Sean Penn might be the greatest living actor

Posted by · 6:29 am · May 7th, 2008

After writing my piece on the recent Best Actor winners and non-winners I was rather shocked at the number of comments on Sean Penn’s astounding performance in “Mystic River,” a performance I believe to rank with the best of Brando, Duvall, Nicholson and De Niro.

I love debate, I love to talk film, and best of all I love debating the merit of performance as I studied method acting in the hopes of becoming an actor before I fell in love with film criticism.

For the record, I was terrible, but remained fascinated by those who could do it, and Mr. Penn might just be the very best at what he does. Far too often his off-screen antics have over-shadowed his brilliant work as an actor, and while he has mellowed in his later years, he is still every bit as surly and rebellious as he ever was, though as a father and husband perhaps he understands the need for boundaries these days. I had the pleasure of interviewing Penn at the Toronto International Film Festival a few years back, and always believe that there should be no trace of the characters he portrays in his films for him to be judged a great actor. There were none. The person sitting across from me, relaxing when he seemed to know I was here to discuss acting as an art and craft, was not anyone I had seen on film, nor the hot-tempered photography beater of his youth.

We all became aware of Penn in “Taps” back in the early 80s, but it was his hysterical turn in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” that made him a star. I find it difficult sometimes to connect the actor who portrayed the doomed killer in “Dead Man Walking” and the deeply distrubed man in “The Assassination of Richard Nixon” to the actor who portrayed the goofy, sunny, surf-loving Jeff Spicoli. Pauline Kael said Penn had the sort of talent that bites you on the nose and she was not off the mark at all.

I have always struggled with why it took the Academy so long to discover Penn and nominated him Best Actor. His first nomination came in 1995 for “Dead Man Walking,” a brilliant performance, one of his best, but he had been superb before had he not? Opposite Timothy Hutton in “The Falcon in the Snowman” he disappeared under the skin of his character. He was simply magnificent in the vastly under-appreciated “At Close Range,” going toe-to-toe with no less than an Oscar caliber performance from Christopher Walken, yet Oscar and audiences missed this one. For Brian De Palma, Penn has been brilliant twice, first in “Casulaties of War,” possibly the finest and most misunderstood film about Vietnam ever made, and as the crooked lawyer in “Carlito’s Way,” which saw the Hollywood Foreign Press Association take notice and nominate him for Best Supporting Actor.

When Oscar finally came calling, they nominated him for his dark work in Tim Robbins’ superb film — one of the finest of the 90s. Sadly, Nicolas Cage gave a career-best performance that year as n alcoholic hellbent on drinking himself to death in “Leaving Las Vegas” and won every single acting award available to him, with the exception of the Indy Spirit — which went to Penn.

Nominated next in Woody Allen’s “Sweet and Lowdown,” I am betting Penn was more surprised than most of us over that nomination for a fine performance, but one that had not initially garnered a great deal of acclaim. His nomination for “I am Sam” left me cold because I find the film manipulative and coy, sad because with the original screenplay intact we could have had a daring film here. Scenes between Penn and Michelle Pfeiffer having a bizarre affair were shot but not used, which would have given the entire film a radically different spin, an edge if you will.

Which brings us to “Mystic River,” which offers what I feel to be one of the great film performances of all time. Yes Penn is portraying a despicable man, but his great strength as an actor is that we feel for him and his loss. The sequence where he realizes his daughter is dead is breathtaking and anyone out there who is a father will relate to it. While mothers nurture, we protect, and in that single scene we see his outrage at failing to protect the one he loves most.

The intensity of the scene on the front step with Marcia Gay Harden is alarming because the moment she confesses that she thinks Dave might have killed his daughter we know Dave is a dead man. I fail to understand how anyone cannot recognize this as a towering achievement in acting, though I respect the opinions of those who do not (and ask the same).

Remember the ovation Penn received on the way to the stage to collect his Oscar? Fellow actors were paying tribute to a gifted man doing some of the best work of his career. One year later he was again brilliant in the troubling drama “The Assassination of Richard Nixon,” which I screened for the first time in Toronto at the festival and was blown away by Penn’s work, yet knew the film would not receive a wide release or find an audience. That said, he was most deserving of a nomination that never came.

Marlon Brando believed Penn was the finest actor of his generation as does Robert Duvall and Jack Nicholson, who has twice been directed by the actor-director to fine performances. Rarely has Penn faltered on screen, though “Shanghai Surprise” and “We’re No Angels” make clear he is human.

I loved Bill Murray in “Lost in Translation” and was thrilled to see him gain some awards buzz, but Penn’s performance was one for the ages.

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19 responses so far

  • 1 5-07-2008 at 7:41 am

    Princess of Peace said...

    Yes, Penn is one of the best actors working today. He brings the kind of raw emotion to the screen that you don’t often see these days. Other “younger” actors that I place in this category are Daniel Day-Lewis, Javier Bardem and Benicio del Toro. In my book they are tops.

  • 2 5-07-2008 at 8:22 am

    Silencio said...

    I agree that Sean Penn is fantastic, as was his work in Mystic River. That said, I would have given the Oscar to Bill Murray. That scene you refer to with Marcia Gay Harden actually disappointed me a bit. I felt that he was working too hard to tell us his intentions. I remember him nodding his head darkly, when all we needed was his eyes. Subtlety, you see.

    Murray did much more with much less, which tends to impress me more most of the time. Oh well. It’s not that Penn wasn’t deserving. Murray was just better.

    And I also feel that Leaving Las Vegas was one of the best male screen performances I’ve ever seen.

  • 3 5-07-2008 at 9:25 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    I know I said I was a Bill Murray guy — and of the nominees, I still think he should have taken the award. However, I find myself stunned that I forget about Penn’s work in “21 Grams,” which was far and away my favorite screen portrayal in 2003. Others seem to do the same (and I notice you haven’t brought it up in your two pieces, yet).

  • 4 5-07-2008 at 9:28 am

    Jamie said...

    Agreed about 21 Grams. Although I must confess that I preferred Benicio del Toro. I recently watching Things we Lost in the Fire and I was shocked he didn’t get more attention for the performance.

    All that should change this year…

  • 5 5-07-2008 at 9:58 am

    Bernardo S said...

    I thought Sean Penn’s work in Mystic River was actually not good at all, relying too much on screaming and not developing his character correctly. He was completely overshadowed by Tim Robbins and Marcia Gay Harden.

    And the Oscar belonged to Bill Murray in the best performance of the decade. I almost cried when he lost. Ben Kingsley was also a lot better than him. Even Johnny Depp and Jude Law were better!

  • 6 5-07-2008 at 10:01 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    “I almost cried when he lost.”

    So did he, apparently.

  • 7 5-07-2008 at 12:10 pm

    Chad said...

    I have never studied method acting or seen many of Sean Penn’s movies so take my opinion with a grain of salt. But I have seen plenty of films and plenty of performances, enough to come to a conclusion on whether something rings truthful or not. I have rarely seen acting better than Penn in “Sweet and Lowdown” and his work in “Dead Man Walking”, “The Thin Red Line” and “Carlito’s Way” are all equally excellent. But at a certain point the man just went off the rails. His performances in “I Am Sam” and “Mystic River” are melodramatic farce at worst and telegraphed emoting at best.

  • 8 5-07-2008 at 12:51 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    I don’t think Penn was that bad in “Mystic River.” I thought he was quite good, actually. But all this hatred toward an “off the rails” performance in the film should — I think — be directed toward Tim Robbins. I used to enjoy that performance but it grates over time (as does much of “American Beauty,” in fact — but that’s another discussion). Robbins was only worse in “War of the Worlds,” I’d wager.

  • 9 5-07-2008 at 3:13 pm

    Joseph said...

    Penn was very good in “Mystic River,” but the true Best Actor performance of the year was that of Ben Kingsley in “House of Sand and Fog.” Powerful, shattering work.

  • 10 5-07-2008 at 3:17 pm

    Jamie said...

    Gasp, don’t bring American Beauty into this. I would do bad things if it meant Kevin Spacey could have another opportunity to showcase his awesomeness to the extent provided in that movie.

    I agree that Penn wasn’t bad in Mystic River, but calling him the greatest living actor? Not even close. Granted my preference lies with Ralph Fiennes, so I am not the best source of information…

  • 11 5-07-2008 at 3:47 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Sean Penn vs Bill Murray… with career-peak Ben Kingsley and Jude Law in the mix. 2003 was a good year, wasn’t it? Murray may have been the cooler choice, but I think the Academy was right to pick Penn: I have a hunch that his performance may age better over time. And as Kris says, he was equally, or more, deserving for 21 Grams – my own favourite film of ’03, and one that was bizarrely ignored throughout awards season – so I think there was definitely a body-of-work element to the award. And rightly so.

    Frankly, I think he should have won for Dead Man Walking too. Have you watched Leaving Las Vegas lately? Saw it again last year, and was surprised by how dated the film, and how mannered Cage’s performance, seemed after a mere twelve years.

  • 12 5-07-2008 at 5:53 pm

    Chad said...

    Totally with you Kris on Robbins. His one-two punch of “Mystic River” and “War of the Worlds” is in a word, unwatchable.

  • 13 5-07-2008 at 6:10 pm

    Geza Nuygima said...

    Hmm, I’m afraid I have to side with Chad. Penn’s work in Mystic River was atrocious. Ugh, I hated it, and I generally like him.
    As for the “might be the greatest living actor”… three words: Max von Sydow.

  • 14 5-07-2008 at 8:17 pm

    Blake Rutherford said...

    Alright, if we’re giving lifetime achievement awards I’m throwing Peter O’Toole’s name into the mix. How an Oscar has escaped him is pretty amazing. In my view, he deserved that “make up” Oscar for “Venus,” which, interesingly, I found better than Whitaker’s Amin.

  • 15 5-09-2008 at 10:41 am

    Noah said...

    I think we all know that Daniel Day Lewis is the greatest living actor…

    But anyway, Sean Penn (and Tim Robbins too) ruined Mystic River for me. Especially the scene that John Foote reports as being especially moving, is so trite and ridiculous and overemotive, not to mention Sean Penn’s ridiculous faux Boston accent really comes through in that scene. “IS DAT MY DAWTA IN DERE???” I was supposed to be moved, but instead I was stifling giggles.

  • 16 5-10-2008 at 2:05 pm

    Billyboy said...

    I still think his best performance was on the underrated Sweet and Lowdown. Emmet Ray (his character) is funny, yet deeply emotional. His scenes with Samantha Morton (also nominated that year) are incredible. She has no dialogue at all, but both actors manage to feed each other with so much information. Those scenes are proof of the genius of Woody, Sean and Samantha.

    Mystic River is… just ok. Milk looks good.

  • 17 5-12-2008 at 12:43 pm

    Xavi Rodriguez said...

    Sean Penn is one of the most outstanding actors right now and he’s in a elite with Daniel Day-Lewis, Benicio Del Toro, Mathieu Almaric (One of the most underracted actors this year for “The diving bell and the butterfly”) and Javier Bardem. But I think that Oscar is like a consolation prize… Don’t get me wrong his performance in “Mystic River” was fine but I think “Dead Man Walking” “Sweet and Lowdown” “21 Grams” and even “Carlito’s Way” are more deserving of the prize instead “Mystic River”. That 2003 that Oscar, in my perception, belongs between Bill Murray (A minimalistic performance in an intesting film) and Johnny Depp (The Star of the Year)

  • 18 10-09-2008 at 3:12 pm

    Rolando said...

    the scene you relate, Penn on the front step hearing that Dave might have killed his daughter has all the subtle angst and superb acting pice.

    Like that one of Pacna in Godfather II when in Havana seeing the sexual show, discovers that Fredo has betrayed him and the family.