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166 ★★★★★★★★★★ ✩✩✩✩✩✩✩✩✩✩ 9 Leonardo DiCaprio and Sean Penn Acting Authentic MICHAEL K. HAMMOND The star personae of Sean Penn and Leonardo DiCaprio are built around a publicly celebrated ability to act. Each established early in his career performances that were remarked upon as revealing a character while concealing the actor. They are consistently described in the press as disappearing into their roles. Both are also connected, although in different ways, to American traditions of film acting, whether linked to the Actors Studio “Method” as with Penn or through endorsements by Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese as in the case of DiCaprio. In this decade they both chose to redirect the presentation of their private selves through the support of political causes. The comparison of these performers demonstrates two instances in which the overlap between stars’ public and private lives is utilized to publicize film projects, build audience expectations, and reveal themes of historical and social change against which the life of a recognizable and “real” individual plays out. Leonardo DiCaprio. Courtesy of Photofest New York. Sean Penn. In 2004, Sean Penn recorded the narration for the audio book of Bob Dylan’s autobiography Chronicles Vol. One. “I see Sean with Kerouac or the young Bob Dylan,” Angelica Huston once remarked. Here, his voice is immediately recognizable by its low register, thin texture, and slightly blurred articulation. As each sentence drifts by, the voice imperceptibly shape-shifts so that soon, Sean Penn has disappeared: into a prose that recites the names of American icons such as Dempsey, Gorgeous George, Judy Garland, Charlie Parker, and Billie Holiday. Penn, the born-too-late icon of the past that Anjelica Huston conjures up, appears here in the guise of Dylan with his distinctively American voice, but also speaks in his own voice. This bestows upon Penn the mantle and scepter of authenticity that is validated by attendant associations with the image of the political, social, and artistic rebels and colorful characters who passed through Dylan’s early life. This is the voice that positions Penn within what Greil Marcus has termed an “invisible republic.” Placing Penn next to Dylan, Penn as Penn as Dylan in this way offers an example of the trajectory of Penn’s star persona during the 2000s. The upheaval of the 1960s that frames Dylan rhymes with Penn’s political activism that emerged forcefully in the first decade of the twenty-first century via his visits to Iraq and Iran, and his public outrage at the illegal Iraq war and the disaster of Hurricane Katrina. Penn is consistently described in press books as “a unique American icon.” The connection with iconic American revenants, rebels who do not fit with “corporate America,” remains consistent throughout the decade, from his portrayal of historical iconoclasts such as Huey Long and Harvey Milk to his impersonations of dispossessed and traumatized outcasts such as Paul Rivers in Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu’s 21 Grams (2003) or Samuel Bicke in Niels Mueller’s The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004). A younger version of this figure is Leonardo DiCaprio. Like Penn, DiCaprio is identified as being in touch with American traditions of acting. His various biographical sources list his favorite actors as Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, Jack Nicholson, and James Dean, choices that mirror, or even mimic, Penn’s connection with the male tradition of Nicholson and De Niro, although in adding Streep he appears to suggest a kind of masculinity more attuned with the “kinder, gentler” decade of the 1990s. His private life, while offering a whiff of violence (he was unsuccessfully sued for allegedly instigating a street fight, and in 2005 he was attacked by a woman with a glass), has not shown the kind of aggression toward the media that Penn has displayed. However, like Penn, DiCaprio has been involved in political causes but primarily those that overlap with the broader themes of his films. His commitment to ecological responsibility inspired his interview of LEONARDO DICAPRIO AND SEAN PENN 167 President Bill Clinton in March 2000 for the ABC news documentary “Planet Earth 2000” (see “Actor Interviews Clinton,” New York Times, 1 April 2000). The publicity accorded to the interview can also be seen as a prelude to the February 2000 release of The Beach, if not simply a recasting of image from teen heartthrob to serious actor interested in serious causes. Such a move was noted by Michele Willens in a New York Times piece two weeks later: The suddenness...


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