Sean Penn recently debuted his first novel “Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff”, a satire of America with the prose of a novelist suffering literary diarrhoea. Suffice to say his penchant for alliteration and 25-cent words has led to mixed reviews. But the same can’t be said for his work on-screen, the two-time Oscar winner continually proving he’s a genius in front of the camera.
Sean Penn has a talent for acting that surpasses most of his contemporaries. He also has a mouth – and now a “pen” – that makes those same contemporaries squirm. Or worse. It means Penn’s magical talent on-screen is matched by infamy off it. Be that his alleged violent tendencies, troubled relationships with former wives and girlfriends, or political activism shaking the waters of those who don’t share his views.
And while, in a world where media permeates all walks of life, and thus every dark corner of a celebrity’s existence, his off-screen antics can’t shield brand Sean Penn from the damage of notoriety, his films continually showcase an actor with abilities far beyond many given the Hollywood limelight.
And thus, Sean Penn’s genius on-screen must be celebrated for what it is.
Penn, like other actors with head-turning personal lives, is fuelled by a personality whose exuberance might be best caged if it were not at the audience’s expense. Would we have been able to witness such barnstorming performances as those in Mystic River or Milk were the things that make this enigmatic powder keg of a man tick? Certainly not.
He’s a raging rhino, his raw, spontaneous emotion-led persona rekindled somewhat in the online slot machines of the same name. There’s an unpredictability about the man that has made his on-screen work so great and his off-screen lifestyle so tabloid-worthy.
It would be easy to nominate a handful of his films as his best work but here’s three that stand out.
Milk (Van Sant, 2008)
Based on the true story of Harvey Milk, Sean Penn is the eponymous title character charting his life as a gay rights activist and the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in the US state of California. The film would reward Penn with a Best Actor award at the corresponding Academy Awards. It highlighted the range of his talent, showcasing the softer side of an actor better known for his intimidating bad-ass attitude.
Dead Man Walking (Robbins, 1995)
A real passion project for Tim Robbins, Dead Man Walking is both written and directed by him, following the story of Susan Sarandon’s nun Helen Prejean attempting to help convicted murderer Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn) in his final court appeal to avoid being killed by lethal injection. Robbins’ experience as an actor clearly helps him here as both Penn and Sarandon, clearly comfortable under the direction of a fellow performer, deliver two of their finest performances.
Carlito’s Way (De Palma, 1993)
Sean Penn as David Kleinfeld, the sleazy lawyer and best friend of Al Pacino’s Carlito Brigante, almost steals the show in a film littered with fine performances. He was criminally ignored by the Academy Awards for his efforts here.
In his article on supporting actors, including Penn, overlooked by the Academy, Mark Fraser said on Top 10 Films that he “is literally unrecognisable as the crooked lawyer with his reddish curly hair, receding hairline, sideburns, John Lennon glasses, cocky gait and continual smirk.” He adds, “It is arguably one of Penn’s greatest roles, which says something given he has already received two Best Actor statuettes – that being for Clint Eastwood’s 2003 Mystic River and Gus Van Sant’s Milk in 2008.”
What makes this film stand out is Penn’s physical appearance – balding, curly-haired and bespectacled. His aesthetic defines the weaselly attitude of a character quite different from anything he’d played before.