In Defense of Sean Penn

The outspoken director, actor and political activist Sean Penn is no stranger to controversy. Now, however, he’s insulted the rectal cancer folks. At least, that’s the conventional wisdom. But what did Penn actually say?

In response to CBS reporter Lara Logan’s question on how Penn felt about criticism of celebrities in Haiti, Penn replied, “Do I hope that those people die screaming of rectal cancer, yeah… But I’m not going to spend a lot of energy on it.” You can watch the video for yourself.

Sean Penn is not one for moderation. Just a week ago on comedian Bill Maher’s HBO show “Real Time,” Penn said that reporters and pundits who refer to Hugo Chavez as a dictator should go to jail. (Like Christopher McCandless, the quixotic seeker whose fatal trek to Alaska Penn memorialized in the 2007 film “Into the Wild,” Penn never lets an opportunity to overstate, overdo or over-dramatize pass him by.)

But come on, people. To me, a survivor of ovarian cancer, the comment sounds like an off-the-cuff remark meant as a joke. In Web World, of course, no such remark goes unpunished. Washington Examiner reporter Tara Palmeri ambushed Penn at a charity event. Palmeri asked, “How have you seen your critics change since you mentioned that they should die of rectal cancer?”

Palmeri was asked to leave. She’s lucky Penn didn’t throttle her. I might have. (And no, literalists, I don’t mean that in any concrete sense; ever heard of a figure of speech?)

Here’s the thing: Many cancer survivors, like myself, find all the squirming and recoiling to the word “rectal” either amusing or annoying. The only cancer-related word that would make me wince is “recurrence.”

I feel for rectal cancer survivors. I’ll bet most would try to coast along with a simple “I have cancer” to friends and acquaintances. But that attempt at obfuscation would be in vain, since it would be only a matter of time – ranging from one second to one minute – before people inquired what kind of cancer.

Lucky me by contrast to have had ovarian cancer – located in the abdomen, but still rather vague. Certainly not as visually suggestive as testicular. Aside from my atrocious survival statistics, the worst thing about ovarian cancer was the puns of advocacy groups devoted to “ovar’coming” cancer.

Ovarian awareness ribbons are colored a pretty teal. Guess what the initial ribbon color for colorectal cancer was? What would be the worst, most tasteless choice? That’s right! (Colorectal survivors, understandably appalled, switched to navy blue.)

Back to Sean Penn: The man is a genius. My years as a film critic proved that to me, even when you limit the scope to his acting ability alone. And when I saw Penn’s 1998 interview on the Bravo channel’s Inside the Actor’s Studio, I knew he was an artist rather than a craftsman. Among hacks and sell-outs (in an industry that handsomely rewards both) Penn fights an uphill battle for integrity and transcendence.

Near the end of the hour-long program, he talked about Charles Bukowski, who, Penn said, found poetry in the ordinary details of living without exaggerating for dramatic effect. Penn said that while you may feel exhilarated during a movie, if you feel more alone after you walk out,

…then the director has crossed us. And I don’t think there’s any room for a film like that. As entertaining as that [movie] might be, even when we think back and want to excuse it – ‘well, when I was a kid I saw a movie like that and I loved it’ – I think we’re less people than we would have been had we not seen it. So that’s what I love about the people who found poetry without creating a world we can’t touch.

In the 12 years since Penn said those words, movies have only become more computer-generated and unreal. Of course, the very qualities that make him a great actor also make him intemperate. But whether you agree or disagree with his politics, Penn has consistently stood up for the dignity of art and artists.

He could have done so quite comfortably from a villa in the south of France or an apartment overlooking Central Park, but instead he did it again and again in the context of the world’s poor, the powerless, and the suffering.

Sorry, Sean Penn haters. You’re just plain wrong.

[originally published by Politics Daily in 2010]

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About Quixotic Chick

I write. I take pictures. I survived cancer.
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