Oscars: Sean Penn’s surprise win?

Sean Penn backstage after winning the Oscar for best actor for his performance in "Milk." Copyrighted AP Photo | Matt Sayles.

Sean Penn backstage after winning the Oscar for best actor for his performance in Milk. Copyrighted AP Photo by Matt Sayles.

As Oscars surprises go, Sean Penn besting Mickey Rourke in the best actor race was not Juliet Binoche jumping ahead of Lauren Bacall in 1996 or Shakespeare in Love stunning Saving Private Ryan in 1998.

Mickey Rourke on the red carpet. Copyrighted AP Photo by Amy Sancetta.

Mickey Rourke on the red carpet. Copyrighted AP Photo by Amy Sancetta.

But the conventional wisdom was that Penn, nominated for Milk, was a fairly recent winner (2004 for Mystic River), and Mickey was the hot new comeback tale with The Wrestler. Rourke had already won a number of pre-Oscar acting prizes, including the Golden Globe. So, a lot of observers, including me, installed Mick as the favorite to win for a moving, harrowing  performance that included being stapled by a real-life wrestler called the Necro Butcher.

But when the envelope was opened, Penn’s name was called, and he stepped to the stage to thank, “You commie, homo-loving sons of guns.” Some saw it as reflexive. On Morning Joe, conservative commentator Joe Scarborough called awarding Penn for playing the trailblazing gay rights activist Harvey Milk, “Pavlovian,” saying he predicted it the moment he saw Penn was playing Milk. That’s a vast oversimplification, invoking a Pavlovian reflex by many conservatives to paint Hollywood as obsessed with boosting liberal politics.

Penn’s victory could have been predicted for a variety of reasons, and was by some media outlets including Enterainment Weekly, which I expect will probably offer up a report on how Penn won. In its annual article where it has some voters anonymously reveal their picks, two-out-of-three commentators chose Penn, and in reporting from a variety of sources, you could sense an undercurrent of support for the film and the performance. Late in the weekend, I was wondering if Louisville’s Gus Van Sant, who directed Milk, would have been a better upset pick for director than The Curious Case of Benjamin Button‘s David Fincher, who I incorrectly guessed.

But it turned out it was Penn with the Milk upset, and really it could have been predicted by ruling in one piece of conventional wisdom and ruling out another. It would have been good to remember that actors who play real people tend to do well at the Oscars. With Penn’s win, four out of the last five best actor winners have played historical figures. And the idea he’d won too recently was overplayed. Kevin Spacey won best supporting actor for The Usual Suspects in 1995 and best actor for American Beauty in 1999. Jodie Foster’s best actress honors were 1988 for The Accused and 1991 for Silence of the Lambs, Meryl Streep’s Oscars came in in 1979 and 1982, and, of course, there were Tom Hanks’ back-to-back best actor nods in 1993 and ’94. Clearly, Oscar does not have a problem awarding two trophies to actors who turn in strong performances in close succession.

And yes, some of the strong feeling for Milk is fueled by past and present social issues that both Penn and Dustin Lance Black, who won best original screenplay for Milk, addressed those from the stage, last night. But Penn did not win for a reflexive left-wing bias and he didn’t steal an honor from Rourke. He earned the prize for being one of the best actors of our day, and the victory was more predictable than we might have thought.

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