Penn vs. Rourke: “Acting” vs.”acting.”

33DFE731-1147-4360-B0DB-A3D81E8C9C10.jpg have conflicted emotions about last night’s Best Actor win going to Sean Penn. Firstly, I’ve become a Mickey Rourke fanatic and was certain–after he nabbed a BAFTA, and Indie Spirit, and a Globe–that the juice was behind him. But also because when I first saw Sean Penn in Milk I was raving about it to my friend on the phone while driving home.

I believe my exact words were, “If they don’t give it to him the entire Academy is a homophobic piece of sh*t.” I thought that Sean’s performance showed a determined, amazing person, whose infectious vitality and energy touched everyone around him. After about 15 minutes I forgot that it was Sean Penn that I was watching.

I cried like a baby throughout the end of Milk. I believe that someone very important was taken away from the gay rights movement and that Harvey Milk was the MLK of gays and lesbians. I believed that Sean Penn put forth a very brave performance, and that he was as far away from being Sean Penn –or at least the public persona of Sean Penn–as I could possibly imagine.

But I had yet to see The Wrestler. When I finally did, I was struck by the visceral physicality of Rourke’s performance, and initially a thought popped into my head: “Where’s this great performance everyone was talking about?” I anticipated cataclysmic meltdowns and eruptions of overwrought emotions. You know, sort of like Sean Penn’s anguished performance in Mystic River, for which he was also awarded an Oscar. The Academy has trained us into thinking that that sort of performance, what I call Acting with a capital A, is the best type of acting.

I realized about midway through why Rourke’s performance was so powerful. He wasn’t Acting. He was being. The world of loneliness that Randy the Ram inhabited could be seen with the smallest of movements– how he cast his eyes down when he asked Marisa Tomei to talk to him about his daughter. Or when he sat gamely at the community center with a smile fixed on his face, how obviously joyful he was when someone came in and asked for his autograph. You could sense his uncertainty and fear when he looks at his fellow ex-wrestlers and sees how decrepit and abused their bodies are. He knows they foreshadow his fate.” It’s all in his face and his body language. It is why Pauline Kael wrote in her New Yorker review of Diner that it felt like Rourke was acting “just to you.”

I didn’t cry at the end of The Wrestler, but it felt like a lump had been lodged in my throat and sat there for a few days as I thought about Rourke’s performance. Sure, I knew his back story, but the problem I have with the common argument that Mickey Rourke wasn’t acting in The Wrestler is that Mickey Rourke is clearly acting. He isn’t a failed wrestler with an estranged daughter who hates him, and he didn’t have a heart attack, and he doesn’t work in a deli, and he isn’t in love with a stripper (OK, he might be in love with a stripper in real life, that I’ll give you.)

One method of acting employs taking moments of your own life and finding a way to apply it to the scene. Sean Penn, even though he is not gay, found a way to fall in love with James Franco, likely by tapping into his own emotions for his own wife and transferring them to Franco. There are parallels between Penn and Milk, but they may not be as obvious to our naked eye; they are only known to Penn. Rourke is more of an open book and has given so many interviews about his isolation from Hollywood that it might have actually hurt him with the Academy rather than help him.

My other issue is rewarding a straight actor for playing gay. If gay and lesbians equal rights are truly here, isn’t it time that gayness itself in a character isn’t singled out for ‘bravery’ in an actor? Is the very act of kissing the same gender seen as so difficult that it’s Oscar-worthy? If kissing undesirable screen partners garners Oscar wins, then maybe every Hollywood waif who makes out with aging Hollywood actor deserves similar acclaim.

The other question to consider: If Sean Penn was gay, would the performance been as heralded? It’s possible. Part of Penn’s success was his ability to capture the essence of the Harvey Milk–his corniness, his sweetness, his determination, his, yes, gayness. But then again, if Penn were gay, the Academy might have considered persona and character too similar–and not Acting.

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