Oscar-winning actor Sean Penn called for the impeachment of President George Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney in an impassioned speech Monday night in New York.
The occasion was Penn's winning the first annual Christopher Reeve First Amendment Award from the Creative Coalition, a non-partisan advocacy and lobbying group founded by New York actors such as Reeve, Ron Silver and Susan Sarandon more than a decade ago.
Penn was one name on a long list of honorees that included Branford Marsalis, Harvey Keitel and Marcia Gay Harden. He was introduced by PBS' Charlie Rose, who was preceded by Matthew Reeve, the documentary-making eldest son of Christopher Reeve and Gae Exton.
Penn, wearing slicked-back hair, suit and tie, came to the stage at Duvet, a party space on West 21st St., with serious intentions. Unfortunately, his cell phone rang a couple of times during his pointed remarks, and finally he had to answer it.
Such are the consequences of public speaking in the modern era.
Penn is no stranger to controversy, politics or their intersection. But last night's speech was a little different — even for him — amping him up to the next level in the war between liberals and conservatives over the war in Iraq.
Penn spoke in measured tones but was actually quite inflammatory. The combination worked. He also threw a verbal grenade into the crowd when he said: "So look, if we attempt to impeach for lying about a [oral sex act], yet accept these almost certain abuses without challenge, we become a [human] stain on the flag we wave."
The deleted word registered the level of shock it was supposed to, even for the fairly A-list hip crowd that included Heather Graham, Laurence Fishburne, Kerry Washington, Ruben Santiago Hudson, Giancarlo Esposito, Tony Goldwyn, Joe Pantoliano, Richard Belzer, Tamara Tunie and Richard Schiff, plus media types such as John Sykes, Matt Blank (Showtime) and Gerry Byrne.
Penn's proclamation went beyond just staining the red, white and blue. He preceded that line with: "Let's put his administration under oath," he said. "And then if the crimes of treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors are proven, do as Article 2, Section 4 of the United States constitution provides, and remove the president, vice president, and … civil officers of the United States from office."
He added: "If the Justice Department then sees fit to bunk them up with Jeff Skilling, so be it."
Penn later told me he's thrilled for Clint Eastwood's double successes with "Letters from Iwo Jima" and "Flags of Our Fathers."
Penn is directing his own movie, based on Jon Krakauer's story "Into the Wild," with Marcia Gay Harden leading an all-star cast. It's due out next year from Paramount Vantage.
While one scandal was brewing downtown at Duvet, another was being discussed at the tony Metropolitan Club after the premiere of Richard Eyre's "Notes on a Scandal."
Co-stars Cate Blanchett and Bill Nighy — the latter on a night off from his Broadway turn in "The Vertical Hour" — were present and accepting kudos. Dame Judi Dench, as I warned you last summer, was absent, because she's starring in the "The Merry Wives of Windsor" in Stratford-on-Avon.
Helen Mirren notwithstanding, Dench gives what many consider the Best Actress performance of the year in "Scandal." She is simply breathtaking as a sympathetic villainess whose obsessions become her own undoing. She is almost like a sociopathic, vegetarian Hannibal Lecter in the way that she attempts to devour Blanchett's character.
At the Metropolitan Club, everyone wanted to meet Blanchett, including famed writer Gay Talese, who wore a beautiful houndstooth jacket he told me he bought in 1964.
Later, in the coat check, I ran into "Spider-Man" adversary James Franco, who has a newly cropped head of hair.
"What happened to your hair?" I asked the 28-year-old naïf. "What happened to yours?" he appropriately shot back. Ah, well, he has a point.
But back to the action: By then, Lauren Bacall was busy lecturing Blanchett and her playwright husband, Andrew Upton, about something. The last time we saw these two actresses together, Bacall was advising Blanchett on how to play Katharine Hepburn in "The Aviator." It worked: Blanchett won the Oscar.
"Yes! It was all about me!" Bacall observed with a laugh.
So what now?
"I'm telling them how to smuggle small dogs into Australia," Bacall said.
Do Blanchett and Upton have dogs?
"No," said Blanchett, "just children." They fly on the plane, in seats.
"But I'm telling them they have to change Australian laws," Bacall said.
And, oh, yes: The Toronto Film Critics gave awards to Dench and Blanchett for "Scandal," being brave enough to exclude Mirren.
Forest Whitaker, however, won best actor for "Last King of Scotland," giving him a clean sweep of all the critics' prizes and making him a cinch for the Oscar.
Whitaker, I'm told, is at home in Los Angeles, doing nothing special but receiving news of each of his new awards every day with little fanfare. I mean, how much champagne can you drink?
Anyone who loves the pageantry featured in the Asian filmmaking of Ang Lee or Zhang Yimou should get to the Beacon Theatre between tonight and Christmas Eve. That’s when “Holiday Wonders,” a lavish stage presentation about China’s Tang Dynasty, hits town.
The costumes and music are authentic and look mesmerizing. Legendary musician Glora Feidman, who won an Oscar with Itzhak Perlman for the music from “Schindler’s List,” is featured as well. If the show makes you hungry, the Beacon is only a couple of blocks south of Ruby Foo’s.
And this is cool: The show is produced by New Tang Dynasty Television (NTDTV), described as an independent, nonprofit Chinese language television network established by overseas Chinese. …
The legendary Stax Records ended in 1975 with a bankruptcy. But now Norman Lear’s Concord Records, which bought the Stax catalog a couple of years ago from Saul Zaentz, is bringing back the label. They’ve already signed Isaac Hayes, a Stax veteran, and more contemporary artist Angie Stone.
Here’s a suggestion: pick up the new UK Track Records release, “Brand New Classics,” from the great Ann Peebles, which includes her searing version of “Tears in Heaven” and remakes of her old hits, “I Can’t Stand the Rain” and “Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody’s Home.”
Peebles is a Memphis legend, having recorded with Royal Studio’s Willie Mitchell for most of her career. Also available to the new Stax family: an unreleased album by the Climates, the Sun Records group that finally made a new CD last year. Gorgeous sounds! This could be the beginning of something amazing. ...