My head is thumping with nostalgia when I touch down at LAX on Sunday night after a long weekend with family and friends in the mountains near Vail, Colorado. The occasion, under the ruse of my sister’s engagement party, was a last hurrah at the house that’s come as close as anything to being a home for our peripatetic family. It’s a beautiful house with a 180-degree view straight up into the humbling, adrenal beauty of the Rocky Mountains. Currently, it’s on the selling block, and as I wait at the curb for a cab on this thick and balmy Los Angeles night, I’m thinking a familiar thought — I’ve just left the most beautiful place on earth again, and, I’m not sure why.

Oh, L.A., I think you might lose me. I can’t feel your cement sticking to my shoe. Your reinvention no longer feels new. I’m tired and getting old, and you know how that story goes, so please, please, please, on this night, if any, give me something inspiring and true, like a 13,000-foot mountain, to stare into.

Then, on the cab ride from the airport, something thrilling and unexpected happens. In the distance, downtown rises like Oz against the silhouetted hills, and the city’s lights twinkle against a thick, low-hung twilight sky. I roll down the window and soft, moist air brushes my face. I can feel Los Angeles taking me into its weird, warm embrace, hugging me like a mother. And I start thinking, Ah, maybe this is why I live here.

My next sensation is that one where confusion follows catharsis, or where former lovers wake up together after a relapse. Something is amiss: The streets are deracinated, as my cab speeds freely along the freeway, my phone is empty of messages, the sky is still and hovering like a UFO — life here seems to be on pause. Where the hell is everybody?

Home in record time and not wanting to lose the loving feeling, I take my dog for a walk around the neighborhood. Prowling the hills in the dark, we seem to be the only things stirring. Then I notice the recurring glow of televisions lighting up the houses and apartments along the way. It finally dawns on me — tonight is Oscar Night, L.A.’s indoor Mardi Gras, the night we crown our kings and queens.

Watching the Academy Awards has never really been my thing, but in the spirit of rekindling the romance between me and L.A., I hurry my dog home so I can tune in like a concerned citizen. Besides, there’s one story line amid the mediocre movies and Slumdog hysteria that has my attention — who will win Best Actor in the race between two iconoclasts, Mickey Rourke or Sean Penn?

Rounding the corner for home, I come upon a viewing party in full swing on a neighbor’s deck. I spot heating lamps, a fire pit and a big silver screen with its back to the street. A partygoer pans across the deck and hunches over a buffet. From the booming sound system, I gather that Penelope Cruz has won Best Supporting Actress for her work in the unfortunately titled Vicky Cristina Barcelona. More importantly, I remember the time about 10 years ago when I interviewed her poolside at the Sunset Marquis. She went bra-less in a see-through print blouse and talked about volunteering for Mother Teresa. That’s not a joke.

I settle into my couch during the long stretch in which down-credits folks get their due and almost instantly nod off. I have a vague recall of a strange homage to musicals featuring Beyoncé and a stiff white dude in top hat and tails, a clownish French guy miming or doing magic or balancing things on his nose, and a cartoon character who looked a lot like Will Smith, only with monster teeth and rubber ears. He seems to be on for hours. Queen Latifah comes out and does a song about dead people … I think. I may have been dreaming. But that is Paul Newman and he is dead, right?

I’m fading. I want Los Angeles’ ode to itself to have consequence. I want it to speak of something innate and valuable. I want L.A. to win me back over. Slumdog Millionaire is winning everything, except for what crumbs are thrown to the multistudio movie (everyone keeps their jobs!) about an old midget who turns into Brad Pitt. This is mediocre entertainment, not transcendence.

I wake up when we get to Best Actress. I’m pulling for Kate Winslet because I’ve been deeply in love with her ever since she stood naked and urinating in front of Harvey Keitel in Holy Smoke. She’s been the fiercest actress in movies for years, an exemplar of sexual, intellectual and artistic daring. Surely she’ll set this thing right.

But when she wins I’m immediately let down by her admission to practicing for her Oscar moment in front of the bathroom mirror with a shampoo bottle since she was 8. Why does she have to be so tame with her clothes on?

Finally, we get to Best Actor. Rourke, the sentimental favorite, was one of my heroes. “Boogie” Sheftell in 1982’s Diner, the immortal Motorcycle Boy in 1983’s Rumble Fish, Charlie in 1984’s The Pope of Greenwich Village. These fallen outsiders may have been anachronistic and archetypal, even corny, but for my friends and me, they codified our notions of cool. If there’s been a cooler big-screen turn than Rourke’s in the criminally neglected Pope, it was probably by … Paul Newman. It’s movies like this that made me move to New York before it was scrubbed clean of characters like Charlie. The Wrestler is so compelling as Rourke’s comeback because it provides more answers about the demons and destructive choices that led to the sad trajectory of Mickey Rourke, fallen hero, than anything yet. Not to mention it offers if not a happy ending, at least the promise of redemption.

Sean Penn’s seminal roles in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Bad Boys and Racing With the Moon parallel Rourke’s rise, but Penn was never an equal paragon of cool. There was something unformed and off-putting in his prickly persona. But over the years Penn found his voice, not just as an actor and director (he’s getting better with age on both fronts), but also as an unabashed patriot who isn’t afraid to use his stature to summon outrage. He’s become the Thomas Paine of actors.

As far as I’m concerned, the tension over Best Actor is that neither Rourke nor Penn should have to lose. How do you choose between a resurrected hero and a righteous dissident?

The Academy chooses the dissident, bucking sentiment for the first time all night. Accepting the award for his role as the crusader Harvey Milk, Penn immediately hails the “commie, homo-loving sons of guns” who voted for him. In his charming and challenging speech he asks those who voted for California’s anti-gay-marriage Prop. 8 “to sit and reflect and anticipate their great shame” and also gives props to a country that elected “an elegant man president” and that “for all its toughness” creates courageous artists like Mickey Rourke.

“Mickey Rourke rises again,” Penn says, “and he is my brother.”

Sean Penn and Mickey Rourke, inspiring and true. And made in L.A.

It’s good to be home.

LA Weekly