and supporting awards at the Golden Globes and the BAFTAs.

Brian Helgeland lost out in the adapted screenplay category for “Mystic River” to Fran Walsh, Phillipa Boyens and Peter Jackson for “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.”

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