Penn There, Done That

A slide show of Sean Penn's remarkable career

Slide 1: Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)
Jeff Spicoli, surfer dude: From this unforgettable character in Amy Heckerling's beloved high school comedy, it would be hard to imagine the places Penn has gone as an actor. Although from the start, his dedication was evident. It was reported that on set he only answered to Spicoli and changed his dressing room door from "Sean Penn" to "Spicoli." The result is one of comedy's most loveable losers. In her New York Times review, Janet Maslin noted "the movie's real scene stealer is Sean Penn, as a pink-eyed surfer named Jeff Spicoli who wouldn't dream of holding down a job. Spicoli's dream is to describe surfing to a television interviewer as ''a way of looking at that wave and saying "Hey, Bud, let's party.""
Slide 2: The Falcon and the Snowman (1985)
Daulton Lee, drug dealer amateur spy: In John Schlesinger true-life tale of two teenage boys who go into the spy business, Penn instills his loser teen character with a desperation that is both age-appropriate and far beyond his years. In the New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, "It's Mr. Penn who dominates the screen with a performance that, like the film, is arresting in its bizarre details and as cold as ice."
Slide 3: At Close Range (1986)
Brad Whitewood Jr., adoring son of a rural mob boss: There is perhaps no better film on the tragedy of father-son relations than James Foley's At Close Range, a haunting tale based on true events about the terrifying lengths a boy (Sean Penn) will go to win his father's respect. As Penn goes from being a cocky teen (albeit a delinquent one) to a world-weary adult carrying the weight of his father's crimes, the film's becomes almost too sad to watch. "Why would you want to see it?" asked Roger Ebert, writing for the Chicago Sun Times. "One [reason] might be to watch two great actors, Penn and Walken, at the top of their forms in roles that give them a lot to work with."
Slide 4: Colors (1988)
Officer Danny McGavin, the arrogance of the innocent: Fellow actor Dennis Hopper directed this tough look at LA's gang violence with Penn playing the rookie cop who hopes to make up with attitude what he lacks in experience. His seasoned partner, Robert Duvall, has to fight him as well as the "Crips" and the "Bloods." For Desson Howe of the Washington Post, the two actors mirror the war on the streets with their dueling dramatic technique: "It's an exhilarating sparring match between Duvall's workmanlike fine-tuning and Penn's raw energy."
Slide 5: Carlito's Way (1993)
David Kleinfeld, the coked-up criminal attorney: Brian DePalma's stylish tale about a one-time drug pin (Al Pacino) desperately trying to go straight, despite the temptations and traps of his own crooked attorney (Sean Penn). Like Satan in Paradise Lost, Penn again shows how delicious it is to play evil masquerading as good. In Rolling Stone, Peter Travers trumpets this character: "Sparked by a knockout performance from Sean Penn as David Kleinfeld, Carlito's crooked, cokehead lawyer, these scenes jump off the screen. Kleinfeld is drawn to the glamour of crime without understanding the consequences."
Slide 6: Dead Man Walking (1995)
Matthew Poncelet, the pain of repentance: After playing so many characters ruled by their excessive passions, in Dead Man Walking Penn is cast as a murderer on death row coming to terms with the consequences of his rage. But Penn is not alone here. His luminous duet with Susan Sarandon, the nun who serves as his spiritual guide, showcases Penn's skill at playing off, and with, other actors. In his review for the San Francisco Chronicle, Edward Guthmann records: "In the scenes leading up to his execution, when Poncelet drops his junkyard-dog facade and reveals his fear, Penn and Sarandon are transcendent - achieving an exquisite, palpable harmony of souls."
Slide 7: She's So Lovely (1997)
Eddie Quinn, the irrational, impossible lover: As a sort of anti-romantic comedy, Nick Cassavetes' film (based a screenplay by his father John) cast Penn as a man emotionally incapable of being husband and lover, as emotionally incapable of not being one. Sad and sentimental, crazy and charismatic, Penn embodies the wonderful, horrible paradox of love. Janet Maslin wrote in the New York Times, "As played by Penn with a strong echo of the senior Cassavetes' wounded, boyish, teasingly seductive presence (in a performance that won the best actor award at this year's Cannes festival), Eddie means to be good to Maureen."  But then we all know where the road paved with good intentions leads.
Slide 8: Hurlyburly (1998)
Eddie, a profession in sleaze: David Rabe's hit play is brought to the screen by a star-studded cast lead by Sean Penn and Kevin Spacey, professional sleazebags who moonlight as casting agents. In this marathon race to hit rock bottom, Penn not only leads the pack, but as he comes to be the worst that he can be, he flashes us the human being that lays at his character's center. Marc Savlov at that Austin Chronicle picked up on this contradictory character, pointing out that Penn "plays Eddie as a brainiac, motormouth loser, too smart for his own good, so much so that he's actually blindingly stupid."
Slide 9: Sweet and Lowdown (1999)
Emmet Ray, body and soul: Woody Allen explores the conflict between the artist and his art in this bittersweet comedy of a jazz guitar player who only shines when he plays. Penn's Emmet Ray is a pimp, a cheat, a con man and a sadist - to name his finer points - but all is forgiven when he picks up his guitar. Again Penn skillfully showcases the devious duplicity of human nature. For Ann Hornaday of the Baltimore Sun, Penn syncs up with Allen's vision with "a lovely, soulful performance in a movie that manages to imbue tragedy with just the right grace note of insouciance."
Slide 10: Before Night Falls (2000)
Cuco Sanchez - wait, was that Sean Penn?: For some, the sign of a great actor is the ability to appear in parts which make him or her unrecognizable. In his portrait of gay Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, painter-turned-filmmaker Julian Schnabel cast great actors for small parts. As Dennis Lim points out in The Village Voice, "The director's weakness for flashy cameos is balanced by his good sense to enlist only professional scene stealers: Sean Penn as a smirking gold-toothed cart driver, and Johnny Depp, who appears as transvestite bombshell Bon Bon."
Slide 11: I Am Sam (2001)
Sam Dawson, a cliché made real: Playing drunk, mental, handicapped or dying can be a cheat for fine acting. Actors often gravitate to these melodramatic parts, but only a few can pull them off. In I am Sam, Penn plays a developmentally disabled dad at risk of losing his daughter. It's a part that has "get out the hanky" written all over it. But this is the kind of dramatic challenge that brings out Penn's unique talents. In the San Francisco Chronicle, Mick LaSalle wrote, "I Am Sam deserves to be remembered for Sean Penn's remarkable performance as a mentally challenged man. Penn's accuracy, his lack of condescension or sentiment, and his willingness to inhabit his character without any implicit commentary take what might have been the equivalent of an inflated TV movie and elevate it to the level of art."
Slide 12: Mystic River (2003)
Jimmy Markum, darkness visible: Clint Eastwood's adaptation of Dennis Lehane's mystery novel Mystic River is filled with characters as deep, shifting and murky as that featured in its title. But perhaps none so moving and turbulent as Penn's Jimmy Markum, a one-time crook dealing with the murder of his daughter. Penn won an Oscar for his utterly physical, natural and paradoxical performance. Kenneth Turan at the Los Angeles Times comments, "Probably no actor in America has access to the deep reserves of fury as well the skill to use them as Penn, and his primordial anger and pain in this film will raise the hairs on the back of your neck. Yet it is Penn's gift to also illuminate his character's distraught, remorseful sides, and not letting us forget how completely human Jimmy is makes him so much the scarier."
Slide 13: 21 Grams (2003)
Paul Rivers, an accident of fate: Alejandro González Iñárritu's 21 Grams captures the improbable ways that accident binds our lives to one another. Penn, known for playing cops, criminals, and crazy folk, impeccably plays the improbable role of a math professor with a heart problem. Having come to national attention playing a cocky clown, Penn goes full circle here, embodying with a strange passion a man empty of heart and purpose. In the New York Times, A. O. Scott highlights this emotional turn: "Passion is important here because the characters have it snatched from their souls. Pursuit of passion manifests itself for each of the three leads in totally different ways. Mr. Penn, an actor of sometimes embarrassingly direct volatility, plays Paul as a gentle but self-possessed man stripped of his intellectual arrogance. He still stands upright, but each move is unsteady. He regains part of that passion only in acts of dissolution, but he worsens things because these acts don't fulfill him."
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