Alt Film Guide
Classic movies. Gay movies. International cinema. Socially conscious & political cinema.
Home Movie CraftsActors + Actresses Sean Penn: Honorary César Goes Hollywood (Again)

Sean Penn: Honorary César Goes Hollywood (Again)

Sean Penn
Sean Penn in 21 Grams. In Hollywood since 1981 (Taps), Penn has been seen in more than 30 films, both comedies and dramas, hits and bombs, ranging from Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Shanghai Surprise in the 1980s to Up at the Villa and 21 Grams in the early 21st century. His performances have also run the gamut, but enough Academy voters did like him quite a bit in Dead Man Walking (1995), Sweet and Lowdown (1999), I Am Sam (2001), and Mystic River (2003) – he was a Best Actor Oscar nominee for the the first three titles, and the winner for the last.

Sean Penn: Honorary César once again goes Hollywood

Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

Sean Penn, 54, will receive the 2015 Honorary César (César d’Honneur), the French Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Crafts has announced. That means the French Academy’s powers-that-be are once again trying to make the Prix César ceremony relevant to the American media.

Their tactic is to hand out the career award to a widely known and relatively young – i.e., media friendly – Hollywood celebrity. (Scroll down for more such examples.)

In the words of the French Academy, Honorary César 2015 recipient Sean Penn is a “living legend” and “a stand-alone icon in American cinema.” The Academy has also hailed the two-time Best Actor Oscar winner as a “mythical actor, a politically active personality and an exceptional director.”

Penn will be honored at the César Awards ceremony on Feb. 20, ’15.

Sean Penn movies

Sean Penn movies range from the teen comedy Fast Times at Ridgemont High to the sociopolitical drama Milk. He has been featured in nearly 50 titles in a film career that spans more than three decades.

Penn began acting in front of the camera while still a teenager, landing bit parts in a handful of television productions. According to the IMDb, in the mid-to-late ’70s he could be spotted in the TV series Little House on the Prairie and Barnaby Jones.

In 1981, he was seen in two TV movies, both directed by former blacklisted actors:

  • Leo Penn’s Hellinger’s Law, with Telly Savalas, Rod Taylor, and Melinda Dillon.
  • Sam Wanamaker’s The Killing of Randy Webster, featuring Hal Holbrook, Dixie Carter, and Jennifer Jason Leigh.

A busy television actor and director from the early ’60s to the mid-’90s, Leo Penn was Sean Penn’s father. Among his few big-screen acting credits were a bit part in William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and the lead in Reginald Le Borg’s B crime thriller Fall Guy (1947). He died in 1998.

‘Taps,’ ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High’

Also in 1981, Sean Penn landed his first feature film role in Harold Becker’s Taps (1981). Penn delivered a star-making performance in this military school-set drama toplining Timothy Hutton and veteran George C. Scott, and featuring fellow star-in-the-making Tom Cruise in his second film role.[1]

Another notable Sean Penn film of the ’80s was Amy Heckerling’s box office hit Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), written by Cameron Crowe. Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold, and Phoebe Cates had key roles in the teen dramatic comedy.

In John Schlesinger’s capable political drama The Falcon and the Snowman (1985), Penn was reunited with fellow Taps player Timothy Hutton. Despite its generally well-received cast, the film was not a success.

Sean Penn and Madonna Shanghai SurpriseSean Penn and Madonna in ‘Shanghai Surprise.’

Shanghai Surprise

In fact, Penn’s film career would alternate between a few hits and numerous box office duds. Among the latter was Jim Goddard’s Shanghai Surprise (1986), which, despite fierce competition, some consider one of the worst big-budget Hollywood movies of the decade.

In this romantic crime drama with an “exotic” setting, Penn co-starred opposite his then wife. That’s pop singer Madonna.

Carlito’s Way (1993) was a notable early ’90s effort. In this Brian De Palma-directed crime drama, Penn was teamed with Al Pacino and Penelope Ann Miller.

Also worth noting, Matt Palmieri’s short Cruise Control (1992) landed an Academy Award nomination in the Best Short Film, Live Action category. Besides Penn, the cast included Ed Begley Jr. and Harry Dean Stanton.

And Penn was one of numerous male Hollywood stars – including Nick Nolte, George Clooney, Adrien Brody, John Travolta, Nick Stahl, Jared Leto, and Woody Harrelson – featured in what amounted to extended cameos in Terrence Malick’s film adaptation of James Jones’ The Thin Red Line (1998). This World War II drama and Best Picture Oscar nominee focused on the pacifist character played by a pre-The Passion of the Christ Jim Caviezel.

Sean Penn’s Oscar movies

Sean Penn earned his first Best Actor Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of a death-row inmate in Tim Robbins’ real-life-based Dead Man Walking (1995). Best Actress Oscar winner Susan Sarandon co-starred as anti-death-penalty advocate and Roman Catholic nun Helen Prejean.

Sean Penn’s second Best Actor Oscar nomination was for Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown (1999), playing opposite Best Supporting Actress nominee Samantha Morton.

The following year Penn was seen in a supporting role in Julian Schnabel’s Before Night Falls (2000), starring Javier Bardem. Two years later, he was shortlisted for his third Oscar for I Am Sam (2002). In this Jessie Nelson-directed comedy-drama, he played the mentally handicapped title character. Michelle Pfeiffer co-starred.

He won his two Best Actor Academy Awards for Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River (2003) and for Gus Van Sant’s aforementioned Milk (2008). In Eastwood’s psychological drama, Penn played a victim of child abuse facing a family tragedy. In Milk, he portrayed slain San Francisco gay politician Harvey Milk. His co-stars were Josh Brolin, Emile Hirsch, James Franco, and Diego Luna.

Sean Penn Mystic RiverSean Penn in ‘Mystic River.’

Countless awards

In addition to his three Oscar nods and two wins, Sean Penn has been shortlisted for countless film awards. He has been nominated for five Golden Globes, winning in the Best Actor – Drama category for Mystic River.

He has also been shortlisted for three British Academy Awards, including a double nomination for Mystic River and 21 Grams in 2003. Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu (up for a Best Director Academy Award this year for Birdman), 21 Grams is a fragmented psychological drama that also features Naomi Watts, Benicio Del Toro, and Melissa Leo. In the film, Penn played a man with little time left to live.

In the U.S., Sean Penn has received Best Actor accolades from numerous critics’ groups. For Milk alone, he was the top choice of the National Society of Film Critics, the New York Film Critics Circle, and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. (In L.A., Penn also took home the New Generation Award for Rick Rosenthal’s Bad Boys back in 1983.)

And he’s one of a handful of performers to have won awards at the world’s top three film festivals:[2] Berlin (Dead Man Walking), Venice (Hurlyburly in 1998 and 21 Grams in 2003), and Cannes (She’s So Lovely in 1997).

Movies and politics

Other Sean Penn movie credits earlier this century include several politically charged efforts.

In Niels Mueller’s The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004), he played a character sharing traits with Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. Naomi Watts was his estranged wife.

Politics is at the very core of Steven Zaillian’s All the King’s Men, the 2006 big-screen version of Robert Penn Warren’s novel about power and corruption that had been previously filmed in 1949. Directed by Robert Rossen, the original All the King’s Men starred Broderick Crawford, Joanne Dru, John Ireland, and Mercedes McCambridge. Rossen’s version ultimately won the year’s Best Picture Academy Award, in addition to earning Oscars for Crawford and McCambridge.

The 2006 All the King’s Men, however, failed to ignite. Despite a stellar cast that also included Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Anthony Hopkins, Mark Ruffalo, Patricia Clarkson, and James Gandolfini, Zaillian and Sean Penn’s remake bombed with both critics and audiences.

The following year, Penn’s voice could be heard in the English-language version of Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. Based on Satrapi’s series of graphic novels, the film is a coming-of-age tale mostly set in the aftermath of Iran’s Islamic Revolution.

Below: ‘The Gunman’ trailer with Sean Penn and Javier Bardem.

Recent films and the upcoming The Gunman

Sean Penn was reunited with The Thin Red Line filmmaker Terrence Malick in the 2011 psychological drama The Tree of Life. Co-starring Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain, The Tree of Life won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and would later be shortlisted for the Best Picture Oscar, though it turned out to be a box office disappointment in the domestic market.

That same year, Penn portrayed a retired rock star in Paolo Sorrentino’s This Must Be the Place.

And last year, he landed a supporting role in Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, starring Stiller (in the old Danny Kaye role) and Kristen Wiig.

Whether or not it’s a mere coincidence, Honorary César 2015 winner Sean Penn will next be seen in a French co-production. In Pierre Morel’s mystery thriller The Gunman, Penn plays a Special Forces operative forced to go on the lam in Europe.

Don Macpherson and Pete Travis wrote The Gunman‘s screenplay. Idris Elba, Jasmine Trinca, Javier Bardem, Mark Rylance, Ray Winstone, Peter Franzén, and Mark Schardan are Penn’s co-stars.

The Gunman is scheduled to open on March 20 in the United States and on June 24 in France.

Director Sean Penn and Madonna and his politics

Sean Penn’s best-known directorial effort is the Best Foreign Film César-nominated drama Into the Wild (2007), toplining Emile Hirsch, Catherine Keener, 2015 Best Supporting Actress César nominee Kristen Stewart,[3] and Hal Holbrook. As mentinoed above, Holbrook had the lead role in The Killing of Randy Webster, back in the days when Penn was a television bit player.

For Into the Wild, Penn was shortlisted for both the Directors Guild and the Writers Guild awards. (The latter nomination was for his adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s book.) In both instances, he lost to Joel and Ethan Coen for No Country for Old Men.

Director Penn’s most recent film, The Last Face, should hit theaters sometime in the not too distant future. Charlize Theron, Javier Bardem, Adèle Exarchopoulos, and Jean Reno star.

Sean Penn and Madonna were married from 1985 to 1989. In 1996, Penn married Forrest Gump actress Robin Wright. The couple would divorce in 2010.

Besides his film work, Penn is also known for his social and political activities. He was an ardent opponent of the Iraq War – at one point, he was compared to Jane Fonda during the Vietnam War. More recently, he has supported causes such as the legalization of gay marriage and relief assistance for post-2010 earthquake Haiti.

Edwige FeuillèreEdwige Feuillère: Honorary César winner in 1984.

Honorary César winners

The first Honorary César winner was Ingrid Bergman back at the very first César Awards ceremony in 1976. The Swedish-born, three-time Oscar winning actress (Gaslight, Anastasia, Murder on the Orient Express) remains best known for Hollywood movies such as Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound and Notorious.

Most other Honorary César winners – in several cases, posthumous honorees – have been either French film personalities or those who have at some time or other made movies in France.

Among them are actor-directors Jacques Tati, Josiane Balasko, and Gérard Oury; producer Serge Silberman; and filmmakers Marcel Carné, Christian-Jaque, Marcel Pagnol, Jean Delannoy, Yves Allégret, Jean-Luc Godard, René Clément, Henri Verneuil, and Agnès Varda.

In addition to actresses Edwige Feuillère, Danielle Darrieux, Jeanne Moreau, Romy Schneider, Marlène Jobert, Micheline Presle, Anouk Aimée, Bernadette Lafont, Sophia Loren, and Charlotte Rampling.

And actors Gérard Philipe, Jean-Pierre Aumont, Raimu, Charles Vanel, Jean Marais, Marcello Mastroianni, Jean Gabin, Jacques Dutronc, Pierre Richard, Claude Rich, Charles Aznavour, Jean-Pierre Léaud, Claude Rich, Jean Rochefort, and Louis de Funès.

The Honorary César and Hollywood celebrities

From the mid-’70s to the mid-’90s, every other year or so a Hollywood personality would take home the Honorary César. The honorees were usually veterans with decades of film work: Kirk Douglas, Bette Davis, Gregory Peck, Lauren Bacall, and, posthumously, Walt Disney.

The French Academy began honoring younger Hollywood celebrities in 1992, when Rocky and Rambo: First Blood Part II star Sylvester Stallone was given an Honorary César at a ceremony that, somewhat incongruously, also honored veteran actress Michèle Morgan (Port of Shadows, The Fallen Idol), whose prestigious movie credits went all the way back to the mid-’30s.

Three years later, Steven Spielberg would take home the Honorary César. He was followed by the likes of Andie MacDowell, Michael Douglas, Clint Eastwood, Johnny Depp, Martin Scorsese, and Jeremy Irons.

Between 2003–2015, out of 20 Honorary Césars handed out by the French Academy, no less than 12 have gone to (at least part-time) Hollywood celebrities.

They are: Spike Lee, Meryl Streep, Will Smith, Hugh Grant, Jude Law, Dustin Hoffman, Harrison Ford, Quentin Tarantino, Kate Winslet, Kevin Costner, Scarlett Johansson, and this year’s Sean Penn.

And the French Academy’s passion for Hollywood celebs remain unabated. In the last seven years, every single Honorary César recipient has been a (once again, at least part-time) Hollywood celebrity. Check out the last seven names in the paragraph above.

What’s more, to date not a single Honorary César has gone to a non-Hollywood, non-European film personality. In fact, one could add that Pedro Almodóvar and Roberto Benigni are the only Honorary César recipients not to have enjoyed a film career either in France or in Hollywood.

Starring in a Luc Besson film may help a bit. Kevin Costner received the Honorary César the year before he was seen in the Luc Besson-produced 3 Days to Kill. Scarlett Johansson won hers the year she starred in the Luc Besson-directed Lucy. But hey, where’s Liam Neeson?

Berlin, Cannes and Venice winners

[1] Tom Cruise had been previously cast in a bit part in Franco Zeffirelli’s Endless Love (1981), starring Brooke Shields and Martin Hewitt.

[2] Besides Sean Penn, those who have won acting awards in the official competitions at Berlin, Cannes, and Venice are:

* Jack Lemmon shared his Berlin Film Festival Best Actor Award with Anatoli Solonitsyn for Aleksandr Zarkhi’s Twenty Six Days from the Life of Dostoevsky.

Julianne Moore shared her Berlin Film Festival Best Actress Award with her The Hours co-stars Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman.

[3] Kristen Stewart’s 2015 César nomination is for Olivier Assayas’ drama Clouds of Sils Maria. Best Actress César Award nominee Juliette Binoche and Chloë Grace Moretz co-star.

‘Shanghai Madness’

Update: Initially, this article featured Sean Penn and Madonna starring in an film dud called Shanghai Madness. However more appropriate this particular title, their joint critical and box office disaster was called Shanghai Surprise.

Instead, Shanghai Madness is the title of a 1933 Fox programmer directed by the now largely forgotten John G. Blystone, and starring Fay Wray (who made film history that same year with King Kong) and future MGM star and two-time Best Actor Oscar winner Spencer Tracy (Captains Courageous, 1937; Boys Town, 1938).

Sean Penn film information via the IMDb.

See also: Michael Douglas to receive the 2023 Honorary Palme d’Or.

Sean Penn 21 Grams image: Focus Features.

Sean Penn Mystic River image: Warner Bros.

Sean Penn and Madonna Shanghai Surprise image: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

The Gunman trailer with Sean Penn and Javier Bardem: Open Road Films.

Edwige Feuillère ca. 1939 image via

Recommended for You

Leave a Comment

*IMPORTANT*: By using this form you agree with Alt Film Guide's storage and handling of your data (e.g., your IP address). Make sure your comment adds something relevant to the discussion: Feel free to disagree with us and write your own movie commentaries, but *thoughtfulness* and *at least a modicum of sanity* are imperative. Abusive, inflammatory, spammy/self-promotional, baseless (spreading mis- or disinformation), and just plain deranged comments will be zapped. Lastly, links found in submitted comments will generally be deleted.

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. If you continue browsing, that means you've accepted our Terms of Use/use of cookies. You may also click on the Accept button on the right to make this notice disappear. Accept Read More