Sean Penn will always be a fascinating great actor, but a thought hit me this morning as I watched this All The King’s Men trailer (which I first saw in a theatre two or three weeks ago): Penn’s Willie Stark, a ruthless, power-hungry politician, is not charismatic, much less attractive, and if I were a rural Southerner in the 1950s (or whenever) I don’t know that I’d want to vote for the guy. So right away there’s trouble because King’s Men is about a guy who had an exceptional rapport with voters before anything else.
I could feel something vital coming out of Broderick Crawford ‘s Willie Stark in the 1949 version — he wasn’t handsome or smooth, but you could feel he’d been through tough times (a look of pushed-down hurt would pop through every so often), and you couldn’t help but admire his gutsiness and the fact that he wouldn’t be pushed around. I don’t think Penn makes this character work half as well as Crawford did. The way he bellows his words and phrases when addressing voters with his voice sounding so ragged he almost squeals at times, Penn’s not being very tall, the rage contorting his face and making his eyes seem beadier than usual, the street-fighter body language, the constant shine of sweat, the Southern accent that I don’t believe despite its (probably) accurate sound — none of it plays. He’s not in any way sexy (not in terms of inner conviction or eloquence, certainly), and even in a Southern period film that’s how most of us want our politicians to be on some level. I don’t see how this won’t be a factor in how paying audiences respond to Steven Zallian ‘s film when it opens in the early fall. The more I think about it, the more I’m persuaded that Zallian and producer Mike Medavoy erred in going with Penn, and for the very best reasons.