As almost everybody knows by now -- except for the handful of bemused Oscarcast-watchers who continue to send e-mails subject-lined: Sean Penn, WTF? -- that speech Mr. Penn made before presenting the best actress statuette referred to his ex, Robin Wright Penn, and her splendid performance in Rebecca Miller's The Private Lives of Pippa Lee. Miller's coming-of-middle-age drama, which opened in only three cities last fall, is now available from your cable provider via On Demand. It's well worth the visit.
Here is what Mr. Penn said: "I never became an official member of the Academy, but the Academy and I do have in common that we neglected to acknowledge the same actress in our own ways two years running." Translation: Last year when he received his golden guy for Milk, Penn did not thank his then-wife Robin Wright Penn; this year the Academy did not cite her for her work in Pippa Lee.
Penn's roundabout acknowledgment of his ex reminded me to catch up with Pippa Lee over the weekend. I'm grateful I did. Adapting her own novel, Miller, best known for the movie triptych Personal Velocity and the unsettling Ballad of Jack and Rose, (starring her spouse Daniel Day-Lewis and Camilla Belle) proves once again that she is one of the keenest chroniclers of women in transition and a sympathetic director of actors.
As the title character, a fortyish mother of grown children and trophy wife of a publishing legend (Alan Arkin), Wright Penn astounds as a somnambulist spouse who heeds the wake-up call. When Pippa and her much-older husband move to a retirement community in Connecticut (sarcastically dubbed "Wrinklebury"), the transition triggers flashbacks to prior pivotal moments in her life, including running away from home at 16 and hooking up with her husband in her early 20s. As Miller frames it, most of Pippa's emotional transactions have her reaching for others to be her human life raft or serving as a personal flotation device for others lost in the stormy surf.
Wright Penn is the linchpin of this wry, witty drama purveying the (reputed) Yogi Berra philosophy, "when you see a fork in the road, take it." Gossip Girl's Blake Lively is the young Pippa, Maria Bello is Pippa's Mom, Winona Ryder her friend and Keanu Reeves a fellow lost soul who helps Pippa find herself. So much of Wright Penn's recent work in White Oleander, She's So Lovely and Nine Lives showcases the melancholy beauty as a morose figure whose battery is dead. So it's energizing to see her in Pippa as one who finds -- and applies -- the jumper cables to her stalled life.
Are you a fan of Wright Penn? I have been since she played golden girl Kelly Capwell on the daytime soap Santa Barbara. Loved her as The Princess Bride; loved her a little less as the melancholy Jenny in Forrest Gump. Before Pippa, my favorite performance of hers is as the determined Irish lass in The Playboys. Yours?