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Men of words

For Sean Penn And David Milch, `All The King's Men,' With Its Riffs On Power, Is As Persuasive Today As Ever. Its Ideas Have Snagged Them Both.

September 10, 2006|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

IF David Milch had his druthers, he probably wouldn't be strapped into a twin-prop plane at 10:30 on a Saturday morning, his aching back braced with a pillow as the aircraft scythes through the Central Valley haze.

Milch, after all, has plenty of other claims on his time: projects to plan, Emmy Award-winning TV scripts to churn out.

Then there's that racehorse he's hoping to sell by sunset, one of several that he has acquired -- the spoils of Hollywood success for his work on groundbreaking serials like "Hill Street Blues," "NYPD Blue" and "Deadwood," the ornery noir Western that Milch developed and scripted for HBO.

But Milch, a legendary talker, has been lured by the prospect of a conversation that promises to touch on themes familiar from his own work: larger-than-life masculine figures; the uses and abuses of power; and the poetic vitality of language.

Especially since one of the men in question is his mentor, the late poet and author Robert Penn Warren, and another is Sean Penn, who, in one of the fall's most anticipated films, plays a giant pulled from Warren's 1946 novel, "All the King's Men." Penn's character, Willie Stark, is a relentlessly driven, radical-populist Deep South politician bearing more than a passing resemblance to the real-life firebrand Huey P. Long, who served Louisiana as governor and U.S. senator from 1928 until his assassination in 1935.

At the invitation of The Times, the two men have agreed to meet at Penn's Marin County home to talk about the book and the film, and see where the words take them.

"I'm doing this as an homage to Mr. Warren," Milch said as he scrambled aboard the private plane he chartered at Van Nuys Airport.

When he and Warren first crossed paths four decades ago, Warren was a Yale professor and literary idol, best known for "All the King's Men," which won him the 1947 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. (He won two others for poetry collections.)

Milch at the time was a prodigiously gifted but troubled young undergrad at Yale. "I was doing a lot of pharmacological research," he says, using the jocular idiom he favors when discussing his life's darker chapters, particularly his years-long addiction to heroin and alcohol. Eventually, Warren became Milch's exemplar and enlisted him to help edit his poems in manuscript.

The new film boasts a prestigious transatlantic cast that includes Anthony Hopkins, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, James Gandolfini and Mark Ruffalo. And it plunges into Warren's ever-timely themes: the thin line between leadership and demagoguery; the quest for moral clarity when you're up to your hip boots in an ethical swamp; and the uneasy relationship between our vulnerable private selves and our more blustery and stylized public personae.

This version of the novel, which Warren originally wrote as a play, arrives in theaters Sept. 22, more than half a century after a 1949 movie treatment directed by Robert Rossen, which won the best picture Oscar as well as acting awards for Broderick Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge.

But Willie Stark is as reverberant a figure as ever, a man of the people and monumentally flawed hero who taps his inner preacher to inflame and enlighten the masses. Perhaps the same can be said of any successful artist, writer or teacher, roles in which Penn, 46, and Milch, 61, have variously excelled.

Poised on the Van Nuys runway, the meeting's premise hopefully would take flight.

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RISE OF A POPULIST

NO ONE who journeys far with Milch will lament the absence of an in-flight movie. He can riff for hours on practically any subject, embroidering baroque intellectual formulations with raw-meat expletives, much like "Deadwood's" irresistibly repellent protagonist Al Swearengen.

Initially, the conversation turns toward chitchat. But soon Milch steers into an extended commentary that ends up linking the grimly Darwinian world of "Deadwood," set in an 1870s Dakota Territory mining town, with the world of "All the King's Men." Warren's novel, much of it set during the 1930s, exposes a shabby-genteel patrician class that's sinking into its own corruption, while populists like Willie Stark wrestle the good ol' boy politicians and oilmen who run the state. In some ways, it's a latter-day, cracked-mirror image of "Deadwood."

Such societies create opportunities for opportunistic, self-mythologizing men like Swearengen and Stark.

Milch's one-man skull session is still going strong when the plane descends into the parched hills surrounding Novato air field, north of San Francisco. Within seconds a driver materializes and whisks the visitors off to Penn's Spanish-style home.

Penn has been working in an upstairs room with his longtime editor, reviewing dailies from "Into the Wild," which Penn is directing and shooting in Alaska. Based on Jon Krakauer's bestseller, the movie depicts the true story of Chris McCandless, a young man who renounced his material possessions and met his ill-starred fate on an Alaskan odyssey.

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