Monday, January 8, 2007

Star Profile: Sean Penn

Fast Times At Ridgemont High introduced the showbiz world to the talents of Jennifer Jason Leigh, Phoebe Cates, Anthony Edwards, Nicholas Cage and the underrated comic actor Judge Reinhold. But Fast Times was only a stepping stone for these actors whose launching pads into celebrity would have to wait for the Valley Girls and Revenges of the Nerds to come.

But for Sean Penn, Fast Times would serve as a springboard into a long and successful career as an actor, writer and director. His role as Jeff Spicoli, the surfer who only desires “cool waves and tasty bud,” will forever remain burned into the consciousness of a generation of who also believed, in whatever regional approximation, that “cool waves and tasty bud” were indeed the order of the day.

Outside of a couple made-for-TV movies and an appearance on Barnaby Jones, Penn’s earliest claim to fame was as the son of blacklisted director Leo Penn and actress Eileen Ryan. Penn’s first major part was in the Tom Cruise launching pad Taps. His role as ca Ă“det Alex Dwyer in the military school drama earned Penn enough acclaim to easily score the role of Spicoli in Fast Times.

Spicoli jumpstarted Penn’s career. He was soon a hot commodity in Tinseltown. His quirky performances in such films as The Falcon and The Snowman (1984), Colors (1986) and Casualties of War (1989) established Penn as a major talent. His real-life role as Madonna’s husband (and presumably boy toy) would make him a household name. His pugilistic approach to paparazzi brought him vilification and respect, depending on who you asked. He would turn his back on acting to pursue a critically-lauded career as a director, only to return to acting in 1995 with an Oscar-nominated performance as a deathrow murderer/rapist in Dead Man Walking.

But before all that, there was Fast Times.

Fast Times At Ridgemont High began as an assignment from Playboy magazine for then-21-year-old Cameron Crowe. Crowe began writing features on his favorite bands at the tender age of 15. By the next year, he was a staff writer for Rolling Stone with all-access to just about any longhair on the Who’s Who list of rock-n-roll. His vida loca forced him to essentially drop out of high school. A few short years later, Playboy would ask him to return.

The real school is Claremont High in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley. A very young-looking Crowe infiltrated the ranks of Claremont’s student body and lived amongst the teenage element in its natural habitat. His insightful article would eventually evolve into a novel and finally, under Amy Heckerling’s direction, the cult classic it has become.

The movie is carried by fine performances and memorable moments all around. The underrated Judge Reinhold’s interrupted fantasy. Jennifer Jason Leigh learning the tricks-of-the-fellatrix-trade from Phoebe Cates. But it is Penn’s Spicoli that is most memorable. Penn has always fully committed to a role, milking every last drop of real emotional content out of each character he plays. His approa dch to the seemingly braindead Spicoli was no different. In Penn’s capable interpretation, Spicoli’s ongoing battle with Mr. Hand represented the ongoing battles we all had as teenagers with the Mr. Hands of our high schools.

Fast Times At Ridgemont High is still, almost twenty years later, a hit with high school students. But rarely if ever do you hear someone quote a line from Robert Romano. (Who?...Exactly.) But affect a surfer dude’s voice and say “You dick!” or “It’s my skull!” and immediately people recognize the reference. And certainly Sean Penn’s portrayal has something to do with that.

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