Letters to the stars: Dear Sean Penn

Art & Culture

Dear Sean Penn,

It's impressive how few good films an actor can make, and still be taken seriously as a major actor. Take you as an example.

Since 2000, you have appeared in 15 films, with one more to come later this year. Of those films, three are worth talking about – Mystic River, 21 Grams and Milk. Among the others less worthy of admiration are such forgettable titles as It's All About Love, All The King's Men, Fair Game, and an inexplicable appearance in Tree Of Life. That's a 20% success rate, which is pretty good compared to many actors, but still nothing to write home about.

Don't get me wrong. I think you're a fantastic actor – at your best. And there's nothing wrong with lending your name and face to a mate's film, even if your mate is Terence Malick, and he asks you to stumble around modern Chicago with no sense of meaning or purpose. Or impersonating a wacked out pop star, or even playing yourself (Sean Penn). One of the privileges of being a film star who can act, is that you can do pretty much what you want as long as you come up with the goods every so often. Indeed, it's almost obligatory – unless you're Matt Damon, which you're not – to make a few off the wall films just to show that you're an artist at heart.

And to be fair, you have never followed a very conventional path in your career, which is now all of 30 years old (with TV appearances going back another 7 years). You just launched straight in there with a starring role in Taps, costarring Tom Cruise, and you have never looked back – apart from Shanghai Surprise with Madonna, but I expect she made you do it. If I had to pick one favourite, it would be Dead Man Walking, costarring Susan Sarandon, and directed by her then partner Tim Robbins. It's a film that embraces complexity, grace and redemption in a way that is almost unheard of in modern cinema, and your performance as Matthew Poncelet is perfect. In my dream world, there are dozens more films with  this level of subtlety and heart. They gave the Oscar to Nic Cage that year for playing a drunk, which is higher up the Worthy Of An Award Chart than being a murderer. Presumably.

My other favourite role – and it may be significant that this is another very unsympathetic character – is Emmet Ray in Woody Allen's Sweet and Lowdown. Emmet is an almost unredeemable human being, apart from his virtuosity as a jazz guitarist, second only to Django Rheinhardt. He's vile to women, and is self-absorbed to the nth degree. And he drinks too much. Your lack of vanity as an actor is extremely impressive, and your commitment to the role total. It's also the last really good Woody Allen film, and one of the few where the central role could not have been played by himself, at whatever age.

The Oscar finally came for playing Harvey Milk in Milk, and it was richly deserved. But that's nearly 5 years ago, and it's about time we had another signature performance to remind us how good you are at your best. It may be playing Mickey Cohen in Gangster Squad, but my fear is that you have acquired a bad case of Wannabebobby, and that your Cohen may be a variation of De Niro's Al Capone in The Untouchables. Judging by the picture above, De Niro has become your iconic role model, and this is not a Good Idea. It all probably stems back to 1989, when you appeared together in a truly awful film called We're No Angels. And I can see why you might think that being like him would be a bonus. But a brief study of his recent and not so recent career, would suggest that you should look elsewhere for inspiration. And ditch that phony little goatee while you're at it.

By Phil Raby

Front Row Films

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