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Watch Sean Penn snub the Associated Press, New York Times and L.A. Times

December 15, 2008 | 12:41 pm

Check out this video below to get a backstage peek at how Sean Penn treats the media. This scene at the Gotham Awards is particularly outrageous since he enlists — probably inadvertently — "Milk" director Gus Van Sant to join him in snubbing journos from the Associated Press, New York Times and L.A. Times.

Penn didn't show up at the Gothams last year to accept the best picture prize for "Into the Wild," but he agreed to appear this year to bestow a special award to Van Sant. As soon as the presentation was complete and Penn and Van Sant headed backstage, those of us in the press room were told that they would only do paparazzi-style still photos. We were not permitted to ask questions.

If Penn didn't want to bother with that, fine, but, since he was marching with Van Sant, that meant he shut off media access to the man who was being honored with a special tribute that night. Is that fair?

IDEALLY, THIS IS HOW THE SCENE MIGHT HAVE PLAYED OUT IN A PERFECT, NICE WORLD: The "Milk" duo would've posed for the click-click shots, Penn would've given the AP, New York Times and L.A. Times some nice words about the helmer, then stepped aside and let journos speak to Van Sant solo. The next day those interviews could've rolled out to millions of people.

THIS IS HOW THE SCENE ACTUALLY PLAYED OUT: Penn stood rigid as if facing a firing squad. Being a good director, Van Sant knew that the scene cried out for camaraderie, but he overdid it a bit, hurling himself against Penn's side as he flung a desperate arm around Sean's shoulder. Penn didn't respond in kind. Then Penn broke away and headed for the exit door, looking back to make sure that Van Sant was following like a good puppy.

After they split, we journos looked at each other, sharing expressions of shock and a good giggle.

Afterward, I asked Penn's publicist Mara Buxbaum about that fiasco, but she refused to accept responsibility. She insisted that neither she nor Penn told the Gotham Awards staffers to order the media not to ask questions. Sorry, but I find that really, really hard to believe. Why would the Gotham Awards shut off media access to the man (Van Sant) they hailed with a major honor?

Didn't Sean Penn learn a lesson last year? Even though Penn got a nomination from the Directors Guild of America, he failed to get an Oscar bid. The snub, it seems to me, was a loud message from a fed-up industry. The whole media biz, film and media, after all, are intricately interwoven in Hollywood. Already "Milk" seems to be in some kudos trouble. Although Penn got nominated for best actor at the Golden Globes, members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. didn't nominate "Milk" or Van Sant for best picture or director.

According to Buxbaum, the only media Sean Penn has really done on "Milk" was an interview with PBS TV host Charlie Rose. At least last year he tried to do more. Check out this report of the L.A. premiere of "Into the Wild" by The Dish Rag's Elizabeth Snead. Like many other media outlets, the L.A. Times hired a camera crew to cover the red carpet when we were told by the studio that Penn would talk to media outlets. Camera crews aren't inexpensive and we don't like to force poor Elizabeth to leave her poochies and hubby at home and battle the media hoards unless it's for a good cause. But when, like a good trouper, she got to the carpet — as you can see in the video — Penn chatted with one or two outlets at the top of the carpet, then, suddenly sick of it all, bolted briskly past the others.

Now there may be good reason why he wants to dodge the media. Journos aren't eager to ask him softball questions about how great his movie or director is. Now everyone wants to know why he's hailing Fidel Castro as a great leader in a cover story Penn wrote for The Nation magazine. "Not long after the Cuban revolution, Fidel Castro ordered the internment of gay people in prison labor camps, where they were murdered or worked to death," notes the gay magazine, The Advocate. "Penn's political activism, irrespective of his views on gay rights, negates the values for which a movement based upon individual freedom must stand."

Camera work by Paul Sheehan