Four Brilliant Sean Penn Performances


Sean Penn has recently been in the headlines since making a joke at the Oscars prior to announcing who had won Best Picture. He shocked more conservative parties when as he pulled the winner out of the presenter’s envelope and exclaimed, “Who gave this son of a b***h his green card?”

Sean Penn was referring to the director of Birdman, Mexican-born Alejandro Iñárritu. He has since stated he is not sorry for a joke some found inappropriate because he and Mr. Iñárritu are close friends. Penn is well known in the world for a variety of reasons, including for once being married to Madonna, as well as his actions following the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans years ago. Following the disaster, he hopped into his own boat and helped residents trapped on their homes and wading through the flood water while FEMA was still trying to get their act together. Sean Penn’s lasting legacy to the world, however, are his performances during an excellent film career.

In a role that had Penn playing only one character, that just so happened to be leading a double life, the lines of morality are questioned throughout the entirety of the film State of Grace. Penn’s character, Terry Noonan, after having disappeared from the lives of his friends and family for ten years, returns home to New York. His best friend, Jackie Flannery, along with Jackie’s older brother Frank, is a member of an Irish crime family, led by Frank. Terry begins dating a girl named Kathleen, Jackie and Frank’s sister. Dating the sister of a Irish Mob boss is never a great idea, especially because Terry soon becomes involved with various dealings through the crime family. This relationship is even further complicated because, unbeknownst to all, Terry is an undercover policeman.

Gary Oldman’s portrayal of Jackie is that of a sad case of an alcoholic, and due to this and other reasons. is constantly messing up deals and various criminal enterprises. Eventually, Jackie kills three members of a rival gang, part of the Italian Mafia. Frank is told by the Italian bosses, unless Jackie dies for his actions, there will be war. Frank betrays his brother by shooting him and leaving him for dead, watching from afar was Terry, who had tried to set up Frank in a police action, but was too late. Penn shows genuine heartbreak as he holds his dying best friend, in the most moving scene of the film, until the police arrive on scene. Terry tells his supervisor that he quits, he will not be a cop to serve and protect if he cannot even save those he loves. After revealing to Frank that he watched him kill Jackie, Terry hands Frank his police badge and leaves. Not long after, Terry shows up in Frank’s favorite bar and a shootout with his gang takes place. Frank and the rest of the gang members in attendance are killed. Penn’s character is shot, but his fate is never revealed.

Starring alongside Al Pacino in Carlito’s Way, Penn plays Dave Kleinfeld, the dishonorable coke-head lawyer of Pacino’s character. In this role, Penn gives such a great performance that he almost becomes unrecognizable as a fictional character. Constantly speaking in rapid, coked up sentences, his character is a perfect example of the stereotypical rich cocaine user. At times, Kleinfeld becomes so intoxicated that it is hard to understand what he is actually saying. Penn portrays such an empty human being that one finds themselves disgusted by the man in most scenes of the movie. Eventually, Kleinfeld’s character is proven to be a rat for the police, giving up information not only about Carlito, but about other criminals and their organizations. While unarmed in a hospital bed, Penn’s character gets his just deserts – a painful death.

I Am Sam was both heartwarming and heartbreaking. Penn plays the title character, Sam, a developmentally-disabled single father of a young girl. The film is about Sam’s struggle to keep his parental rights to raise his daughter, despite him barely being able to take care of himself. After hiring a lawyer to help Sam keep his parental rights, his dedication to his daughter cannot be doubted as it shows that Sam is willing to go to any lengths to keep his daughter in his custody. Though the case is hard fought, Sam loses custody of his daughter and she is placed in a foster home. She continuously runs away at night time to go to her father’s home to sleep, and in the morning Sam always takes her back to her new home. Realizing that the girl will not stay at the foster home, the foster parent sets it up to where Sam can have his daughter live with him barring that the foster parent keep close supervision on the father and daughter.

Penn was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in I Am Sam, as well as being nominated for Best Actor in a number of other awards shows. Though Penn didn’t win any of his nominations, his performance was an honest depiction of a mentally disabled man learning how to be a father. Penn’s performance was at times so accurate it was suffocating, and truly hard to watch due to the level of retardation Penn portrays on screen. In the comedy Tropic Thunder, Penn is made fun of by another actor who states, “Sean Penn didn’t win for I Am Sam because he went full retard. An actor ought NEVER go full retard in a movie, everyone knows that!”

In 2003’s Mystic River, directed by Clint Eastwood, Penn plays a shop keeper who happens to be a criminal using a convenience store as a legitimate source of income. As a family man with multiple daughters, his older, truer nature of criminality comes into play when his eldest daughter is found murdered. Through asking around town, and questioning his daughter’s friends who had been with her the night before, Penn’s character is able to put together a rough timeline of her whereabouts the night she died. Eventually, he comes to find out that an old friend, played by Tim Robbins, was in the same bar as Penn’s daughter the night she died. Through many coincidences Penn’s character comes to the unproven conclusion that his old friend (Robbins) is the man who caused his daughters death. He murders his friend believed to be Penn’s daughter’s killer and throws his body in Mystic River. Not a day passes before another childhood friend now grown, a police officer assigned to the murder investigation, solves the murder; and it had nothing to do with the man killed the night before. Turns out her boyfriend’s little brother was jealous that she was running off to Vegas with his brother so took out his anger on her with his hockey stick until she died.

Every movement Penn makes, words he puts together, tears that fall down his cheek, all add up to an incredibly powerful performance that won him multiple awards including 2003’s Academy Award (Oscar) for Best Actor. This particular performance of his remains haunting to this day; a loving parent whose 18 year old daughter was murdered and the most likely suspect is said parent’s former best friend.

The career of Penn has been filled with brilliant performances aside from those detailed above including an inmate on death row in Dead Man Walking, and of course a stoned high school student in Fast Times At Ridgemont High. Throughout the years, Penn has acted in 49 previously released films, multiple television shows, and has taken the director’s chair in six movies. In 2008 alone, Penn won 17 awards from various associations including but not limited to the Screen Actors Guild and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Not including the two dozen plus awards Penn has won in his career, he’s also been nominated but didn’t win in another two dozen instances.

Few actors can say they boast as broad a range of skills as Penn has shown throughout his time in Hollywood. Whether playing a cop facing moral dilemas, a stoner trying to graduate high school or a convicted rapist awaiting the death sentence, Penn is one of the greatest actors of modern film. Coming up this year, Penn stars in two films, called The Last Face, and The Gunman. Apart from starring in The Last Face,  Penn will also be directing; this is the only film Penn has directed in which he will also be starring.

Opinion by Benjamin Johnson


Viewing of State of Grace, I Am Sam, Carlito’s Way and Mystic River



NY Times

Photo Property of Globovisión- Flickr License

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