Update: 12/20/15 – As part of Sean Penn’s ongoing defamation suit against Lee Daniels, Madonna has categorically denied that Penn ever struck her with a baseball bat, as per a 1987 tabloid report, or that there was ever an incident in December 1989 which resulted in Sean’s arrest for domestic assault and battery, “While we certainly had more than one heated argument during our marriage, Sean has never struck me, ‘tied me up,’ or physically assaulted me, and any report to the contrary is completely outrageous, malicious, reckless, and false.” – Deadline
By the time Sean Penn shuffled out on the stage of Hollywood’s Dolby Theater to present the Best Picture Oscar at this year’s Academy Awards ceremony, one of the people I saw live-tweeting the show quickly joked, “And now Mr. Chuckles will bring this home.” It had been an overly long ceremony, and Penn’s grim, non-smiling face was the perfect target for an increasingly punch drunk Twitter-sphere. Then he prefaced the announcement that Birdman had won Best Picture by adlibbing, “Who gave this son of a bitch his green card?” in reference to the film’s director Alejandro Inarritu. You had to quickly remember Penn is actually friends with Inarritu, who directed him in 21 Grams (2003), and the joke was probably just the ever socially conscious actor’s attempt to reference the on-going immigration debate in America. Not everyone got the joke, and the internet was not kind in its response to “Mr. Chuckles.”
It was just another moment when everyone seemed to collectively decide that it’s really hard to like Sean Penn, but it pales in comparison to what Pajiba just dug up. It’s an old Daily Mail article detailing the terrible event which apparently ended Penn’s disturbingly rocky marriage with Madonna in the ‘80s. Just to be clear, the Daily Mail is technically a tabloid magazine and thus not always the most reliable source, though it is apparently of a higher quality than a supermarket tabloid like The National Enquirer: In other word, sometimes they’re actually right.
In June 1987, Madonna went to the Cedars Sinai hospital for an X-ray after Penn apparently hit her across the head with a baseball bat. At the time, they had been having a heart-to-heart talk about reconciling.
When People Magazine profiled Madonna and Penn’s messy relationship in December 1987, there was no mention of her having been abused to the point of seeking hospital care. However, Penn did have a well-documented history of violence, assaulting various photographers, a male songwriter Madonna dared to be friends with and an extra on the set of the film Colors. Add a drunk driving and reckless endangerment charge on top of all that, and the result is that in June 1987 Penn was sentenced to serve 60 days in jail. The Daily Mail argued the incident with Madonna occurred after Penn had received his prison sentence. As such, the reason she didn’t file an official complaint over the alleged incident is because her husband was already heading to jail, and she didn’t him to get into any more trouble. Penn ended up only serving 33 days, and was allowed to leave during the middle of it to film a movie in Germany. At the end of the 33 days:
He was released into his wife’s arms, only for her to throw him out of a taxi a few hours later after yet another set-to.Their violent arguments were exhausting for everyone, but Madonna hesitated to admit that the marriage had failed. Though she saw lawyers about getting a divorce, she hung on for a full year to see if it could be saved. It was a decision she would come to regret.
As of December 1987, People believed Madonna and Penn had divorced, but it appears as if they simply separated. According to The Daily Mail, here’s where it gets really bad:
According to a report filed by Madonna with the Malibu sheriff’s office, Penn scaled the wall surrounding the Malibu house [in the late afternoon of December 28, 1989] and found Madonna alone in the master bedroom. The two began to quarrel. Penn told her he owned her ‘lock, stock and barrel’. When she told him she was leaving the house, he tried to bind her hands with an electric lamp and cord. Screaming and afraid, Madonna fled from the bedroom. What followed was a nine-hour ordeal which left her deeply shaken.
Penn chased her into the living room, caught her and bound her to a chair with heavy twine. Then he threatened to cut off her hair. According to the police report, Penn was ‘drinking liquor straight from the bottle’ and the abuse went on for several hours, during which time he smacked and roughed up his victim. He went out to buy more alcohol, leaving Madonna bound and gagged. Some hours later, he returned and continued his attacks.
Madonna said that he untied her after she agreed to perform a degrading sex act on him. She then fled the house and ran to her car. Penn ran after her and was banging on the windows of her Thunderbird while she spoke to police on her mobile phone. Fifteen minutes later, she staggered into the sheriff’s office. Lieut Bill McSweeny said: ‘I hardly recognised her as Madonna. She was weeping, her lip was bleeding and she had obviously been struck.’
Penn was taken away in handcuffs and charged with inflicting ‘corporal injury and traumatic conditions’ on her, as well as committing ‘battery’.
Madonna reportedly filed for divorce a week later, dropping any assault charges and moving on from her husband-turned-torturer-turned-ex.
If any of that’s true, it sounds truly terrible, but it was also way back in 1989. This is like stepping into the Tardis, popping out in ’89 and picking up a tabloid to read its cover story about Madonna. As far as we know, no one’s been tied to a chair and tortured by Sean Penn recently (if that ever occurred at all). The worst thing that’s happened is when he stranded Woody Harrelson at night in the middle of nowhere in Australia as his way of winning an epic prank war during the Thin Red Line portion of his career.
I am writing about this because it poses an interesting question: Do you actually have to like actors to enjoy their work? There is no real answer because it’s largely subjective. I know someone who freakishly adores anything and everything Roman Polanski (the director responsible for Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown) just as I know someone who can’t get past the whole “He raped a 13-year-old girl!” thing, regardless of how long ago it happened (it was in 1977). Similar debates rage on in any other area of society which elevates the ordinary to celebrity, such as baseball writers forever getting twisted in knots arguing over whether Ty Cobb should be a legend of Major League Baseball even though he was a ninja-grade racist. Sites like Pajiba and Cracked.com pausing to remind us that Sean Penn might be a “violent, abusive, terrible human being” is only natural, but does the knowledge that The Daily Mirror says Penn apparently did that horrible thing to Madonna have any impact on your ability to enjoy his most recent movie, in this case The Gunman?
What of Tom Cruise? The filmmakers behind the HBO documentary Going Clear uncovered evidence of the ways in which the Church of Scientology uses glorified slave labor and sneakily locks people in for life, actively stalking and re-capturing them should they ever leave (the celebrities who have left are too high-profile for that). Their stated goal was to publicly shame the church’s two most notable members, Tom Cruise and John Travolta, into doing something about it:
One of the reasons we’re trying to turn the spotlight on them is not to victimize them, but to really say, ‘You have a responsibility. You’re given an enormous amount of wealth as a movie star, and with that comes a certain amount of responsibility, particularly when people are joining an organization because of you. And I think if the popular opinion begins to swing in that way, I think you could see a change with them.”
Yet Tom Cruise was just in Edge of Tomorrow last year, and did you see those insane stunts he did in Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation? He literally hung from the side of an ascending airplane as a way of outdoing the last film’s legendary Dubai skyscraper sequence. The fact that his personal life with Scientology seems super shady doesn’t make that stunt any less impressive, right?
I want to like Tom Cruise. Despite the odd tendency for his laugh to go on just a little too long, he manages to come off as one of the nicest men in the world in most interviews. The director who made Going Clear appears to be the only one truly appalled that the entire media and entertainment journalism community collectively abdicated its responsibility and declined to ask Cruise a single question about Going Clear on the Rogue Nation promotional tour. It was just so much easier for all involved to avoid tough questions and simply ask him the latest variation on, “Tell us all about how you do your own stunts.”
These are frankly far bigger issues than I set out to tackle, as my primary purpose when I started writing this was to share that story about Sean Penn because it’s honestly the first time I’d ever heard it. It certainly makes his green card joke at the Oscars look like small potatoes. However, does any of this mean than when I re-watch Mystic River Penn’s performance in it will seem any less inspired? Or will I forever be nagged by thoughts like, “You might be a terrible human being”?