Second acts in Hollywood are rare. Once an actor is infected with the stink of failure it’s hard to wash off, particularly when the fall from grace is very public and seen by many people as well earned.
In 1985 Mickey Rourke was being called the new Brando; by 1995 Hollywood wasn’t calling at all. His career flameout rivaled that of other Tinsel Town wash outs like Orson Welles and John Gilbert, two legendary performers who blew their shot at screen immortality with a combination of ego and bad choices. Couple career suicide with a volatile reputation, an interlude as a professional boxer which caused neurological damage and forever altered his once matinee idols looks and you have a Hollywood Babylon story that looks doomed to end
poorly. And it almost did, after fifteen years without a lead role in a film Rourke was a write off, Hollywood’s forgotten man, until director Darren Aronofsky crafted a role for him that allowed him to face his demons in a very public way. Call it primal screen therapy if you like, but his achingly honest portrayal of burned out wrestler Randy the Ram may just earn him an Oscar nod.
In The Wrestler Rourke plays an over-the-hill pro wrestler, a once famous athlete capable of filling Madison Square Gardens, now a raggedly collection of shin splits, aching bones and broken spirit. He ekes out a living doing small time matches in rec centers for the handful of die hards who remember his glory days, but the good times are a long distant memory. On his off hours he works part time in a grocery store and tries to court stripper Cassidy played by Marisa Tomei. When a heart attack sidelines his big chance—a rematch with his greatest rival on the twentieth anniversary of their MSG bout—he must face up to his decline and leave behind the only life he’s ever known. An attempt to reconnect with his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) gives him little comfort and it seems he only has one chance at happiness—even if it kills him.
Sound depressing? Well it is, but it’s also a fascinating look at the
downside of fame which parallels Rourke’s own fall from grace. In the hands of another actor—Nicolas Cage was originally slated to play the part—Randy the Ram would be an interesting portrait of failure but Rourke brings a gravitas to the character that goes beyond mere characterization. His real life experience on fame’s downside gives him a unique perspective on Randy, allowing him to bring the shame of failed expectation to the forefront. When Randy is at his lowest point, living in reduced circumstances and making ends meet by working behind a deli counter, the shame of being recognized as a former hero, a fallen star, is a feeling Rourke has lived in real life and the scene in the film feels all the more real because of it.
The Wrestler doesn’t take the easy road. Aronofsky, best known for directing PI and Requiem for a Dream, is unflinching in his portrait of Randy and it can make for some uncomfortable viewing. We all know that wrestling is fake, but the toll—physical and emotional—it takes on its practitioners is very real.
The physical toll is easy to spot. Rourke’s face looks like he’s been beaten up by an angry plastic surgeon and his slouching walk belies years of extreme physical abuse both inside and outside of the ring. The emotional side of the film is just as powerful, but not painted in such broad strokes. Much of what Rourke does here is internal; the look on his face as he scans a sparsely attended autograph session, an ego buster of an event where he tries to hawk $5 photographs to a handful of former fans or a heartfelt speech to his daughter that relies on his fractured facial expressions as much as it does the words he’s saying. It’s all powerful stuff that takes us inside Randy’s fruitless search for honor, dignity and love.
The Wrestler, like so many of the Oscar movies released this year is a good film with an amazing central performance. Think Anne Hathaway in Rachel Getting Married or the powerhouse trio of Amy Adams, Meryl Streep and Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Doubt. They are all interesting-ish movies that are elevated by the acting. The Wrestler is a great film, but it wouldn’t approach the stellar heights it hits without Rourke.
I don’t know if this is the beginning of a comeback for him or not. There can’t be that many roles out there that can take advantage of the particular kind of pathos where art and real life collide, but The Wrestler should finally bring Rourke the kind of mainstream notice he deserves.
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