Penn won his second Academy Award for best actor Sunday night for his moving portrayal of slain gay rights leader Harvey Milk in "Milk." The win follows his first best-actor award for 2003's "Mystic River."
He earned a standing ovation from the starry crowd as his wife, Robin Wright Penn, tearfully looked on. (Penn, however, didn't thank his wife; the two filed for divorce in late 2007 before reconciling last spring.)
"You commie, homo-loving sons of guns," Penn began in accepting the prize. "I did not expect this and I want it to be very clear that I do know how hard I make it to appreciate me often."
In this highly competitive category, Penn was up against Mickey Rourke in "The Wrestler," Frank Langella in "Frost/Nixon," Brad Pitt in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" and Richard Jenkins in "The Visitor."
Penn had already won the Screen Actors Guild and Critics Choice awards as well as numerous honors from film critics groups across the country. The 48-year-old actor deeply immersed himself for the part, which brought out a warmth and sweetness we'd rarely seen throughout a career often marked by intense, complex characters.
"How did he do it?" fellow Oscar winner Robert De Niro wondered in introducing Penn. "How for so many years did he get all those jobs playing straight men?"
Milk was the first openly gay man elected to major public office in the United States when he won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977. The following year, he was shot to death along with Mayor George Moscone by board colleague Dan White.
But during his life, he inspired gays and lesbians to stand up and come out, helped turn the Castro neighborhood into the gay Mecca it would become and roused crowds with impassioned speeches that often began with the words, "My name is Harvey Milk and I am here to recruit you."
In wrapping up his own speech, Penn mentioned the protesters who lined the streets of Hollywood near the Oscar festivities, holding anti-gay signs: "We've got to have equal rights for everyone," he said.
Backstage, when asked what he would tell those protesters if he could speak to them, Penn responded: "I'd tell them to turn in their hate card and find their better self."
By Christy Lemire