- The Washington Times - Friday, February 20, 2009

Sean Penn and Mickey Rourke are locked in battle in the best-actor category. Will Hollywood rally around an industry favorite, Mr. Penn, portraying a politically correct icon or put aside its biases to celebrate a longtime outsider prone to gaffes, Mr. Rourke, portraying a working-class hero?

The first thing to consider is the roles the pair played to secure their nominations.

Mr. Penn played the title role in “Milk,” portraying the rise and assassination of openly gay San Francisco City Council member Harvey Milk. The role itself presents a couple of key advantages. Three of the past four best-actor awards have been presented to actors playing historical figures.

Then there are the political considerations. The academy was rocked by charges of homophobia after the surprise loss of “Brokeback Mountain” to “Crash” in 2005, and Hollywood was stunned by the passage of Proposition 8, the California ballot initiative banning gay marriage. What better way to right those wrongs than by awarding an Oscar statuette to a man playing a martyred gay icon like Harvey Milk?

How can Mr. Rourke’s broken-down wrestler compete with that? Sure, Randy the Ram is a fine little character. The glimpse at his life provided by “The Wrestler” is an intriguing examination of the effect fame has on performers and to what lengths they will go to maintain its high. But Randy’s no symbol of hope and change, now, is he? He’s not an “important” figure from a marginalized group, is he?

The two actors are almost as different as the characters they portray.

Mr. Penn is a darling of the Hollywood elite. Between 1996 and 2004, he snagged four Oscar nominations, finally taking home the trophy in 2004 for “Mystic River.” He has an almost identical record in the Screen Actors Guild Awards, including a big win this year for “Milk.” (More on that shortly.)

His influence ranges far beyond the big screen. Mr. Penn headed up this year’s jury at Cannes. He is active in the liberal political scene and penned an apologia late last year for the Nation on Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez. He traveled to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to accuse the Bush administration of criminal negligence for its handling of the crisis.

Mr. Rourke, on the other hand, is in many ways a Hollywood pariah. Despite some early success in movies including “Diner” and “9½ Weeks,” his bad behavior and notoriously difficult working relationships led to his ostracism by the industry elite. This is his first Academy Award nomination. The fact that he’s even up for this statuette is something of a miracle — when director Darren Aronofsky chose the down-on-his-luck actor to star in “The Wrestler” over higher-profile choices such as Nicolas Cage, funding for the project dried up.

Now that he’s back in the spotlight, Mr. Rourke hasn’t exactly been lying low or endearing himself to the sensibilities of his colleagues. During the past few months, Mr. Rourke hurled an anti-gay slur at a reporter and said he wanted to “break his legs” for saying that he and co-star Evan Rachel Wood were an item.

Perhaps sensing the problems this would cause him, he tried to short-circuit the controversy by labeling Mr. Penn a homophobe in a text-message conversation. He also has earned the ire of his liberal colleagues by suggesting that former President George W. Bush not might be responsible for all the world’s ills.

“President Bush was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he told the British edition of GQ. “I’m not one of those who blames Bush for everything. This [stuff] between Christians and Muslims goes back to the Crusades, doesn’t it.”

Despite the gaffes, Mr. Rourke has done well on the awards circuit, taking home statuettes at the Golden Globes and the BAFTA Awards, the United Kingdom’s version of the Academy Awards.

At the SAG Awards, however, Mr. Penn took home the statuette. That is an ill omen for Mr. Rourke and his backers at the Oscars, as the Screen Actors Guild constitutes the single largest bloc of voters in the academy — 22 percent of the 5,829-member organization also belongs to SAG. SAG’s choice has correctly predicted the last four best-actor winners at the Oscars.

It also might be worth considering whether the staid elder members of the academy would vote for Mr. Rourke given his behavior at the Golden Globes and BAFTA Awards. His language during his acceptance speeches has been colorful, and Mr. Aronofsky was caught playfully flipping him the bird during the Globes.

It would be a shame if voters at the Academy Awards allowed their blinders to deter them from celebrating Mr. Rourke’s magisterial performance in “The Wrestler.” Mr. Penn’s performance is fine, in its own imitative and uninspired way, but he hasn’t breathed life into a new creation the way Mr. Rourke has with Randy the Ram.

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