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Last Updated: Monday, 1 March, 2004, 14:25 GMT
Sean Penn: Rebel with applause
Sean Penn in Mystic River
Sean Penn's role in Mystic River has been hailed by critics
Sean Penn's acting in Mystic River and 21 Grams is grabbing him headlines and critical praise - and a best actor Oscar for Mystic River.

In his youth, Penn was once known as a Hollywood hell-raiser who also acted now and again.

But as his two latest films Mystic River and 21 Grams prove, he is more than capable of stealing the limelight.

In Mystic River, directed by Clint Eastwood, he plays a father who sets out to avenge the murder of his daughter.

The New York Times said it was "one of the definitive pieces of screen acting in the last half-century", likening him to Marlon Brando, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro.

In 21 Grams, he is a mathematics professor who needs a heart transplant. USA Today described him as "one of the best actors of his generation".

The free-spiritedness the critics now applaud was once interpreted as the petulance of a Hollywood wild child.

Sean Penn in 21 Grams
He plays a critically ill mathematics professor in 21 Grams
His notoriety reached a peak with his marriage to one Madonna Louise Ciccone in 1985.

The ceremony itself was a media scrum. The bride's vows were drowned out by the press helicopters and Penn reportedly fired a gun into the air.

But he has always done what he wanted.

Long before he met Madonna, the 18-year-old Penn dropped out of college to seek fame as an actor.

Acting was in his blood - his father Leo was a director while his mother is the actress Eileen Ryan.

Penn was marked for success in an early screen appearance as spaced-out surfer Spicoli in Fast Times At Ridgemount High, in 1982.

Sean Penn with wife Robin Wright Penn
Penn married actress Robin Wright in 1996
The critics loved it and Penn moved back to Hollywood, where he became a satellite member of the famous acting "bratpack", which included Rob Lowe and Charlie Sheen.

Although he took comedy roles, intensity has been his strong point, starring in dramas including The Falcon And The Snowman and At Close Range.

Penn's acting career was interrupted by the whirlwind romance and then turbulent marriage to Madonna in 1985.

The only film Penn made during his marriage was Shanghai Surprise, which also starred his wife, but it was critically panned.

After a turbulent relationship the couple divorced in 1989.

Penn ended up behind bars later that year, serving 32 days in Los Angeles Country Jail for assaulting a photographer and violating probation.

But he was soon back on form in the gritty and violent State of Grace - acting opposite the actress Robin Wright, who became his girlfriend and then wife in 1996.

Sean Penn in I Am Sam
He earned his third Oscar nomination for I Am Sam
They have had two children, Dylan Frances and Hopper Jack.

Announcing that acting was behind him, he directed The Indian Runner - but accepted a role in Brian De Palma's 1993 film Carlito's Way alongside Al Pacino.

Critical and popular acclaim continued in 1995 with Dead Man Walking, in which Penn played a prisoner on death row in the American south - earning him his first Oscar nomination.

He also won best actor at Cannes for his role in Nick Cassavetes's film She's So Lovely the following year, before another Oscar nomination for Woody Allen's Sweet and Lowdown in 2000.

The high point of Penn's directorial career came in 2001 when he directed tense thriller The Pledge, starring Jack Nicholson.

And his acting was rewarded again the following year, when he got his third Oscar nomination for playing a man with learning difficulties in I Am Sam.

Sean Penn in Baghdad
Penn visited Iraq to find out for himself what life was like there
His wilful streak has not disappeared, and he is one of Hollywood's most vocal stars over the issue of war in Iraq.

He said his stance was not so much anti-Bush, but pro-peace and pro-truth.

He even made a trip to the country in 2002, meeting then-foreign minister Tariq Aziz, visiting a water treatment plant and touring a children's hospital.

"I am determined that if there is going to be... blood on my hands, that I didn't want that blood to be invisible," he said at the time.

"I wanted it to have the face of the people that I saw here."

He went back to Baghdad at the end of 2003, writing a 10,000-word account of what he found for the San Francisco Chronicle.




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