Sean Penn is back on the big screen this weekend in The Gunman, his first leading role in almost four years. It can’t rightly be called a comeback because he never really went away. Supporting roles in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and Gangster Squad have generated column inches, but in the last five years he has devoted more energy to raising money for earthquake relief in Haiti than to being a movie star.
In the film he plays Special Forces military contractor Jim Terrier. By day he protects foreign workers in the Democratic Republic of Congo but he moonlights as a hired gunman for big corporations. His assassination of the Congolese Mining Minister forces him to flee the country and changes the course of his entire life.
It’s what Penn jokingly calls “geriaction,” an action movie starring a middle-aged actor. Other than that, don’t expect to hear him speak a great deal about his new film. “Honestly within a week after I’ve finished shooting a film I’ve almost forgotten it,” he said recently.
In February he was honoured with an honorary Cesar Award for “choosing his films with sensitivity and commitment.” At the ceremony the “legend in his lifetime” watched a clip reel spanning the width and breadth of his career, including excerpts from Dead Men Walking, Mystic River and Milk.
Later the actor said, “I remember playing none of those scenes. I remembered the movies [but] I saw myself in scenes with actors I didn’t even know I’d ever worked with!”
To jog Mr. Penn’s memory here’s a “compenndium” of some of his memorable roles:
1. In Milk Penn won a Best Actor Oscar playing the real-life Harvey Milk, a native New Yorker who became America’s first openly gay man to be elected to public office. Penn fully embraces Milk, from the thick New York accent that characterized his speech to the goofy grin that endeared the real-life activist to his supporters, both gay and straight.
2. This Must be the Place is a rare thing. I speak of that elusive beast Pennigma Seanun comoedia—the Sean Penn comedy. He plays a retired and world-weary American rock star living with his wife (Frances McDormand) in Ireland. This is Sean Penn like we’ve never seen him before. With poufy hair, black toenail polish and affected vocal cadence—like Andy Warhol on Quaaludes—he creates an intriguing, strange character.
3. In Hollywood dramedy Hurly Burly Penn played against type as Eddie, the hyperactive casting agent. It’s an emotionally raw performance—witness Eddie try and use cocaine to snort away his troubles—but one without the studied glumness that he frequently brings to the screen.
4. Fair Game could be re-titled One Hundred Minutes of Sean Penn Yelling ‘If We Don’t Tell the Truth No One Will!’ He’s Joseph Wilson the real-life whistleblower who claimed the Bush administration falsified information about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Penn is passionate, crafting a performance so big it has it’s own gravitational pull.
5. Finally there’s All the King’s Men, a movie memorable for all the wrong reasons. Penn is a fine actor, but as Willie Stark, (loosely based on Louisiana governor Huey P. Long) he is so over-the-top it’s as if he’s acting in a different movie than the rest of the cast. It’s a vein-popping, arm-waving performance that suggests that maybe he should lay-off the Red Bull.
Anyone who thinks that history does not repeat itself need look no further than the new Gus Van Sant film Milk for proof to the contrary. As the recent vote on California’s Proposition 8 proposal to “change the California Constitution to eliminate the right of same-sex couples to marry,” hangs in the air the movie’s story of San Francisco Board of Supervisors Harvey Milk’s 1978 battle against Proposition 6 brings into focus how little has changed in the fight for gay rights. Dubbed the Briggs Initiative, Milk defeated the law which would have banned gays and lesbians from working in California’s public schools.
Sean Penn plays the real-life Harvey Milk, a native New Yorker who, just after his fortieth birthday left behind his conservative, closeted life on the East coast for the more freewheeling San Francisco. “I’m forty years old,” he says, “and I haven’t done a thing I’m proud of.” When he and his lover Scott Smith (James Franco) bump up against the Eureka Valley Business Association’s “no gays allowed” policy Milk is pushed toward political activism. After several failed attempts at running for office, (and adopting the unofficial title of The Mayor of Castro Street), he becomes America’s first openly gay man to be elected to public office after winning a seat on San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors in 1977. His meteoric rise, though, is cut short the following year when he and Mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber) are assassinated by former city supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin).
In this politically aware time Gus Van Sant has made a biopic about a an important political figure that pays less attention to the biography aspect and more to the issues that came to define Harvey Milk’s life. We don’t meet Harvey until the eve of his fortieth birthday, just as his political awareness was starting to blossom. Eight years later he was dead, so, unlike the recent W., Oliver Stone’s look at George W. Bush’s life, which dug into the president’s past, Milk focuses its energy on the bigger picture of gay rights and how Milk became an icon and martyr for gay pride. Van Sant sets the stage for Harvey’s rise to prominence, effectively creating a sense of time and place with the liberal use of archival news footage and careful attention to 1970s period details. Van Sant’s use of grainy film stock completes the illusion, making this look like an artifact from the 1970s.
Penn fully embraces Milk, from the thick New York accent that characterized his speech to the goofy grin that endeared the real-life activist to his supporters, both gay and straight. (“I know I’m not what you expected,” he would say, grinning, to straight audiences, “I left my high heels at home…”) It’s a strong Oscar worthy performance, but this isn’t a movie about the performances and people as much as it is about ideas. Harvey Milk has already been the subject of several books and the Academy Award-winning documentary feature, The Times of Harvey Milk, so there is no mystery left to the story, but by focusing on the issues and Milk’s galvanizing fight for equality Milk achieves much more than a run-of-the-mill biopic could ever hope for. It’s about passion; it’s about when the ordinary man could bring about change with personal conviction, a bullhorn and no money. It’s about a man who didn’t consider himself to be a candidate, but part of a movement. It’s about a time when a community organizer could make a difference. On that last point, at least, it seems that history does indeed repeat itself.
This year may go down in the history books as the year politics became hip again. Barack Obama’s “Yes we can!” vigor reignited America’s political passion, helping to break a forty-year-old Election Day turn-out record and actually get people under the age of seventy to tune into Meet the Press.
That excitement has infected Hollywood as well. This year sees three high profile political biographies hit theatres: W., about the life and wild times of George W. Bush; the soon-to-be released Frost/Nixon; and this week’s limited release Milk, starring Sean Penn as the first openly gay man elected to public office in the USA.
Hollywood has often looked to politics for inspiration. Anthony Hopkins’s portrayal of rubber-cheeked Tricky Dicky in Nixon was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar, as was Raymond Massey’s take on the 16th president in Abe Lincoln in Illinois, and James Whitmore as Harry Truman in Give ’em Hell, Harry.
Wild in the Streets, a 1968 counter-culture cult film about Max Frost, a multi-millionaire rock star with plans to take over the government, is one of the wilder political “what-if” films.
Frost’s scheme begins with staged riots on the Sunset Strip. Next he spikes Washington’s drinking water supply with LSD and while D.C.’s powerbrokers are hallucinating he gets them to pass a law lowering the age limit for all elected offices to 14. Soon he wins the Oval Office, immediately imprisoning everyone over 30 in concentration camps where they wear dark robes and are perpetually stoned on LSD.
Max’s plan just might land him in trouble, however, when the next generation adopts the new slogan: “We’re gonna put everybody over 10 out of business.”
Seen through today’s eyes the film is little more than a fun, druggy artifact from the freewheeling sixties, but at the time its message was taken seriously by some in the establishment. At 1968’s Presidential Convention the Mayor of Chicago hired security to protect the city’s water supply from being laced with LSD.
Other unconventional political films include Whoops Apocalypse which sees America’s first female president, played by M*A*S*H’s Loretta Swit, try to avoid World War III and 1964s Kisses for My President which focuses on the tough job of First Husband as he puts a masculine spin on the role of First Lady, hosting women’s groups and garden parties.