The most welcome animals of the Oscar race are the dark horses and black sheep that amble quietly into the mix. The Best Actor slate was particularly funky this year: Leaving Las Vegas’ Nicolas Cage was the only shoo-in nominee (and the eventual winner), and Mel Gibson wasn’t too much of a stretch for Braveheart, but before the critics gave them a boost, who would have expected Sean Penn for Dead Man Walking, Richard Dreyfuss for Mr. Holland’s Opus, and the late Massimo Troisi for The Postman (Il Postino)? Especially when you consider that such usual suspects as Tom Hanks (Apollo 13) and Anthony Hopkins (Nixon) didn’t make the cut?
It’s not that Penn, Dreyfuss, and Troisi weren’t worthy. In fact, you could argue that each gave the performance of his life (in Troisi’s case, literally). But Oscar nominations are never just a barometer of quality, and a comparison of the new-to-tape Dead Man Walking and Mr. Holland’s Opus indicates that other factors may have been at work. (The Postman’s video release, originally scheduled for June 25, has been indefinitely postponed by Miramax.)
With Dead Man Walking, the main factor was Sean Penn and the infrequency with which he now shares his immense talent with audiences. By the late ’80s, Penn’s brawling ”Mr. Madonna” public persona had him holding a one-way ticket to Palookaville with a seat next to Mickey Rourke. Perhaps as a consequence, Penn went underground in the ’90s — or, rather, behind the camera, to write and direct two turgid yet heartfelt dramas, 1991’s The Indian Runner and 1995’s The Crossing Guard. Before Dead Man Walking, his only recent major acting role was the goof-up lawyer in 1993’s Carlito’s Way — in support of Al Pacino.
So Dead Man Walking can be seen as the return of Sean Penn, Actor. It can also be seen as the movie that won Susan Sarandon a Best Actress Oscar and proved that Tim Robbins has the stuff to become a major writer-director. It’s also the best and most clearheaded film ever made about capital punishment. But from a viewer’s perspective, it’s a reminder of how Penn can inhabit a character with honest, unflashy charisma. His killer — on death row for the murder of two teens — is a man who starts out throttled by macho denial yet gradually recognizes his humanity and guilt. Robbins sustains (and occasionally overplays) a tone of tragic grace throughout, but the film would turn banal without Penn’s gift for hiding careful acting choices behind a screen of unsentimental naturalism. Forget calling him ”the next Brando” — at this point, he’s a better Brando. A-