Getting in Sean Penn’s face

Sean Penn was visibly writhing as he stared down hundreds of his least favorite species—photographers and journalists—at the press conference introducing the Cannes jury this afternoon. Penn is president of the feature competition jury at Cannes. I was curious how a jury president handles personal biases, especially when this particular jury president won an Oscar for starring in a film by a director whose film he’ll now have to judge for the Palme D’Or—Clint Eastwood. An indelicate question to be sure, but it’s seems only fair to ask, and so I did, as delicately as I could manage.

Following up a Chinese journalist’s query about cultural prejudice, I took the microphone, which felt like a loaded weapon, and faced Sean Penn, whose eyes were blue and piercing from the podium even at a distance of 15 metres.

“This another question about influence and baggage, directed at Sean Penn or anybody else who wants to answer,” I ventured. “Judging is a very subjective process. What do you do when you have personal friendships, loyalties, affections? Where do you put them? Sean, you’ve worked with Clint Eastwood, who’s got a film in competition. How do you deal with whatever biases you may have?”

Penn looked right at me, through me, and was not smiling.

“Well, a case in point, Clint Eastwood. How many movies has he made? I was born in the ’60s. He’s made a lot of movies in the past—he’s only offered me one. So I don’t think there’s a bias involved.” [He gets a laugh] “But you asked the question in a very civilized way. There have been things [said] that have been . . . insulting. We’ve all been involved in films we care about, and we all realize that’s our job, to recognize what touches us here, and that has nothing to do with those biases. If you were sitting where we’re sitting — you started with the word “judge”—I don’t see us as judging films, I see us as responding with enthusiasm when given the opportunity by the film’s quality.”

A reasonable answer. But Penn was clearly bothered by all the Internet chatter about him favouring Clint (which I was innocently unaware of when I asked my question). Later in the press conference, unprovoked, he brought up the subject again:

“There’s something that I want to say. While I don’t know how to turn on a computer, I understand that this question about Clint Eastwood has been coming up on blogs. I can tell you that this is an emotional impossibility for any of us to give into something as petty as favouring a film because a friend of ours is in it. I also want to make it clear that this person will not be biased against, and if Clint Eastwood’s done a film that deserves awarding, we’re going to fucking-well award it!”

Well, that cleared the air.

Penn also needed little prompting to deliver some choice rants about President George W. Bush, tosssing off phrases like “inane stupidity” and “absolute evil” as if he were describing a peculiar virus. He went on to say, “When someone operates without a brain or without a heart, they kill hundreds of thousands of people around the world.”

As for Sean Penn’s personal protocol of behaviour for his jury, he was succinct: “The idea is to be wide-awake with an empty bladder at the beginning of every film.

In Cannes? Good luck.