So, I’ve been fiddling around with a project for over two years now and it is finally coming to fruition, so I’m really excited and I hope you will be too. When I explain my project, you’re probably going to wonder why the hell it took me two years to finally get it going, but my life is busy and I just had other priorities.
So here is the deal. For some time I’ve been aching to compare all of the actors who have won two Lead Actor Oscars. There is so much to debate because all of these wins seem to be polarizing. Even those that have strong fan bases and are considered classic wins have their detractors. Brando, while considered by the masses to be iconic in The Godfather, has been criticized for being a true Supporting player and undeserving of the Oscar in retrospect. So it has been my desire to review and compare and come up with an idea of who is the most deserving double winner.
But it’s no fun if my opinion is the only one being weighed in!
So, that is where the Twice a Best Actor Bloggers Roundtable was born. I’ve reached out to a few fellow bloggers to help me with this project, and so we will be taking one of the nine best actor winners each week (posts on the Friday of each week) and debating and grading their winning performances. These grades will then all be added together and by the end of the project (the project starts today and ends August 8th) we’ll have a ranking and overall winner of our Most Deserving Twice a Best Actor award!
Now, there was a small kink thrown into my idea when a certain Daniel Day-Lewis had to get all greedy and win a third Lead Actor Oscar, but we’ve made an executive decision and decided to oust his third win from the competition. It evens the playing field, and since we are talking about DOUBLE wins, it is only fitting that the win that made him a three time Oscar winner be disqualified.
So, meet our panel!
Alex from And So It Begins
Andrew from The Films the Thing
Drew from A Fistful of Films (duh)
Josh from The Cinematic Spectacle
Mario from Two Dollar Cinema
Shane from Film Actually
The assignment was somewhat simple. We reacquainted ourselves with these performances and wrote how we felt about them. Because we are all different bloggers with different writing styles, I wanted to keep this raw. Some of us say more, some less, some expound, but all of us remain ourselves and I wanted that to stay intact.
So here we go!
So first up we have Sean Penn, who won his first Oscar in 2003 for his performance in ‘Mystic River’. His second win came just five years later, in 2008, for ‘Milk’. Sean Penn has been a pretty diverse and respected actor for years now, not to mention a pretty opinionated celebrity. So, debating these wins is bound to bare unexpected results. I have to say, if this first debate is any indication of how things are going to play out, I’m excited.
Bring on the differences of opinion!
Jimmy Markum seemed like the Sean Penn role we had all been waiting for. Angry, vengeful, determined, ferocious – all traits Penn explored masterfully in his younger years (namely in At Close Range and Casualties of War), but years of age and regret helped make Jimmy Markum the most intensely fierce role of Penn’s career. I love his work in Mystic River and remain pleased that he was awarded so handsomely.
In one of the closest Best Actor races in Oscar history, this award was narrowly divided between Sean Penn and Bill Murray’s career-defining achievement in Lost in Translation. As noted, I’m still happy with Penn’s win, but I wouldn’t have complained had Murray pulled out the win. However, if I voted in the race today, my winner for Best Actor would be Sean Penn… in 21 Grams.
My Grade: A+
"Is that my Oscar in there?!" Yes, Sean Penn, unfortunately it is. With Penn's subtle-as-a-sledgehammer performance in Mystic River, his 4th attempt at a Best Actor Oscar, the Academy finally decided that he was overdue for a win. Why they chose to bestow the honor on him for this performance (and at the expense of Bill Murray's career-best work in Lost in Translation) continues to baffle me. Murray, who visibly showed how hurt he was by the loss on Oscar night, is probably still sulking about it. And rightfully so. Nothing about Penn's performance of a former convict turned grieving father feels even remotely credible in this ham-fisted manly melodrama. With a Boston accent as authentic as a can of Campbell's clam chowder, he plays each moment one of two ways: explosive, screaming hissy fit or seething, incoherent Brando-like mumble, with no varying degrees of emotion. Scenes that try to pass themselves off as poignant, like when he says he can't cry for his daughter while angry tears glisten his checks, come off as laughably hokey. And just in case you still haven't gotten exactly how he's feeling or thinking, the script belittles our intelligence further by having him state the most obvious facts aloud. Don't worry, we get it. If only the Academy hadn't been so easily swayed.
My Grade: D
There is something so painfully one-dimensional about Penn’s performance here that I find myself constantly baffled as to how it won an Oscar, and then again maybe it makes sense. He cries. He screams. He suffers. He grieves. I mean to say that he CRIES, SCREAMS, SUFFERS and GRIEVES! Oscar likes it when an actor can convey all those emotions in all caps, and Sean Penn knows how to press the Caps-Lock button. The thing is, as much as I want to blame Penn entirely for this, I have to say that the script did him no favors. While the core of the film may revolve around Markum’s tragic loss, Jimmy is probably the least fleshed out character in the whole film.
Dave Boyle, Celeste Boyle, Annabeth Markum and even Sean Devine all seem to have more discernable layers.
Jimmy Markum is a character that has so much internalized that he fails to ignite much interest. Instead, he emotes (I mean EMOTES) through one singular outlet, refusing to let anyone into his world. I just couldn’t invest in him, I couldn’t grieve with him, and with a character like Jimmy you almost need to do that in order to connect and feel moved.
My emotions were vacant.
Considering the ballot that Oscar had (which was rather strong), I’m sad that they didn’t go with a win for Murray. Not only was Murray’s performance far more layered and effective than Penn’s was, but Murray was an actor who had plowed away for years and was finally getting his moment to shine, much like Christopher Plummer a few years back (albeit, not AS late). Murray will not have the opportunities that Penn has as an actor to really showcase his talents. Penn already has another Oscar, while Murray hasn’t even garnered another nomination. It’s a shame, truly.
My Grade: D
Penn won his first Best Actor Oscar on his fourth nomination for Mystic River. He plays Jimmy Markum, an ex-con who must deal with his dark past when his daughter is murdered. Penn does a terrific job in the quiet moments of the film, but he goes a little over-the-top in some scenes, including the famous "Is that my daughter in there?" one. It's a good performance that, unfortunately, can be distracting sometimes. Still, he delivers a very strong performance worthy of an Oscar nod.
Did Penn deserve to win?
At the time, I was pleased to see him accept the award. Now, I wish Bill Murray's career-best performance in Lost in Translation had been recognized instead. Murray gives a complete performance without overplaying his scenes, which range from light comedic to more intimate dramatic ones. The final moments of his performance are devastating, full deserving of all the awards.
My Grade: A-
Who I was rooting for:
At the time, I had only seen Lost in Translation and Pirates. Like everyone else, I was pulling for Depp even though he didn’t have a chance. Remember, there was a time when Depp wasn’t churning out weird family flicks. This was still welcome back in 2003.
Penn plays Jimmy, a hard ass, working class ex-con, just trying to do right in the slums of Boston. His current life may even be considered a success, till his 19 year-old daughter is murdered. Almost instantly, Jimmy is back to his old ways, which were simmering just below the surface as it is. But as Boston’s finest slog through evidence, Jimmy’s going to get his answers – his own way.
Watch for: The scene when Jimmy and his crew storm the crime scene. It’s a tad overdone, but intense nonetheless.
Yay: The scene where Jimmy f—king devours his father-in-law.
Boo: For the main character, there are large chunks of time when he is not present.
Summary: Admittedly late to the party, I found Penn’s performance to be permanently stuck on about to explode. While obviously the role called for it, rarely is there any semblance of doubt or weakness (read: humanity). Yes, Jimmy is a tough guy living in a bad place (not to mention mired in the worst possible family crisis), so it makes sense. But for me, it didn’t resonate. When he does let loose, it occasionally feels way over-the-top, considering how reserved he is otherwise. Obviously, it’s a great performance. I just expected more seeing it for the first time ten years after the fact.
My Grade: B-
When I think of 'Mystic River' the most vivid memory is that big scene where Sean Penn’s Jimmy learns of his daughter’s death. In a blaze of raw emotion, he lets loose with steady screams of “Is that my daughter in there?!” Now, some may say he’s overacting but I think it’s an unfair criticism. Grief manifests itself in unpredictable ways and given the gruesome circumstances, I found him completely believable. In Jimmy’s case, it’s like he’s going through all the stages of grief at once.
It may seem like an unhinged, uncontrolled scene but he’s making conscious actorly choices throughout. Notice how he subtly mixes up the line readings, especially when he screams “Is that MY daughter in there?!” simultaneously conveying shock and denial.
Throughout the plot Penn is impressively emotive. He’s pitch-perfect all the way through, from his feelings of guilt (“What if you and I had gotten into that car?”), to overwhelming sadness (“I can’t even cry for her!”), to anger (“I’m gonna find the man and I’m gonna kill him”).
If there was one flaw to be found then, it would be the physicality of the role. In this regard, there’s no denying he’s perfect in that that pivotal early scene, ditto the final act when he goes into full “mafia boss” mode and inflicts his final act of chilling retaliation. However, the middle part isn’t as strong. Laurence Fishburne’s character remarks about the “tension in his shoulders” but I didn't get a full sense of this from the way he carried himself. Especially when compared to the full-bodied performances of fellow Oscar nominees Tim Robbins and Marcia Gay Harden, he comes up just a bit short imho.
Overall, it’s a strong performance, peaking in those memorable scenes that hit deep in your core. As such, he’s a worthy winner among a very strong lineup (I'm also very fond of Jude Law and Johnny Depp).
My Grade: A-
By 2008, I suppose I should’ve learned to stop doubting Sean Penn. But when it was announced that he would play Harvey Milk, an openly gay man with a profound sense of humanity, I wasn’t convinced that Penn could pull it off. How wrong could I be? Penn’s Milk is a perfect performance; sensitive, charming, real. There’s none of Penn’s signature angst, only immense positivity.
I love Sean Penn in Milk. Love him. But this Best Actor Oscar was Mickey Rourke’s Oscar. Period.
My grade: A
When Milk won Penn his second Oscar only 5 years later, you could sense the Academy collectively shaking their heads, "Well, shit. Why didn't we hold off just a couple more years to reward him?" Here was the actor, known for his intensity and darkness, going against type and actually looking like he was enjoying himself for a change. Bringing an appropriate lightheartedness to a tragic figure, he plays scenes in a way that generally surprise. Penn hardly seems the first pick to play the openly gay, real-life politician Harvey Milk, but throughout the film he shows he's ready for a challenge and eager to show another aspect of his talents. At the time of the film's release, I was quite impressed with this different side of Penn, who can usually come off as humorless and self-important. But in the years since, I've actually watched the stirring Oscar-winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk and have since found that Penn's work isn't quite as convincing when compared to the real man. Penn seems to be playing more of Milk's spirit than doing a genuine impersonation of him. In trying to disappear as much as he can into the role, he does certain things, like changing his voice (which is already naturally higher than Milk's) and then adds on other affectations that almost border on parody. And the choices that initially seemed refreshing now seem a little flashy and gimmicky. When Penn won the Oscar for this role, I recall being satisfied, but not entirely enthusiastic. Now I feel even more convinced that Mickey Rourke should have rightfully won that year for The Wrestler, a film I also recently revisited. Unlike Penn, Rourke's performance was just as compelling and complex as the first time I watched it.
My Grade: C+
For a person who has never really been in Penn’s camp, I have to admit that I was kind of taken aback by this particular performance. For an actor who has practically growled his way through every performance before this one, he was actually light on his feet (pun not intended, but I’ll own it). Here he was having fun. He was moving around with a looseness I hadn’t seen from him before and a natural air of comfort within his skin that drew me to him every step of the way.
But, as good as Penn is here, I feel as though he is severely crippled by his film. I am not one who feels that Milk is a great film. In fact, while I like certain aspects of it and find it a very easy film to watch, I feel as if Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay (which unfairly won an Oscar) was horribly skeletal and dismissive of whom Harvey Milk really was. It was so hell-bent on making Milk a martyr and a saint that it failed to make him a real person, and so while Penn finally taps into something more human and natural, he doesn’t really develop a whole person.
It feels like the makings of a great performance cut short.
It’s not like Oscar’s ballot was all that impressive though. While I truly loved Rourke (and felt that he should have won in a walk), the rest of the nominees failed to really excite me. It was a shallow year for Best Actors. Jenkins and Penn were both admirable nominees, but neither illicit much passion from me. So, I’m not mad at Penn’s win. He finally delivered something far removed from where he had been before, and he didn’t have to go full retard to snag that second Oscar.
If only Colin Farrell had received a richly deserved nomination!
My Grade: B
Penn won his second Best Actor Oscar on his fifth nomination for Milk. He plays Harvey Milk, the openly gay politician from California who was assassinated in the 1970's. Penn really goes for it in this performance, and that's what bothered me most. While most feel he became the character, I only see him acting. I cannot help but view the performance (and the film) as unremarkable Oscar bait, despite the importance of the subject matter. This performance didn't connect with me, but I can see why it won an Oscar.
Did Penn deserve to win?
I've always been bothered by this win, especially when the performance is compared to Mickey Rourke's performance in The Wrestler. As much as I love Penn as an actor, I was disappointed to see him end up winning a second Oscar that year. Rourke's fierce performance or Richard Jenkins' moving turn in The Visitor deserved to win. I would've even welcomed a triumph for Frank Langella's performance in Frost/Nixon.
My Grade: C+
Who I was rooting for:
Brad Pitt. I still haven’t seen Benjamin Button, but I’m always rooting for Brad. I had seen (and loved) The Wrestler, so I would have been happy for Rourke as well.
Penn plays Harvey Milk, the slain politician from San Francisco. The film follows Milk’s rise as small-time business owner to inspirational leader for human rights.
Watch for: Harvey’s death scene. It’s as emotionally powerful as anything I’ve ever seen. Truly haunting, and indicative of Penn’s masterwork.
Yay: The big speech right before Proposition 6 heads to vote. Under the threat of death, Milk’s message is delivered in truly rousing fashion.
Boo: Harvey is so entrenched in this national battle, he has zero time to mourn personal tragedies.
Summary: Penn vanishes into Harvey Milk, bringing to life a charming and charismatic man capable of being an emotional leader despite deep-rooted insecurities. There is a certain tenderness in all of his movements that’s incredibly disarming and indicative of a genius at work. But even better, and what sold me from the first frame, is the pain and determination in his eyes. Penn plays tough better than most, but as Milk, his toughness is delivered in a way you rarely ever see. It’s all heart.
My Grade: A
Penn continued to prove his impressive range with his 2nd Oscar-winning performance in 'Milk'. It's no secret that biopics are prime Oscar bait and thus, Penn already had a slight advantage going into the race. However, there's much more to this film than just a showcase for good mimicry. Upon this rewatch I was struck by how well-crafted the film is. Its "technical" craft aspects are all top-notch and it's surprisingly vibrant for such a fatalistic story. All the components are working perfectly in tandem and Penn's performance is no different.It's truly a selfless performance that functions primarily to serve the story rather than show off his acting skills.
Considering the nature of the character (an out and proud gay activist/politician), it's quite remarkable how restrained he is. Instead of forcing the political charisma, (an easy temptation in those public rally scenes), he just embodies the essence of Harvey Milk. Some of the film's most beautiful moments are his private scenes - dictating his memoirs and dealing with domestic drama - that don't even play to his public persona. As a result, you get the sense that this is real, multi-faceted human being and not just a movie character.
All this being said, I would still give the slight edge to Mickey Rourke for the Oscar. It's a tough call, but I think the degree of difficulty is a bit higher for Rourke. Apart from the helpful cues of playing a real person, there's already an inherent likability to Harvey Milk due to his compassion and heroism. As such, it's hard to remove that bias in terms of whether you just love the character, rather than the performance selling it on its own. On the other hand, Rourke plays a fictional character and much more of the film's success depends on him.
I was delighted for Penn when he won the Oscar, but I would still root for Mickey Rourke in this lineup. Outside of these two performances I wasn't wild about the other nominees, so I'm glad that the awards season narrowed it down to Penn vs Rourke.
My Grade: A-
There is a number assigned to each letter grade that helps us give a score to each performance. The highest number (and A+) would be 20 points. An F would warrant 0 points (a D gives you 5). So these are the scores for each performance as well as a collective score (which will be used at the end to rank each individual actor).
Sean Penn received a total of 73 points for his performance in Mystic River.
Sean Penn received a total of 85 points for his performance in Milk.
This is a collective total of 158 points.
As a point of reference, the highest collective score you can attain is 240.
So, that ends our first weeks roundtable! I hope you enjoyed this as much as we did. Next Friday we'll be discussing Gary Cooper's two contested wins, for Sergeant York and High Noon! Be sure to tune in for that.
And a special thanks to the five incredible bloggers who agreed to attack this project with me! It wouldn't be the same without any of you!