Sean Penn on course for Oscar #2, and he deserves it

Posted by · 7:36 am · December 14th, 2008

Sean Penn in MilkWith two of the major critics awards won, actor Sean Penn seems to be headed for his second Academy Award for Best Actor for his brilliant work in “Milk.”

Penn’s work through the 1980s and 1990s defined him as one of the greatest actors of his generation (if not the best) and certainly on the level with Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson and early Robert De Niro.  I find it incredible to see him today in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and try to connect that actor and character to anything he has done in his career. It gives a very clear example of his seemingly limitless range.

His first Oscar nod came for “Dead Man Walking” in 1995, with only the Independent Spirit Awards giving him the grand prize.  All the others went with Nicolas Cage in “Leaving Las Vegas,” a great performance to be sure, but for my money Penn was stronger. Four years later he was something of a surprise nominee for “Sweet and Lowdown,” a fine piece of acting, but a kind of out-of-nowhere nomination, as was his third nod for “I Am Sam,” which I still struggle with watching; it represents the only time I can “see” Penn acting.

“Mystic River” won him his first and only Oscar, and I stand by it as a stunning example of the craft.  I agree with The New York Times, which declared it one of the great acting performances of all time. Bill Murray was a popular choice that year for “Lost in Translation” and no argument, he would have been a most worthy winner.  But I am pleased Penn won. For me, he captured the anger and rage of the character, as well as the disappointment and hurt over something so precious as a daughter, now lost. There was shame in his eyes for not having protected her, and to make up for that in his mind, he avenges her.

Other nominations should have come for “At Close Range,” “Carlito’s Way” and “The Assassination of Richard Nixon,” but the greatest robbery was just last year when he was snubbed across the board for his film “Into the Wild.”

There is love, warmth and graceful humanity to his work in “Milk” that simply has not always been present in his performances through the years. I was stunned to see him smiling so often, filling the screen with positive energy and dare I say…love? Penn’s grin became infectious throughout the film. Harvey Milk dedicated his life to giving the people hope, and Penn captures that in his performance.  From the beginning right through to the end, this is a formidable piece of acting.

His greatest competition seems to be Mickey Rourke in “The Wrestler,” a great performance, but does Hollywood really want Mickey back? Frank Langella is an actors’ staple, known more for his work on the stage, but he is very good in “Frost/ Nixon” and could pose a threat.  Ditto wily old vet Richard Jenkins if he manages a nomination for “The Visitor.”

That said, on Oscar night, I think it will be Penn for the win, once again.  And he deserves it. Never has he reached so far, never has so surprised his audience and critics, never has he so engaged viewers and drawn us in to his character making us care so deeply for him




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19 responses so far

  • 1 12-14-2008 at 8:10 am

    Bryan C. said...

    Beautifully put! There’s nothing to add to this.

  • 2 12-14-2008 at 8:21 am

    Chad said...

    I think you need to refer back to Guy’s Right Actor-Wrong Film entry. Since Penn has already won (for a hideous performance), I think he’ll likely see this far better performance get overlooked in favor of Rourke or Eastwood or DiCaprio.

  • 3 12-14-2008 at 9:02 am

    Andrew L. said...

    An acceptance speech by Rourke would be interesting: will he be humbled or will he be the first winner to simultaneously thank a bunch of people while holding up a middle finger?

    An acceptance speech by Penn would also be interesting, but in an unintentionally funny way: obviously he’ll bring up the Prop 8 issue, the producers will attempt to silence him by muting the mic/playing him off the stage, and Penn will probably resort to shouting incoherently.

  • 4 12-14-2008 at 9:58 am

    Patrick said...

    Glad to see someone else agree Penn should have won in ’95 over Cage, and did rightfully win in ’03. He should take his second Oscar for “Milk.”

  • 5 12-14-2008 at 11:00 am

    KBJr. said...

    I may be in the minority here, but after having recently viewed “Milk” at a local Focus Feature screening, I was wholly unmoved by the film or Penn’s performance.

    Maybe it was my fault for being such an avid “In Contention” (among other blogs) reader and going into the screening with my expectations too high, but what I saw was an utterly pedestrain film. Not a bad movie, actually quite good, but nothing earth-shattering. I allowed myself to ponder the film a few days after viewing it, and I conclude that I was not even slightly haunted by the film itself or any performance. Haunted in the same way I was when I walked out of “Million Dollar Baby” or “Vera Drake.” No single actor really stood out to me.

    Penn himself certainly plays gay pretty good. lol And I haven’t seen any of the other potential competing performances to judge who the “best” is, but the film has “overrated” written all over it, and I have little doubt that years from now few will still be talking about it.

  • 6 12-14-2008 at 11:09 am

    John Foote said...

    Two comments — Chad, could nit disagree more with you about Penn in ‘Mystic River”; an overwhelming performance full og anger, rage and the agony of precious loss — and KBLr, sorry you feel that way for such a wonderfully warm and risky performance — he was nothing short of astounding.

  • 7 12-14-2008 at 11:28 am

    Speaking English said...

    He definitely deserves to win it… what a spectacular performance and the one I consider his greatest.

    And I don’t mean to be rude, but I seriously cannot in any way begin to understand how MILK could leave ANYONE unmoved. A film about humanity persevering, about triumph over discrimination, about a man who brought so much hope, love, and life to so many people and you don’t even feel a thing? And a movie made with such beauty, lyricism, and power?

    You’re… not human. And that’s a serious,
    serious problem.

  • 8 12-14-2008 at 11:40 am

    McGuff said...

    That’s a bit dramatic English, though I understand how this movie can produce overhwelming emotions. I quite liked it myself — especially Penn’s performance. While I don’t think I’ll pull for the film to win Best Picture, I’ll certainly be rooting for Penn. The movie’s problems lie centrally at the feet of the screenplay, but never at the ensemble performance, led by Penn and Emile Hirsch (who might not have been as nuanced as Josh Brolin, but was certainly more memorable to me).

    If I know where KBJr is coming from, at all, it’s that I’ve found the movie didn’t hang with me in the days after like Slumdog has, for example. Penn’s performance has, and the movie has certainly left me more upset about Prop 8. But the actual film … I don’t know, I’m just left characterizing it more as good than great a week after seeing it.

  • 9 12-14-2008 at 11:49 am

    John K said...

    I have severe disagreements with this post, which maybe I’ll come back and address later.

    But Speaking English, come on. KBJr. said he was unmoved by the film, and you act as if he was dismissing Harvey Milk himself. Just because a biopic focuses on an inspirational figure doesn’t mean the film is automatically good as a result. Saying that he’s “not human” – and apparently without tongue anywhere near cheek – is a stretch.

    (Note: I have yet to see “Milk,” and I’m actually quite looking forward to it.)

  • 10 12-14-2008 at 12:50 pm

    The InSneider said...

    Milk was underwhelming in the emotional dept, though that’s no fault of Penn’s. I just think Mick deserves to win. What does it say about Milk that I choked up the hardest when the real Harvey was shown onscreen at the end?

  • 11 12-14-2008 at 1:55 pm

    Joel said...

    I don’t see it being better than his perf. in “Mystic River,” but I can’t wait to see how it turns out. Looks impressive.

  • 12 12-14-2008 at 3:24 pm

    Patrick said...

    KBJr: I’m a little baffled about your statement : “Penn himself certainly plays gay good. lol”

    Care to explain?

  • 13 12-14-2008 at 3:25 pm

    Robert Hamer said...

    I really hated Mystic River and Penn’s hammy performance in it. If he wins the Oscar for Milk, it will be the first one he wins that he actually deserves.

    “His greatest competition seems to be Mickey Rourke in ‘The Wrestler,’ a great performance, but does Hollywood really want Mickey back?”

    What a stupid question. Does it matter what his off-screen persona is? These actors *should* win Oscars for their PERFORMANCES, not how popular or likable they are as people. Jesus, I can’t believe you would pull that Lou Lumenick crap on us, you’re better than that.

  • 14 12-14-2008 at 3:37 pm

    Speaking English said...

    What??? He’s not saying HE agrees with that, but you can’t deny the fact that’s the way Hollywood works. It’s not about the performances all the time, and you should clearly know that by now. A sour personality will do the trick, and as good as Rourke’s performance is they’re going to have a hard time giving the win to him. Even if he’s the best.

    Just the way it works.

  • 15 12-14-2008 at 4:20 pm

    John Foote said...

    Thank you Speaking English for understanding what I meant regarding Rourke — I know quite well Christopher Heard who wrote a book on Rourke, and in doing so had the chance to speak with many of the men and women Rourke had offended — most of them still work in the business and are not pleased he is back — English is right, I do indeed disagree with this sort of politic, but if we think for a single second politics do not play a part in the Oscars, we are fools. As for Lou crack, I’ll consider it an error in your judgment and not quite getting what I was saying…OK?

  • 16 12-14-2008 at 10:40 pm

    Zan said...

    He’s my favorite actor of all-time and for good reason. While I think his performance in “Mystic River” was astoundingly deep, I don’t ever see him duplicating his best: “The Assassination of Richard Nixon.” He does a better Bickle than DeNiro.

  • 17 12-15-2008 at 2:10 am

    randall said...

    The Oscar nominees have yet to be announced and I’m already annoyed by the reasons for what is sure to be the obvious outcome. Due largely in part to the recent stir by way of Prop 8, as well as the fact that we are living in: post-An-Inconvenient-Truth-go green-or-die-on-the-brink-of-international-genocide-for-the-sake-of-mother-earth-Obama’s-gonna-save-us-all-madnes! I honestly don’t forsee things going to well for ANY films up against Wall-e or Milk…….. I don’t think the Globes are in any way indicative of Oscar, and so obviously I’m of the opinion that come the announcement of Oscar noms things will look drastically different, and thankfully so, I was truly appalled to discover what films where left out this time around by the foreign press. Just had to vent on that, but anyhow I have not seen Milk (although I thoroughly respect Van Sant’s skillz, and expect quality based solely off of his connection with a project), I’ve also yet to see Arrenofsky’s The Wrestler (I had faith in him after The Fountain and I think alot more people would’ve to if they only knew what he had going against him while making it), so I can’t really say anything concerning who (I know I just mentioned directors, but I’m refering to Penn/Rourke….I’m f’ing stoopid) I believe should win come the big night. That is, anything other than that I hope whoever is chosen, is not picked for political purposes, and that has nothing to do (for me) with anything other than an insatiable desire to see the best (of course, the vary fact that we’re trying to gauge something as subjective as this is hilariously egotistical, but what-eva-HA!) be rewarded for being so……Btw I already know how contradictory some of what I’ve said here sounds/is, but we’re all f’n contradicion riddled fools anway so………?

  • 18 12-15-2008 at 5:52 am

    KBJr. said...

    Patrick: In jest I was simply stating that as a heterosexual actor, he (and Franco) were as believable as you can get playing homosexual. Part of that is just good acting (which I never contended Penn’s performance was not good)…but the other part is just plain old good chemistry.

    In short, I believed Penn playing gay, period.

  • 19 12-15-2008 at 2:28 pm

    Patrick said...

    Yes, I agree. And I would also credit Van Sant.