Like every other moviegoer at the time, I first noticed Mickey Rourke in BODY HEAT, when his small role almost stole the film. I was knocked out by his performance.
But not long after, I heard from a friend who made a movie with him that he had treated my friend very badly, arrogantly undermining my friend’s performance. I didn’t like that.
Then we were both due to star in two different movies written or adapted by the same director who was scheduled to direct each of these movies. The one Rourke was scheduled to star in went ahead, with a different director. Mine was postponed and came out several years later with a different director and stars.
Mickey became a real movie star and I went to TV and was one of the co-stars of a show that bombed after one season. As Rourke’s career took off and he kept making an impression in movies, I had to admit his work was often impressive. Until, for me, it became repetitive and mannered
I remember going to THE POPE OF GREENWICH VILLAGE and on the way in imitating Rourke’s finger-to-the-side-of-the-tilted head gesture—that and ones like it he copped from similar gestures created by Brando and later Pacino and DiNiro et. al., for specific characters—and sure enough, he did it in almost the first scene (and in fact did it again at the Golden Globes during his acceptance speech, though why not? He’s made it his own by now I guess).
That was when I lost interest in him. Everything I saw him in after that disappointed me for the most part. Then I ran into him a few times at a club in Hollywood he supposedly was a part owner of and found him to be as arrogant and full of himself as I had heard at the time. (I’ve been told there’ve been times in my life when I’ve been pretty arrogant and full of myself too, including the times I ran into Rourke in Hollywood.)
Not long after that he quit Hollywood to try his hand at boxing, where I heard he didn’t do so well (another film actor, Paul LeMat, whose work I love—the hotrod greaser in AMERICAN GRAFFITI—quit movie acting to box and did very well and didn’t make a big deal out of it, I’d like to see him make a comeback).
Now comes THE WRESTLER and the buzz that Rourke should win an Oscar for his performance as the title character (even before he won the Golden Globe).
The movie didn’t look that appealing to me (as a lot of recent releases don’t, most of them seem incredibly depressing in ways that may have been a reaction to the ongoing trauma of the Bush Junior years when these flicks were in preproduction, but now that we’re in some really depressing times, and not just economically, what we need are some movies with a lot of humor and hope (see SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS).
But, surprise surprise. I started watching THE WRESTLER with low expectations and whattayaknow, Rourke impressed me again.
He has a lot of help. His director, Darren Aronofsky for one, the man who successfully turned Hubert Selby Jr.s’ depressingly dark but deeply insightful novel REQUIEM FOR A DREAM into a cinematic masterpiece, so knows how to handle dark material.
Though maybe working with Selby and Ellyn Burstyn on REQUIEM kept him from the kind of indie-movie-life-is-really-dark-and-depressing-self-importance some of THE WRESTLER exudes. (There’s even a scene that seems to imply a comparison between professional wrestlers taking punishment for their fans and Christ’s passion—maybe meant ironically but it didn’t come across that way.)
And Marisa Tomei gives an incredibly risky but brave supporting performance. She is one of my favorite movie actresses, much underrated I think, and much underused. I was almost sorry to see her putting her enormous talent into such a thankless kind of role.
Evan Rachel Wood is faced with the challenge of playing Rourke’s character’s estranged daughter, a performance that seems a little pushed to me in trying to keep up with the over-the-top “darkness” of the emotional demands of the role.
The father/grown-child reconciliation scene didn’t quite work as written for me, it seemed pieced together from different takes and on the surface attempted to make Rourke’s character sympathetic but emotionally, and even logically, it didn’t pull me in (as surprisingly the same type of scene in the similarly old-warrior film ROCKY BALBOA did because it seemed more true to reality and the circumstances).
But in the end—discounting the scenes with the daughter, and the ending, which seemed way too pat, including the penultimate scene in which the familiarly mannered Rourke reappeared briefly in his last scene with Tomei—it’s Rourke’s performance that carries the film.
THE WRESTLER’s not a one-of-a-kind great movie like REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (there’s many past versions of this over-the-hill-star-athlete-and-the-price-paid-for-that-stardom besides ROCKY BALBOA, like NORTH DALLAS FORTY and the black and white c. 1960 REQUIEM FOR A HEAVYWEIGHT). And Aronofsky and his screenwriter Robert Seigal blow a few things in their version, like some of the realities of Jersey where the movie is set and my home turf. Anyone really from Jersey will see through some of that stuff. But a lot of it is accurate, sometimes in ways few other movies set in Jersey have been.
And the wrestling parts seem authentic if appropriately over the top. Many of the actors playing the other wrestlers I assume, are professional wrestlers or trying to be. But Aronosfsky seems to lose focus in some of the non-wrestling scenes (except the ones with Tomei, because she’s so on the mark—watch her face in the trailer-park scene where she’s torn between the emotional sacrifice she’s making and Rourke’s character’s reaction, or non-reaction, it’s exquisite acting, or rather being).
Aronofsky also has some of those lack-of-continuity mishaps that always distract me and break a film’s suspension of belief—like Rourke’s character taking out the hearing aid he seems to need and then being able to hear Tomei’s character speaking softly in a bar full of loud music and noise (at least that’s what I saw), or the way Rourke responds to serious surgery, recovering too quickly, even while acting like it’s difficult, but not as difficult as the real thing from my experience and observations.
And Rourke’s character’s relationship with his boss on his day job is a little unbelievable as well (especially for Jersey and a professional wrestler). And yet, and yet over all, the film is consistent and so is Rourke’s acting. And despite everything, it works. I buy it.
I know it bothered some people to look at Rourke for the length of the film, with his puffy overworked face (botox? failed facelifts? no offense to Charles Bukowski but Rourke looks like he brought in a picture of Bukowski for the plastic surgeon to work from, if indeed it is a result of cosmetic surgery as Stallone admitted his beat up look in ROCKY BALBOA was) and seemingly steroided up (as per the character) body (though these days it could be computerized—ala the bodies in BENJAMIN BUTTON with Pitt’s head on them—or just special body make up, or a body suit [or just the heavy training he attributes it to]). But I bought it and thought Rourke and the filmmakers were putting his physical and career reality to good use (I almost got the feeling they saw Rourke first and then wrote the film for him, the match fits so well).
Maybe I’m a sap for this kind of story. Or the idea of it anyway. At least it kept my interest, a lot more than I expected it to. And I have to concede, Rourke embodies this character as well as can be expected, though I wouldn’t give him an Oscar for it—but maybe a nomination.