Best Actor: Sean Penn, “Milk”

by | February 23, 2009 at 12:09 AM | 81st Academy Awards

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The greatest actor of his generation, Sean Penn won the Best Actor award for his starring role in Milk, the story of openly gay San Francisco supervisor Harvy Milk, who was assassinated along with the city’s mayor, George Moscone, by fellow supervisor Dan White.

“You commie homo-loving sons of guns,” Penn said with a devilish grin. “I didn’t expect this. I want to be very clear I know how hard I make it to appreciate me often. But I am touched by the appreciation.”

Backstage, Penn praised his fellow Best Actor nominee, Mickey Rourke, calling him “an excellent bridge-burner at times.” He added, “He had me weeping throughout The Wrestler. I think what’s sensational about him is what’s always been sensational about him; he’s one of the great poetic talents that we have in acting.”

In the press room, he had plenty to say not only about the message of his film, but about the hateful protestors outside the Kodak Theater who carried anti-gay signs. “I’d tell them to turn in their hate card and find their better selves. It’s very sad in a way, because it’s a demonstration of such emotional cowardice to be so afraid to be extending the same rights to a fellow man as you would want for yourself.”

Frequently hailed as one of the finest actors of his generation, Sean Penn earned multiple Academy Award nominations for his visceral intensity onscreen and proved a powerful filmmaking talent at the helm of his own moody, character-driven dramas – all despite a near mythic persona as the ultimate Hollywood outsider. He owed his early reputation as a fighter to violent run-ins with unwelcome paparazzi, but it was soon apparent that the tenacious idealist was equally prepared to stand his ground on what kinds of stories he wanted to tell and what kind of life he wanted to lead.

While his breakout included a beloved teen comedy and a marriage to the top-selling pop singer of the day, Penn quickly established himself as a serious, committed artist whose fierce intellectual integrity meant he spent more time with poets than on red carpets. Penn’s political outspokenness – including taking out an ad in national newspapers calling for the impeachment of President George W. Bush – and his refusal to play the “Hollywood game” by making only the rarest of public appearances to promote his projects, left him with an unshakable reputation as hostile, arrogant and egotistical. Despite these formed opinions, no one could deny that Penn’s work was consistently of the highest caliber, making him a kind of modern-day Marlon Brando who was dependably spectacular in every project he took on.

Read more about Penn.