Penn - etrating
Who are the two best actors in America? Robert Duvall and Sean Penn, IMHO. To judge by a fascinating interview with Penn in today's Boston Globe, there is no love lost between them. But that's not what strikes me about the interview. What strikes me is Penn's ability to relate the political side of his brain to the artistic side. For what are probably very good historical reasons, artists tend to compartmentalize these.
Sean Penn is the son of Leo Penn, a blacklisted figure from the bad old McCarthy days, so it is not surprising that he is a man of the left. Yet not the Hollywood left, I'm tempted to say. It's a matter of proportion. Most movie people live in a bubble, and when they try to connect with the world, they typically do so by taking highly moralistic, simplistic, one-sided stands on pet issues. (A political style found on both sides of the ideological divide, needless to say.)
What's impressive about Penn is not that he never takes such stands (he does), but rather that he does more. In plugging his new film, "The Assassination of Richard Nixon," he brings the open, imaginative, penetrating side of his mind - the artistic side - to bear on a political topic. On Nixon and George W. Bush, he sound more like a thoughtful historian than a celebrity actor.
Too bad he couldn't muster the same sympathy for Robert Duvall.