Sean Penn – an enigma?



Throughout the entire two-month shoot of Fast Times at Ridgemont High in 1982, Sean Penn insisted on remaining in the Jeff Spicoli character on and off the set. He immersed himself in his character’s persona and refused to answer anyone unless they called him Jeff. Even his message bank was subject to the same conditions. One day, while sitting around waiting to shoot a scene, he suddenly stubbed out his cigarette on the palm of his hand. He later explained that he felt himself drifting out of character and that the cigarette thing was a kind of wake-up call to refocus. Uh-huh. Well, he is a wonderful actor, so maybe that’s why.

For some inexplicable reason this picture is now considered a ‘classic’ by people who probably should know better. Perhaps, it is because the young Phoebe Cates (later to marry Kevin Kline) walks out of a swimming pool topless. (That certainly worked for me). Maybe, Jennifer Jason Leigh’s full frontal was the reason. No, on second thought that can’t be it. The shot was never used once it looked like giving the film a dreaded X rating. Or is it because three of its featured players (Nicolas Cage, Forest Whitaker and Penn) would go on to win Best Actor Oscars? Maybe that’s it. Incidentally, off the set Penn started dating Pamela Springsteen, the sister of ‘the Boss’, Bruce Springsteen. She appears here as Dina Phillips in a minor role. The couple were actually engaged for a while but it didn’t last.

Sadly, there was a tragic connection to the movie, however. Two in fact. Beautiful Lana Clarkson made her speaking debut here playing Mr Vargas’s young wife. Twenty-one years later she would be shot to death by music producer Phil Spector in his home. His lawyers would delay his conviction for six years until he deservedly copped 19 years to life in 2009 for second degree murder. I have studied his crime in detail and am utterly mystified how he was not convicted of first degree murder. Then again, the ‘guilty as all get out’, O. J. Simpson got off Scot free, so anything’s possible in an American court I guess. Tragedy again touched on one of the stars of this picture when Miss Leigh’s real life father, actor Vic Morrow, was killed in a helicopter mishap in 1983, a few weeks before Fast Times was released, on the set of Twilight Zone: The Movie.

Penn’s personal run-ins with photographers are too numerous to mention here, but it suffices to say that he loathes their interfering with his life, probably more than any other contemporary star. For an intelligent man (and he is certainly that) his failure to anticipate the extent of media intrusion on his life, especially when he married Madonna, is mystifying to say the least. She only had to sneeze back then and every magazine on the planet started writing her obituary. The woman was a walking headline, deliberately so more often than not. She virtually lived by the adage, ‘any publicity is good publicity’, and he must have been aware of that.

Just before Penn wed the ‘Material Girl’ in 1985, Penthouse and Playboy got their hands on some photos snapped of his bride to be back in her hungry New York days. Like scores of other young hopefuls Madonna had posed naked for art classes and photographers for a pittance, and had signed a release form enabling the series of pictures to be used for whatever purpose the photographer desired. Both series that surfaced in the 80s did not show her at her best. Then, to make matters worse, a soft-core porn film featuring the future Mrs Penn suddenly popped up as well. The aptly named A Certain Sacrifice was quickly made available on video. I have not seen it, by the way. I’m afraid Madonna, in my opinion, is about as sexy as a pair of army socks.

Anyway, once all these distractions were put behind them, Sean and Madonna tied the knot at the cliff-top mansion of millionaire Dan Unger in Malibu. It was a media free-for-all. A helicopter hovering over the scene was allegedly fired upon by someone on the premises. The media could not wait to imply that it was Penn who did the shooting – and maybe it was. A huge sign scrawled in the beach sand that read ‘FUCK OFF’ was also attributed to the volatile star. Both incidents might well have been the actions of guests or employees, perhaps under orders from Penn, perhaps not. In any case he was not afforded the benefit of the doubt. He seldom is.

According to Douglas Thompson’s book Like a Virgin: Madonna Revealed, her marriage received its deathblow at Christmas in 1988 when a drunken, despairing Penn broke into their Malibu home, tied her to a chair, beat her and sexually assaulted her. Thompson claims that when he asked police officers about the nature of the sexual offence, they would say only that it was ‘unique’. It is thought that Madonna’s ‘close’ relationship with Sandra Bernhard really got to her husband. He became convinced she was leaving him for another woman. Anyway, it eventually came to nothing when Madonna dropped all charges, despite strong opposition from the police.

Penn became involved with his second wife Robin Wright on the set of the 1990 film State of Grace. Their second child together, a son, was born in 1993 and given the unfortunate name of Hopper Jack for two of Sean’s closest friends, Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson. (No doubt, the kid gives thanks every day that his dad’s best mates weren’t Meatloaf and Sting!) Penn’s second marriage lasted nearly two decades (although they separated a few times before ultimately divorcing), and during those breaks Sean’s behaviour was as unpredictable as ever.

On one occasion he allegedly urinated into a wine bottle while dining in a fancy restaurant with actresses Ashley Judd and Mira Sorvino. Living out of a trailer on his 50-acre estate, he claims to have performed seven citizen arrests of individuals trespassing on his property. ‘I nearly cut the ear off one guy’, he said. ‘I had excessive force charges against me. I cut his ear with a broken salad dressing bottle’. Much of his nastiness arose from his alcohol abuse, a crutch he turned to when his private life encountered major problems.

In 2010 Robin Wright and Sean Penn divorced after 19 years together, 14 of them as husband and wife. Lately (2015) he has been deeply involved with the much younger Charlize Theron (she is 39, he is 54), and, according to Penn, they intend marrying. He insists this will be his first marriage, which must absolutely thrill the socks off his two exes. He has two grown children (with Robin Wright) and is prepared to adopt Charlize’s son. Recently, he related an amusing anecdote about his beautiful 16 year-old daughter Dylan going out on her first date. His advice to the guy about to take her out was nothing if not candid. ‘Just let me say one thing to you’, he said. ‘Whatever you do with my daughter tonight, I’m gonna do with you when you get home.’ That must have been a fun date.


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