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About That One Time Sean Penn Tied Madonna to a Chair & Tormented Her for Hours

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 EnquirerIn 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.

58844When 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.

They’re apparently friends again

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?

mission-impossible-rogue-nation-teaser-trailer-and-poster-is-out-mission-impossible-rog-317255What 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”?


  1. I have been asking myself all of these questions for years!! Is it possible to separate art from the artist in certain cases. Is it ok to be impressed with (to use the example you did) Sean Penn’s performances when he has this history of abusing not only his wife, but also several other people who have had the simple misfortunate of being near him? Can I still enjoy Jerry Lee Lewis’ music knowing that he married his thirteen-year-old first cousin? Same with Poe? Do I have some sort of moral obligation to boycott or ignore the work of people who have been abusive, sadistic, perverse in their private lives? I still don’t fully know how to answer that, if I’m being honest with myself. But it’s something I ask myself every time I find myself in front of a truly inspired performance by a truly brilliant artist who has also proven to be twisted in many ways.

  2. You’re asking really tough good questions and so is boomerangvariety in the post above.

    One factor you haven’t mentioned is that films are a collaborative art form. It’s not *just* a Sean Penn/Roman Polaski/Woody Allen movie – there are many many people on set. It’s really tricky – for example, I like Harrison Ford but Polaski is a convicted paedophile who has escape conviction, rehabilitation and shows no remorse.

    I think the comparison to music is interesting but more severe than film making since less people are involved usually. I still think Chris Brown should be in jail.

    (On a major side note: SPORTS! Sometimes I team we cheer for has one scumbag – should we boycott our team until he is fired? Another case is an Australian swimmer, Nick D’arcy, who punched a team mate in the face and broke the other guy’s jaw. He plead guilty to the assault and received no prison time. He lost his civil law case and owed his victim for the hospital bill etc… then claimed bankruptcy, effectively the victim to paid to be assaulted. After D’arcy’s lengthy suspension from competing ended, he qualified to represent Australia in the Olympics. Is it unpatriotic to boo for him?)

    I knew Sean Penn had a bad marriage to Madonna but didn’t remember him allegedly committing aggravated sexual assault. Yikes. What a piece of s___. I used to joke that the people who suffered the most from their marriage was those who saw “Shanghai Surprise”.

    1. Only 2 people know the truth, Madonna and Penn. I doubt we will never know the truth and I sometimes wonder, Should we ! Its something that happened in a marriage between 2 people. Yes, that something was Pretty awful if he do it and he’s lucky he wasn’t charged with assault and kidnapping. If I tie someone to a chair and abuse them mentally or physically, for hours, then absolutely I should have been arrested and he is very lucky he got off scott free. I believe she didnt want it out there that she married the wonderful sean peanut that turned out to abuse woman and Madonna for that matter ! It didt look good for her in a way and absolutely didnt look good for him, so to save both careers and not have to keep reliving that awful night, they chose to deny it ever happened. Or the other side of the coin would be, it really never happened ! I believe, knowing the punk he seemed to be back then, with punching everyone’s lights out, that I would not be shocked if he did do it. I would also describe him as just being immature and didn’t know how to handle dating someone like Madonna, let alone marrying her. Both young and both immature. Hey, dont mean to put entire blame on Sean Penn, I’m sure Madonna knew how to push his buttons, but that is never, ever accepatable is to treat a woman that way. No matter if it is Madonna or the girl across the street, no woman should ever have to deal with any form of abuse and what makes it even worse is, when the abuser is someone you once loved !

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  4. I have a growing list of people who I will not watch anything they participate in. How many movies and TV shows come out each year? Can people really not skip a few because they funnel movie to bad people or organizations? Or are people just too lazy to care?

    1. It’s kind of an individual discretion thing, I guess. At what point do you draw a line and refuse to support the work of terrible human beings? And exactly do you even define it? Is it just cast members since they are front and center and harder to avoid? Or do you also blacklist the work of writers who might have troubling opinions or producers who are complete monsters? Do you stop watching Sean Penn movies and shows because why support him any longer? Do you then also retroactively refuse to watch anything Harvey Weinstein ever produced? Because that means canceling out multiple Oscar contenders per year from the 90s into the 2010s even though nobody else on the production might have done anything wrong and you don’t know for sure which of the films were the ones Harvey tried to use to push women into something they didn’t want?

      It’s a complicated question to answer. Sometimes, laziness probably is the answer for why certain people will just watch whatever looks good, regardless of whether the people connected to it have been credibly accused of terrible behavior. Other times, it depends on your own moral compass, like perhaps refusing to support Roman Polanski or Woody Allen because they’ve been accused of child sex abuse and that’s unforgivable but choosing to give [insert name of other] a second chance because all they did was say something offensive or perhaps cheat on their spouse or something you deem to be a lesser sin.

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