With the rare exception, Sean Penn doesn’t play men of privilege. If the actor was transported back to the ’30s and ’40s, he’d likely be a contract player at Warner Bros., where talents like Cagney, Bogart and Garfield played streetwise toughs who never got a handout and survived on their wits.
Raised by unconventional, left-leaning parents — including a father (film and TV director Leo Penn) who was victimized by the blacklist — Penn has a predilection for working-class antiheroes that betrays a real-life need to understand, and sympathize with, those who’ve been victimized by a system too consumed by greed to give them a fair shake.
This fight against the status quo could be seen as a continuing thread in his work, wherein Penn’s identification with the downtrodden becomes a personal crusade.
Even as a relatively well-off celebrity, Penn could be seen as a scrapper — vigorously, perhaps even recklessly, defending his right to privacy while publicly exercising his freedom of speech. Penn’s forays to Baghdad and Tehran as a correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle in recent years demonstrated a need to witness, firsthand, the hardships many Middle Easterners face, as well as those of American soldiers stationed there. Call it a Method-actor approach to probing the complexities of a culture too often defined by fearmongering and mass-media stereotypes.
As Penn told John Lahr, who profiled the actor for the New Yorker in 2006, being a reporter and an actor are almost interchangeable. “It all feels the same to me,” he said. “Acting is everymanness, and loving everyman. Finally, you’re reaching out to people’s pain.”
This everyman sensibility has caused Penn to avoid the blockbuster formulas and cookie-cutter action vehicles that are the inevitable domain of even the most respected actors. But much like Stanley Kubrick, the filmmaker for whom the Britannia Awards’ most prestigious honor (now being bestowed upon Penn) is named, the actor-writer-director has never shown a need for commerciality for commerciality’s sake. He prefers to express himself creatively on a much more personal and idiosyncratic level, burrowing into his subjects with the passion and fire of an artist whose commitment knows no bounds.
His newspaper commentaries revealed the qualities that make Penn so compelling as an actor and a filmmaker: his powers of observation, his respect for the English language and a combination of intellectual curiosity and visceral engagement.
His attraction to Chris McCandless, the young idealist of “Into the Wild” (2007) who turned his back on the material world only to perish in the Alaskan wilderness, reflects this need to test his mettle. Penn, who wrote the screenplay based on Jon Krakauer’s book and directed the film, explained at the time that “there was something about going outside your comfort zone” that made the material and the character important, and, in turn, “finding out what you’re made of in doing that.”
This unwillingness to be tamed, as an artist or a citizen, goes some way in explaining an oeuvre peppered with a rogue’s gallery of salt-of-the-earth outsiders, misfits and renegades.
Of his ex-con stricken by grief and bent on revenge in “Mystic River,” for which he won an Oscar, the New York Times’ A.O. Scott wrote that Penn’s Jimmy Markum “is not only one of the best performances of the year, but also one of the definitive pieces of screen acting in the last half century, the culmination of a realist tradition that began in the old Actors Studio and begat Brando, Dean, Pacino and De Niro.
“But Mr. Penn,” Scott continued, “as gifted and disciplined as any of his precursors, makes them all look like, well, actors. He has purged his work of any trace of theatricality or showmanship while retaining all the directness and force that their applications of the Method have brought into American movies.”
Often the characters he plays or the stories he tells as a filmmaker feature protagonists so volatile as to make the viewer squeamish, as exemplified by Viggo Mortensen’s scary but magnetic Vietnam vet in “The Indian Runner” (1991), Penn’s directorial debut.
Penn makes that quality palpable, whether he means to or not. Woody Allen, who directed Penn in “Sweet and Lowdown” (1999), admitted in Lahr’s New Yorker feature that “it’s hard to get through to him, and you feel that at any minute he could blow up at you.”
Allen suggested that the actor keeps his emotional inner life in reserve as a way of protecting himself. But there’s a kinder, gentler side to Penn, as his jazz guitarist Emmet Ray in “Sweet and Lowdown” reveals, even if he’s guilty of selfishness and cruelty.
That gentleness and compassion could very well reach their greatest expression in “Milk,” in which Penn’s title performance represents the flip side of his blustery, corrupt demagogue in “All the King’s Men.” As the San Francisco supervisor and gay activist who was cut down by an assassin’s bullet in 1978, Penn’s displays the kind of sweetness and light that he’s largely kept in reserve.
And, perhaps for the first time, his real life as a political progressive and his dramatic portrayal as a trailblazing champion of civil rights could be seen as art imitating life.
What: 17th annual BAFTA/LA Britannia Awards
Where: Hyatt Regency Century Plaza Hotel
When: 6:30 tonight
Who: Honorees Sean Penn, Don Cheadle, Stephen Frears and Tilda Swinton; hosted by Harry Shearer