Sean Penn is widely recognised as one of the finest actors of his generation. He has been associated with an array of critically lauded films, such as Dead Man Walking (1995), The Thin Red Line (1998), Mystic River (2003) and 21 Grams (2003), as well as providing accomplished performances that have lent distinction to less perfectly realised works. In the 1990s he turned his hand to directing and has since created several impeccably constructed dramatic tours de force that have showcased a range of acting talents. His off-screen life has long attracted considerable media attention, from the tabloid furore surrounding his tempestuous marriage to Madonna and his brief stint in prison in the 1980s, through to his growing political activism in recent years.
Richard Kelly’s new book takes a bold stylistic gamble by structuring the work as an ‘oral biography’. Rather than following the more traditional route of describing in his own words the subject’s life and career, the whole volume is constructed from edited excepts of interviews, only rarely interspersed with the author’s own comments. The range of interviewees is impressive, encompassing over sixty of Penn’s family, friends and colleagues, as well as substantial discussions with Penn himself. Such is the amplitude of the cast list that it reads like a virtual lexicon of the past several decades of filmmaking. Woody Allen, Richard Benjamin, Woody Harrelson, Dennis Hopper, Anjelica Huston, Art Linson, Jack Nicholson, Bob Rafelson, Susan Sarandon and Christopher Walken are just a few of the actors, directors and producers whose insights help to illuminate aspects of Penn’s personal or professional life.
The technique of oral biography is, as Kelly notes, more closely related to documentary filmmaking than conventional book writing and, just like talking-heads documentaries, it requires the imposition of some sort of form onto the raw material. His decision to edit the interview excerpts into a chronological pattern contributes to some of the book’s main strengths as well as its greatest weaknesses.
At its best, the use of multiple viewpoints gives rise to many-sided interpretations of a single event. Moreover, in cutting back and forth between discussions of overlapping film projects and personal episodes, it provides a rich and intricate rendering of the many strands that come together to make a life. This approach is often more rewarding than single-voiced, linear accounts in which the chronological chain of cause and effect frequently obscures biographical complexity.
At the same time, the sheer number of loose ends, repetitions and non-sequiturs that this methodology entails can prove frustrating. There are occasions when the book jumps chaotically between topics so that a momentary lapse in concentration can make it difficult to recover the narrative strands (although the provision of a list of interviewees and their relation to Penn is of great assistance). More importantly, though, the more sustained discussions of films, events or relationships that characterise conventional biographies come to be sorely missed.
This is especially true in relation to some of Penn’s film projects. The book is at its most revealing when discussing the conception and filming of projects rather than their final product. Of the features Penn has directed, The Pledge (2001) is, perhaps deservedly, granted the most extensive analytical discussion but, even here, the often illuminating comments provide a tantalising glimpse into a visual and thematic richness that is never fully explored.
As is typical of an authorised biography, there are few dissenting voices and it seems at times that, for all the numbers of interviewees, many ultimately say the same thing. But if this is the price that must be paid for Kelly’s unprecedented degree of access to an actor who is notoriously reticent about speaking to the press, then the trade-off seems worthwhile. And if, for every question that is answered, a host of others remain unresolved, this is the mark of a highly stimulating biography that leaves the reader wanting more. At the time of writing, Penn has not yet reached the age of 45, so his career promises further outstanding work as both an actor and director. It is almost inevitable that further biographies will come, which will doubtless explore some of the areas this book leaves unfulfilled, but it will be difficult to improve on this lively and challenging account.