As far as we know, Sean Penn is not now nor has he ever been a member of the Communist Party. Unlike his father, director Leo Penn, a victim of the Hollywood witch-hunts of the 1950s, he’s never been threatened by a Congressional subcommittee on un-American activities, pressured to name names, or hounded by anyone named McCarthy (except perhaps Andrew).
But on Feb. 11, the 42-year-old actor filed a $10 million lawsuit in a California civil court declaring that ”the dark era of Hollywood blacklisting” has returned. His nemesis: Steve Bing, the wildly wealthy producer and playboy (and card-carrying contributor to the Democratic Party) who grabbed headlines last year by furiously insisting that he was not the father of Elizabeth Hurley’s baby (turned out he was).
Penn asserts in the lawsuit that he and Bing had an oral contract to make a comedy called Why Men Shouldn’t Marry, but that Bing reneged because of Penn’s trip to Baghdad and his outspoken opposition to war with Iraq (which the actor shared with the world on Larry King Weekend in January, a few days before he was allegedly fired from Bing’s film). Bing, not surprisingly, denies Penn’s allegations, insists the two never sealed any agreement, oral or otherwise, and has filed a $15 million countersuit describing Penn as ”crazy and irrational” and charging him with ”civil extortion.”
Of course, disputes between actors and producers have been clogging California courts for decades. But blacklist is too powerful a word in Hollywood to be simply ignored. So, is there, as Penn claims, a new blacklist? Is there even a backlash?
At first glance you’d certainly think so. Penn, after all, isn’t the only celebrity to run into trouble in the delicate cultural climate of post-9/11 Hollywood. Bill Maher’s ABC talk show Politically Incorrect was yanked after he argued that the word coward might not be the most accurate description of the terrorist hijackers. Richard Gere’s pleas for ”love, compassion, and understanding” during The Concert for New York City in October 2001 nearly got him booed off the stage. During a radio interview, actor David Clennon (thirtysomething’s Miles Drentell) compared President Bush to a Nazi, prompting some 1,200 letters demanding that CBS fire him from The Agency. George Clooney was somewhat more diplomatic when he likened Bush to Tony Soprano, but that remark is causing him headaches too. Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly made Clooney Public Enemy No. 1 and claims the comment has all but wrecked the actor’s career. ”Look at Clooney’s last two movies,” he says. ”They bombed. People are not going to plunk down $9 to see a movie starring someone they despise.”
Of course, those two particular movies — Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Solaris — probably wouldn’t have made much money even if Clooney had appeared in them wearing an Uncle Sam suit and tap-dancing to ”Yankee Doodle.” (The two quirky films combined have earned less than Ocean’s Eleven made its opening weekend.) In fact, if you look closely, none of the celebrities mentioned above seem to have suffered any long-term damage. Gere just earned a SAG nomination for his performance in Chicago (although he was snubbed for an Oscar nod); Clennon is still on The Agency; and even Maher is returning to TV, with a show on HBO.