Sean Penn offers warm "Milk" to movie fans

Sun Nov 30, 2008 4:06pm EST
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By Bob Tourtellotte

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Even in liberal Hollywood, an openly gay actor with a marketable name is a hard commodity to find, and if anyone should know, it is the filmmakers behind new movie, "Milk."

Fortunately for them they had Sean Penn, the very straight Oscar winner who has loyal fans and seems able to play any role in front of him, including San Francisco's gay politician Harvey Milk who was murdered on the job in November, 1978.

"He came in kind of ready made" for the role, director Gus Van Sant told Reuters about winner of the best actor Academy Award for playing a hardened ex-convict in 2003's "Mystic River."

In real life, Penn has maintained a tough guy image ever since getting into scrapes with the paparazzi early in his career. Yet in the movies, he has shown wide versatility, whether playing a mentally retarded man in "I Am Sam," a jazz guitarist in "Sweet and Lowdown" or a death row inmate in "Dead Man Walking" -- all which earned him Oscar nominations.

Harvey Milk may be his best role yet, many critics say. Writing for USA Today, reviewer Claudia Puig called Penn's performance "magnificent, career-topping" and Kenneth Turan, in a generally mixed review of the overall film, called Penn's performance "strong and convincing."

In recent years, several A-list actresses have come out of the closet as lesbians, including Ellen DeGeneres and Rosie O'Donnell. But it has been a rare event for gay men. Perhaps the highest profile actor to do so was TV star Neil Patrick Harris.

"It was hard to find gay actors who were out," said openly gay director Van Sant. "There really aren't (many). You could do it, but they would be unknowns and that would be fine with me, but the money (financiers) would start to get nervous."

CHANGING TIMES   Continued...

<p>Actor Sean Penn arrives for a Cinema Society screening of the film "Milk" in New York November 18, 2008. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson</p>