Why is it so hard to make myself write an appreciation of Christopher Penn? Because I know that on my best day, I can’t convey one hundreth of his roiling, unstable excitement.
Chris Penn was a human hand grenade who lived to pull his own pin. He scared the shit out of me. He was on a short list of great contemporary character actors (Keitel, Walken, Laurence Fishburne, Jennifer Jason Leigh) who truly seemed capable of anything. It’s always easier to write an appreciation of someone who makes you feel good. Chris Penn was a great actor—a vital and important actor—but I suspect he’d have been the first to admit that generating warm and fuzzy feelings didn’t rank very high on his “To Do” list.
Granted, now and again you’d catch Penn in a role that was essentially light and funny: unlikely dancin’ fool Willard in Footloose, smiling id creature Tom Drake in the Fast Times sequel The Wild Life (admirably attempting the impossible: playing an alternative to/replacement for his brother’s Fast Times icon Jeff Spicoli).
But the light roles weren’t the ones that released his greatness; Penn’s greatness originated in darkness. He was like his more famous brother in that respect—Sean Penn courted darkness like no leading man since De Niro—with a crucial difference: where Sean Penn hid things from us, shrouded himself in contradiction and mystery, Chris Penn kept no secrets. There truly was no wall between him and you. You stared right into his heart, and it was terrifying.
Think of Chris Penn, and you might as well be picturing an astronaut, a test pilot or one of those guys who traps gigantic rats in the subway. He was a nasty daredevil, fearless and playful and game for anything. He was willing to go places and do things other people didn’t have the guts to contemplate.
Think of Chris Penn and you picture him sweating, or stewing, or trying to hide his almost unbearable hurt. Jesus Christ, he hurt like nobody else. He hurt so bad sometimes you could barely stand to look at him. His very existence was an embarassment to every male’s secret macho self-image. He was every man’s true self, needy and neurotic, childish and jealous, paranoid and depressed. Manhood without the mask.
Think of Chris Penn, and you think of him imploding with sexual insecurity and envious hate in Short Cuts as his wife (J.J. Leigh, his onscreen soulmate!) verbally services phone sex customers with fantasies her poor hubby didn’t even dare consider; and then you picture that same brute schmuck standing in the woods with Robert Downey Jr., holding a rock in his hand, eyes glazed, as if he knew what he’d done and also knew, deep down, why he’d done it, but could not quite bring himself to grasp the reality that his life was now over.
Think of Chris Penn and you picture him as a thug detective in Mulholland Falls, or spitting out jocular wisecracks to fellow cops in True Romance, or fat and drunk and sweaty, roaring out a Tin Pan Alley tune in The Funeral (pictured above) in a period-accurate, white-guy-approximating-a-black-guy voice. Think of Chris Penn and you picture his fearful face in At Close Range—a rare project with his brother—as he stands in freaky blue moonlight and realizes that his father, his beloved father, the father he always idolized even when he didn’t know where to find him, is about to shoot him dead, and worse, that after his beloved father shoots him dead, he will probably go right home, kill a six pack, jerk off and enjoy a peaceful night’s sleep. Think of Chris Penn, and you think of him during the climax of Reservoir Dogs, bringing Quentin Tarantino’s cartoon Mexican standoff back to emotional reality by shrieking, hoarsely, “Don’t you point that gun at my dad!”
I can’t think about you for very long, Chris. It takes too much out of me.
You made me hate myself and see through myself and fear my own potential for weakness and evil. You made me fear embarassment and pain and death during films that were supposed to be stupid fun. You make me fear I’ve learned nothing about women. You showed me what a hypocrite I am, and how immature I am, and how little I know about life. You reminded me of how small I am and how little my life means.
I hate you. I wish I’d never seen your face. You affected me that much.
When David Mamet wrote, in True and False, that acting used to be a terrifying and mysterious profession, that regular people used to fear actors because they thought they made a career of letting themselves be possessed by demons, and that after actors died, they were buried at crossroads with stakes through their hearts, he was writing about you.
I will miss you terribly.
Matt Zoller Seitz is the founder of The House Next Door.