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Power of the Penn

SJSU honors Sean Penn with Steinbeck award

By Geoffrey Dunn

WHAT SHOULD have been a memorable night in San Jose—given that the event was co-sponsored by the Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University—turned into one of those unforgettable San Francisco evenings, when actor and antiwar activist Sean Penn was awarded SJSU's Steinbeck Award not only for his artistic achievements but also for his relentless commitment to social justice and world peace.

By the end of the evening, during which Penn spoke with great candor and passion, he would be joined onstage at the Palace of Fine Arts by none other than Bruce Springsteen, a previous winner of the Steinbeck award and a close friend of Penn's, who flew in from the East Coast especially for the event.

At the heart of the evening, however, was an in-depth and riveting sit-down interview of Penn by fellow Marin-based actor Peter Coyote. Penn opened his remarks by declaring that acting was "an ornery, violent commitment to telling the truth."

To my mind, at least, Penn is the actor of our generation—if not of all time—and the film clips that were shown prior to the interview, ranging from his humorous rendition of Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High to his devastating performance as Jimmy Markum in Mystic River, clearly bore that out. When push came to shove, however, Penn said he preferred directing over acting at this point in his life, but he also acknowledged "not too many good stories ever get told without good actors."

He also recounted how his father had been black-listed in Hollywood during the McCarthy Era for failing to name names, and he told a story about his dad and him encountering Elia Kazan (who did name names) during his teen years. His dad turned away and uncharacterisically ignored the director. "Kazan," he said, "had gone yellow."

He didn't budge from contemporary politics either. He talked about his "responsibilities to the First Amendment" and his recent trip to Iraq, on which he reported for the San Francisco Chronicle (also a co-sponsor of the event). He also took his shots at President Bush: "I got two kids, and I think we're in big trouble. ... I connected the dots between the President's lies and my children's future, and I realized I needed to act." He also said that a vote for Bush would be an act of "cowardice and stupidity" and that a vote for Nader would be one of "silence."

Acting SJSU President Don Kassing came to the podium to present Penn with his award, only to somewhat awkwardly declare that someone else would be presenting it. Out came the Boss, and the sold-out crowd went crazy. Springsteen praised Penn for his commitment to social change and to the "common man," and also teased him a little about "dating my sister."

"All art," Penn concluded, "is ultimately a compromise. You never finish something; you abandon it."

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From the September 15-21, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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