Is Sean Penn our Marlon Brando? From the author of "Last Tango With Marlon".
| Marlon Brando and Sean Penn. Both great actors, each arguably the greatest of his generation. But the similarities only begin there. With so much in common, it's almost impossible to resist calling Sean Penn our Marlon Brando.
The first things one sees are the physical similarities. Both men shared an almost feline posture in youth; slender, forward-leaning with broad but slopping shoulders. Like big cats stalking through tall grass, they moved with heads low and forward and with hulking grace. You see it in Brando's turn as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Names Desire as he prowls the house like a caged tiger. It's there in Sean Penn's bobbing and weaving Jeff Spicoli from Fast Times At Ridgemont High or in his hunched, old-lion turn as Jimmy Markum in Mystic River. Interestingly, these characters are all outsiders, criminals, feral in domestic society, another similarity we'll get to shortly.
Other physical similarities that help make Sean Penn our generation's Marlon Brando are collected in close proximity just above the neck. Penn has the doleful eyes, the arching brows, the expressive forehead, the high cheekbones, the strong chin, the air of melancholy; he'd be ideal to play Brando if the opportunity ever arose.
Each man also plays his allure in a similar way; a kind of sullen sexiness that was perfected by Brando's contemporary, James Dean. Like Dean, Brando and Penn each trade in brooding intensity, be it the driving impetus behind Penn's performances as Michael O'Brien in Bad Boys and as Brad Whitewood Jr. in At Close Range, or Brando's legendary Terry Malloy in On The Waterfront or the simmering volcano that was Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather.
In these same performances two more similarities are underscored. Both Penn and Brando expertly combine the vicious and the humane, each capable of rendering the good and evil that exists in men and letting that rendering be both spontaneous and simultaneous. This is classically illustrated by the image of Don Corleone in the opening moments of The Godfather, lovingly stroking a cat (Brando's spontaneous innovation) while a local mortician asks him to commit murder in the name of revenge. Later, that powerful head of a criminal empire stands before the same mortician, over the body of his butchered, murdered son, and weeps. But we see this juxtaposition of the tough and tender, the tortured and the terrible, not only in Penn's Mystic turn, but in The Assassination of Richard Nixon as Samuel J. Bicke and as Matthew Poncelet in Dead Man Walking.
And a glimpse at these roles reveals another striking similarity between Brando and Penn, as mentioned earlier; these men are all criminals (save Waterfront's Terry Malloy). And they are not the only criminals these one-time leading men have played, by any means. Brando played a cross-dressing assassin in The Missouri Breaks, a kidnapper in Night Of The Following Day, a sadist in The Nightcomers. Sean Penn played a coked-up movie executive in Hurlyburly, a coked-up shyster in Carlito's Way and a coked-up spy in The Falcon and the Snowman. But neither artist backed down from unglamorous roles that might estrange them from their general audiences or from a lucrative female fan base.
But the similarities go beyond acting choices and into the acting. Each man immerses himself in his characters, from Brando's lead in Viva Zapata! to Sean Penn's upcoming performance as Harvey Milk, these men become their characters from the inside out. Brando did it famously in Last Tango In Paris, at such emotional cost that he never invested himself in another role thereafter.
But put the acting aside, as both of these great actors have tried to do; another similarity. Each moved into directing (Brando with One-Eyed Jacks and Sean Penn most recently with Into the Wild). And while a lot of actors become directors, they don't all disdain acting as much as both Brando and Penn seem to have done. Sean Penn has threatened to retire from the craft a number of times, and Brando's contempt for it is evident in any number of interviews, particularly his Larry King interview, where he sarcastically chides his stubbornly Hollywood-minded interviewer, "I'm glad you asked about acting, because acting is the most important thing in the world."
And beyond their careers, both men share a love of their privacy; beyond the needs of most of their contemporaries, it would seem. Sean Penn has reacted violently toward photographers for invading his privacy, and Marlon Brando had to buy an entire island to find the seclusion he so desperately craved.
Also in their private lives, both Brando and Penn were activists; Penn currently as much a high-profile liberal as Brando was in his own generation. Where Penn speaks out against Bush's war and practices his homespun relief efforts in a flood-ravaged New Orleans, Brando attended a 1968 Black Panther rally and more famously helped bring attention to the plight of the Native American Tribes, struggling to survive and reestablish their national identity. And, returning to the chosen profession of these activists, both Brando and Penn brought their politics back into their films (Brando with Burn! and The Ugly American, Sean Penn with All The King's Men).
Which leaves us to wonder if the trajectory of Sean Penn's life will be anything like the last half of Brando's life. Penn is still very fit, but his family does show a propensity for weight gain, as tragically illustrated in the premature passing of his brother, actor Christopher Penn. In their personal temperaments, both men seem given to flares of temper, as illustrated above. Both men seem strong-willed and idealistic, a characteristic than can often lead to unpopularity in Hollywood. Sean Penn has only recently been embraced by a skittish Entertainment community, causing him to include as part of an Independent Spirit Awards acceptance speech, "You tolerate me, you really tolerate me." Will Hollywood stop tolerating Penn the way it stopped tolerating Brando, who was at one point barred from getting the role of Don Vito Corleone, the role that put him back on top? Will audiences devalue Penn's talent as it so often did Brando's? Is Penn capable of slipping into the kind of lethargy and self-indulgence that marked Brando's downfall? Could Penn ever resort to a series of soulless performances without even the attempt to masquerade a single-mindedly commercial motivation? Hopefully, we have learned from the past, and we all, Mr. Penn included, will have enough taste and style to ever let Sean Penn truly become our Marlon Brando.