Is there any question left that Sean Penn is the finest actor of his generation? Can there be any further doubt that Penn stands alongside Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman, early Al Pacino and early Robert de Niro as one of the screens greatest actors?
Twice he has won the Academy Award for Best Actor, for his riveting performance as a devastated father in Clint Eastwood’s haunting Mystic River (2003) and five years later for his extraordinary turn as the ever hopeful Harvey Milk in Milk (2008), which also won enormous praise from the critics, earning him Best Actor Awards from the LA and NY Film Critics groups. Penn has been nominated for Best Actor Awards for his work in Dead Man Walking (1995), for which he should have won, for his turn in Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown (1999) something of a surprise nomination and for his fine work, and in I Am Sam (2001). In my opinion further nominations should have come for At Close Range (1986), Best Supporting Actor for Carlito’s Way (1993), and for The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004). Despite the genius of his work behind the camera with Into the Wild (2007) a Best Director nomination has thus far eluded him, despite a nod from the Directors Guild of America Awards.
Why is Penn off the radar for his performance in This Must Be the Place, which opens in November? The trailers have been circulating for more than a year now, and it is a Penn we have never seen before! Wearing a jet black fright wig, his face pasty white, his eyes lonely and sad and speaking in a voice that is best described as monotone and dead, he is the ultimate totally burned out rock star, bored with life because he has simply lived too much of it!! This is just the trailer, and yet one gets the impression Penn is doing work, again, that we have not experienced from him. This is what I enjoy about Penn as an actor, he constantly takes the audience places they have never before been with him, creating characters that are diverse and original, never doing the same thing twice. Like all the great actors he thrives on challenge, and does not suffer fools. A complete professional, he shows up ready to work, with strong opinions as to how he will play the part, and the finest directors know it is wise to turn him loose and let him create.
Gus Van Sant said it best when he stated, “Am I really going to tell Sean Penn how to act? How to play the part? I mean really, my job on this is to know when to be quiet and let him do the job we hired him to do.” Clint Eastwood said also “just aim the camera and he will give you art.”
In the more than twenty-five years I have been a film critic, I cannot think of another male actor who has proven to be so naturally gifted, so constantly courageous, and so sublime in his work. From the goofy stoner in Fast Times at Ridgemount High (1982), through the tortured son in At Close Range (1986), the haunted killer on death row in Dead Man Walking (1995), a father letting loose his fury in Mystic River (2003) to his joyous Harvey Milk in Milk (2008) he displays a range second to no one, and an ability to slip under the skin of the character he is portraying that only the greats possess. Penn joined that crowd, Brando, Nicholson, Streep, a very long time ago.
His performance in This Must Be the Place could be the sleeper performance of the year and if it is as strong as I think it might be, Penn will be among the nominees for Best Actor. Every so often the Academy takes note of a performance that the critics championed but perhaps was not widely seen, Tommy Lee Jones in In the Valley of Elah (2007) comes to mind, and Penn’s work in This Must Be the Place has the potential to be just that.