“When I was a kid I remember being visually captivated by the Steve Reeves poster,” says Johnson. “He’s breaking free of this pillar and chains. I didn’t know the mythology back then but I knew the image. That image captivated me. When I was a kid I was always drawn to men who were able to accomplish things, whether they were big things or little things, but men who took care of business physically.”
The great irony of good wrestling movies is that real, honest-to-God wrestlers rarely ever star in them. This week Mickey Rourke gives a tour-de-force performance in The Wrestler as Randy the Ram, an over-the-hill wrestler; a once famous athlete capable of packing Madison Square Gardens, now a raggedly collection of shin splits, aching bones and broken spirit that should earn him an Oscar nod. Aha, you say. Rourke used to be a boxer. Isn’t that the same thing? Well, according to director Darren Aronofsky not so much.
“It’s easy to think it was easy for Mickey to do this because of his experience in the ring but I think it was twice as hard because he had to unlearn everything,” he said. “In boxing the whole game is to hide your emotions and moves.
“When you do a punch in wrestling you want people in the bleachers to see it happening three minutes before it comes. So for Mickey to ham it up like that when he was taught to move as a boxer was a real challenge.”
Rourke is perfect for the role; his face looks like he’s been beaten up by an angry plastic surgeon, and his slouching walk belies years of extreme physical abuse. But not all actors to play wrestling’s “faces” and “heels” have been so well cast.
Flesh, a little known John Ford film from 1932, sees Wallace Beery — former silent movie and musical theater star — play a waiter-turned-wrestler who discovers his wife is having an affair. Even stranger casting than that was spindly Henry Winkler — The Fonz — as an unemployed actor who becomes a wrestling star (alongside Herve Villechaize) in the comedy The One and Only. Then there’s Blood & Guts a 1978 film which sees aging wrestler Danny O’Neil, played by William Smith, wear a silver 10 gallon top hat in the ring.
To get the real deal on wrestling check out Beyond the Mat, a documentary from comedy writer and wrestling fan Barry Blaustien. His behind the scenes look at the pro circuit and its stars works on an almost Shakespearean level, revealing the tragedy, rage, humor, violence, intrigue, hucksterism and real human stories of the sport.
It’s a movie that should be placed alongside Pumping Iron and When We Were Kings as movies that uncover the private side of sports entertainment. We all know wrestling is fake, but after seeing Beyond the Mat it seems a little more real.