When an angry young man hits fifty . . .
Sean Penn's latest film, which was released here yesterday, is a typically weighty and worthy affair. Fair Game is based on the true story of a CIA officer and her diplomat husband who fell foul of the Bush administration in the lead-up to the Iraq invasion of 2003.
Penn plays Joseph C Wilson, a former US ambassador to several African countries who was sent to Niger in 2002 to investigate claims that Saddam Hussein was buying large amounts of yellowcake uranium to fuel his supposed nuclear weapons programme.
After Wilson publicly contradicted White House claims about WMDs, he and his wife Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts) were targeted by the hawks in the Bush administration, and things got very nasty.
Penn, who is now 50, has increasingly turned away from acting in favour of directing and political activism in recent years, but it's not hard to see why he was tempted back in front of the cameras for Fair Game. He was among the most vociferous opponents of the Iraq war, and has never hidden his contempt for George W Bush and neo-conservative members of his cabinet: Fair Game gave him a chance to have a pop at both.
Later this year Penn will appear alongside Brad Pitt in veteran filmmaker Terrence Malick's eagerly awaited drama Tree of Life, and has also committed to a project next year with acclaimed Italian director Paolo Sorrentino. But he says that acting interests him less and less as he gets older, and he is constantly threatening to retire altogether.
This would be a huge pity, because although he was once more famous for assaulting paparazzi than film-making, Sean Penn is a hugely gifted and charismatic actor.
Penn was born on August 17, 1960 in Los Angeles, where both his parents were involved in the film industry. His father Leo was an actor and director of Russian Jewish ancestry whose considerable talent was thwarted after he fell foul of the McCarthy witchhunts and was blacklisted in Hollywood for many years.
As Sean grew up he watched his father, a decorated war hero, toil as a director on formulaic TV shows he considered beneath him, and a seething sense of injustice grew.
The young Penn made his acting debut on one of those shows, Little House on the Prairie, at just 13, and as a teenager he began appearing in school plays and making Super 8 films with precocious friends like Charlie Sheen and Emilio Estevez. But there was never any risk of Sean losing the run of himself, because his mother, Eileen, was always his fiercest critic.
Eileen Ryan was an Irish/Italian film and theatre actress who gave up the stage when she had her children. She drove Sean harder than her other kids, and he later remembered her reaction to his stage debut in a play called The Young Savages.
"My mom comes backstage," he explained. "She took my face in her hands. She looked me in the eye and said, 'You were terrible -- you cannot do this.' Meaning acting. That's my mom -- about a hundred per cent of my friends were afraid of her."
Sean, though, wasn't, and after he left school and committed to acting, he would work five hours a day with an acting coach for months on end in order to prove her wrong. "The thing Sean had was guts," his mother would later concede. "The talent came later."
As a young actor, Penn had a kind of raging intensity that made him stand out. In only his second film, Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), he stole the show with an eye-catching performance as a mouthy high school slacker called Jeff Spicoli.
Strong performances in films like Bad Boys and The Falcon and the Snowman proved Penn was no flash in the pan, but just as his film career was taking off it was sidetracked and almost destroyed by his relationship with Madonna.
Penn and Madonna met early in 1985 and were married within months. Madonna and Penn were the first to experience the full horror of celebrity journalism and the Hello! magazine subculture.
Once the press found out that Penn had a temper, they began taunting him and insulting her in order to get a reaction. He duly complied, punching and assaulting several snappers.
In 1987 he served 33 days in jail for violating probation after punching one of Madonna's over-zealous fans in the face. More importantly, his film career began to go down the pan, and only recovered after he and the singer separated, in 1989.
Penn began to fulfil his potential as an actor in the 1990s, after he'd settled down with his second wife, Robin Wright. His performance as a condemned murderer in Tim Robbins' Dead Man Walking earned him an Oscar nomination in 1995, and he was nominated again in 1999 after playing a wistful jazz guitarist in Woody Allen's 1999 comedy Sweet and Lowdown.
He finally won the best actor Oscar for his rivetting portrayal of a bereaved father in Clint Eastwood's Mystic River (2003). And he won again in 2008, playing gay activist Harvey Milk in Gus van Sant's Milk (2008).
He has also proved himself as a director, collaborating twice with Jack Nicholson in The Crossing Guard and The Pledge, and most recently earning great praise for Into the Wild.
More recently, Penn's personal life has been making the headlines again. After several trial separations, he and Robin Wright split definitively in 2009, and were divorced last year. But in recent weeks Penn has been snapped by his old friends the paparazzi cosying up to Scarlett Johansson, who's some 24 years his junior. Both have insisted that they're just good friends.
He is almost as famous, though, for his political activism and charity work. In 2002, he spent $56,000 on an ad in The Washington Post that castigated George W Bush for his overseas adventures and his "systematic destruction of civil liberties". He has also made several visits to Baghdad and Tehran.
Woody Allen summed up his formidable energy and commitment, to both acting and activism. "The feeling you get about him is that you can't call his bluff, because he's not bluffing."
Fair Game opened nationwide yesterday