Back in 1986, when the Iran-Contra scandal became news, Rhino Records reissued a Phil Ochs CD titled “A Toast to Those Who Are Gone.” A fiery troubadour of the 1960s best known for “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore,” Ochs was also a political activist who not only had denounced the Vietnam War at home but had traveled to Chile, South Africa and Tanzania to promote world peace, inspiring the FBI to amass a 410-page file on his six-string dissent.
What surprised me the most about the CD’s release, however, wasn’t that Ochs had found a cult audience in Reagan’s America but that actor Sean Penn -- known at the time mainly for his hilarious turn as surfer dude Jeff Spicoli in the movie “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and as the tabloid-hounded husband of Madonna -- had written the liner notes. The intense, furrow-browed Penn was enraptured by this antihero’s melodic, unrestrained voice.
“I began to feel a disturbing familiarity with his sense of hope in its contrast to the ever-present pain,” Penn wrote. “I was in the midst of some ‘to the brink’ troubles of my own at that time; and it seemed, as it always does, that no one else could suffer to the degree we all claim as exclusive.”
Several things become clear when reading Richard T. Kelly’s “Sean Penn: His Life and Times,” a wonderfully engaging, if at times amateurish, oral history-biography of the Academy Award-winning actor: that Penn suffers greatly, relishes high jinks, needs comrades-in-arms and takes his folk music seriously. Drawn to grim, unsparing, emotionally wrenching screenplays, Penn artistically lives by the tortured Bob Dylan lament: “When you think that you’ve lost everything / You find out you can always lose a little more.”
Unflinching in his artistic integrity, Penn over the last two decades has forged fast friendships with such gifted actors as Jack Nicholson, Harry Dean Stanton, Christopher Walken, Tim Robbins, Benicio Del Toro, Anjelica Huston, Susan Sarandon and, most important, his wife, Robin Wright Penn, all of whom are interviewed in this well-assembled book. Like a collective chorus, they insist that loyalty is Sean Penn’s calling card, audacity his middle name and risk his all-seasons muse.
An ongoing theme in Kelly’s book is discerning what attracts the 44-year-old alpha-dog actor to confused and lovesick characters in the throes of utter despair. Whether it’s a mentally disabled father losing his daughter to social workers (“I Am Sam”), an imprisoned murderer on death row (“Dead Man Walking”) or a geek determined to destroy the U.S. president (“The Assassination of Richard Nixon”), Penn dives so deeply into the tormented souls of his broken-down characters that he seemingly becomes them. Organizing his book in chronological fashion, Kelly, who interviewed Penn extensively for the book, tries to explain through the voices of his subject and others why “Seaner” is attached to rank losers, disheveled rogues, bitter malcontents, desolate drifters, quirky outcasts and tormented lovers. Born in 1960 on Aug. 17 (the same day as Robert De Niro) to director-actor Leo Penn and actress Eileen Ryan, Penn championed the underdog even at an early age, growing up in the fashionable communities of Woodland Hills, Sherman Oaks and Malibu. As his brothers Michael and Christopher attest, he was always the furthest thing from a bully, always defending the weak and brutalized.
“I think Sean was always a bit embarrassed at having had a happy childhood,” his mother once told Woody Allen. “I think he wanted to identify with the other side of the tracks. He felt bad for people who had a bad time, and he wanted to say, ‘I know what you’re going through, even if you don’t think I do, believe me.’ ”
Part of this sympathy for the dispossessed comes from his father, a World War II bomber pilot who was blacklisted during the McCarthy era. A proud Hollywood liberal, his father went on to direct such popular TV dramas as “Ben Casey,” “Dr. Kildare” and “Marcus Welby, M.D.” From early childhood Sean Penn was comfortable around cameras and actors, and as he got older, he was mesmerized by such gritty counterculture films as “Easy Rider” and “A Clockwork Orange.”
Although only at midcareer, Penn has had a life that is one long comet’s tail of varied experiences. He took Charles Bukowski to a U2 concert at Dodger Stadium; directed Nicholson in two feature films; tripped on LSD in New Orleans; rode with Hells Angels-like motorcycle clubs; named his son after Dennis Hopper and his daughter after Dylan; flew to Mexico with Marlon Brando to visit Gabriel Garcia Marquez; reported on the Honolulu Marathon with the late Hunter S. Thompson; and spent time in an L.A. County jail for a minor offense, killing time by reading Raymond Carver and William S. Burroughs while serial killer Richard Ramirez slipped delusional fan notes into his cell. A staunch advocate of prison reform, Penn would have been a civil rights lawyer if he hadn’t been an actor.
It’s become a cliche to say, as Brando did, that Penn is one of the greatest actors of his generation; he very well may be. But, as Kelly helps us understand, he is culturally more than just a thespian or celebrity. His outsider mystique has catapulted him into our political culture as well. Penn journeyed to Iraq in December 2002, causing an uproar in such conservative media outlets as the New York Post and Fox News. Undeterred by savage criticism, Penn went back to Baghdad again a year later as a correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle.
Obsessed with American politics, Penn was intent on keeping alive in Bush’s America the old flame of patriotic dissidence ignited by people like early 20th century journalist John Reed. (When checking into hotels, for example, he often uses the pseudonym Mr. Sinclair, an off-handed tribute to his political hero Upton Sinclair.) He championed Democratic Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich for president, then canvassed door to door in New Mexico and Nevada for the Democratic candidate, Sen. John F. Kerry. He was -- and is -- a dyed-in-the-wool ABB (Anybody But Bush) Democrat. Buying a full-page ad in the Washington Post (Oct. 18, 2002), Penn challenged the president with measured outrage similar to that of Ochs in his humorous anthem “Here’s to the State of Richard Nixon.” A few months later, Penn bought a full-page ad in the New York Times (May 30, 2003), detailing his firsthand observations from Iraq in a 4,500-word essay under the headline “Kilroy’s Still Here.”
Those watching the Academy Awards tonight will see Penn handing out the Oscar for best actress. What they won’t witness is him fleeing out the backdoor like a restless mutineer, lighting up an American Spirit cigarette and talking late into the evening with friends like Clint Eastwood and Bono about his upcoming projects -- always another project. And one thing is for certain. Whether he is acting, directing, writing or dissenting, he will do it his way, with the least amount of negotiation possible. “I still can’t get it through my head that they had an issue with my going to Baghdad, but we’ve got a guy, [Iran-Contra figure] Oliver North, who on record lied to Congress, getting special access to do war stories on TV,” an incredulous Penn explains at book’s end. “There’s never been a heroic moment in the life of Oliver North. He’s a shameful human being, and there seem to be more and more of them.” Phil Ochs would be proud. *