Rourke accused of verbal attack on friend Penn

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The Oscar nomination ballots have been with the arbiters of movie genius – members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – since Boxing Day, and the addition of a sub-plot involving what Mickey Rourke did or didn't say about Sean Penn has added a little bit of drama to the process.

By most reckonings, both are likely to make the list of five men nominated for best actor this year, Mr Rourke for his role in The Wrestler, which has been widely hailed as his comeback performance, and Mr Penn for his portrayal of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person elected to US public office, in the similarly well-received Milk.

The men are old friends but Mr Rourke may have let his competitive, not to say bitchy, instincts get the better of him. Or so the Tina Brown politics/celebrity website, the Daily Beast, claims. Mickey, it says, is telling folks Sean is "average" and "homophobic".

The Rourke crew has denied all and Mr Penn has steered clear of the brouhaha but the website stands by its report. What we seem to have, therefore, is something akin to Mr Rourke standing on the ropes and taking flight to flatten his old pal on the mat.

It came in the form of a text message Mr Rourke allegedly sent to a Hollywood executive who shared it with the Daily Beast. "Look," Mr Rourke purportedly wrote. "Sean's an old friend of mine and I didn't buy his performance at all – thought he did an average pretend acting like he was gay besides he's one of the most homophobic people I kno [sic]".

Maybe it would be better to use a boxing metaphor – a left-hook swipe – given Mr Rourke, who who rose to fame in the Eighties through films such as 9 Weeks, disappeared for part of the Nineties to pursue a boxing career. The Wrestler, about a one-time star of the ring who is too far over the hill to carry on, was thus something a personal journey for the actor.

More bad-mouthing allegedly took place as Mr Rourke emerged from an interview with David Letterman. He was reportedly overheard backstage speculating that Mr Penn, who has won an Oscar already, was not even a sure thing for a nomination this year. Asked about the text message, Mr Rourke's publicist said the fuss is as fake as a wrestler's neck snap: "There is no Oscar feud between Mickey and Sean. They have known each other and been friends for a very long time. Mickey attended the New York premiere of Milk to support Sean and only has the greatest respect for him."

Harvey Milk, elected as a San Francisco city supervisor, was gunned down by another supervisor in 1998.

Mr Penn has not escaped criticism from the gay community and media in the US because of his frequent defence of the leaders of Venezuela and Cuba, Hugo Chavez and Raul Castro, neither of whom are known as promoters of human rights for homosexuals.

Then again, Mr Rourke may be said to have special cojones to accuse Mr Penn of homophobia given the record of an interview he gave in the autumn that featured him labelling a reporter with the anti-gay slur, faggot.