Can Anything Stop Sean Penn?

Until about a month ago, it looked as if Mickey Rourke was the one to beat for the Best Actor Oscar. His movie, “The Wrestler,” had closed the New York Film Festival to excellent reviews. Rourke, a notorious loose cannon, was (more or less) behaving himself during interviews. And Hollywood (not to mention America) loves nothing more than a comeback story, which Rourke represented in spades. Then Sean Penn showed up (as the gay activist Harvey Milk in “Milk”), pulled ahead, and cracked one of his high-living smiles at Mick in the rear view. Why will Penn likely prove upstoppable from now until February 22, when the Oscars are handed out? 1) Enough time has probably elapsed since his last win, for “Mystic River” — it’s been five years, exactly the interval between Hilary Swank’s triumphs; 2) gay rights is a hot topic right now, given the political activity in the wake of Prop 8’s passage in California; 3) besides Rourke, Penn’s only serious contenders look to be Leonardo diCaprio for “Revolutionary Road,” which lacks the kind of Oscar-bait final scenes that Penn has in “Milk,” and Frank Langella for “Frost/Nixon,” and politically it doesn’t feel like a Republican year; and 4) when actors play gay characters who end tragically, they have a remarkably good shot at the trophy. LemonWade’s Oscar watcher Rex Okpodu has sent me a list from the Los Angeles Times of the six previous play-gay winners (out of 26 nominees), and five of them died terrible deaths onscreen. (Hollywood cheers for dying queers.)

And the case against a Penn? As far as I can see, it’s pretty weak: 1) he’s won too recently; 2) there will be a backlash against all things “Milk”; and 3) “Milk” won’t do enough box office to win Oscars. The last reason is the most persuasive: I doubt the Penn movie is going to attract as many people to the multiplex as “Brokeback Mountain,” which had many more straight characters, and was much more closeted (i.e. acceptable to older Academy voters) in its depiction of homosexuality.

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