By John H. Foote
Mickey Rourke was among the major new actors on the rise in the eighties, along with Sean Penn, Eric Roberts and Tom Cruise. Rourke had a sweet, disarming smile and spoke in a soft, near whisper that hid a real dangerous presence. He could quickly turn dark; the smile could slip away and violence took over. Comparisons were made to a young Brando, but I always felt Rourke was a complete original.
The first time he made an impression on me was a very small part as Teddy, an arsonist in Body Heat (1981). Kept out of jail by his lawyer, he is now asked to show that same lawyer how to build a bomb. Speaking in hushed tones, letting his lawyer know the danger of what he is doing, he dominates both his scenes, blowing William Hurt, no slouch, off the screen. There was something oddly moving about him, drawing Hurt close to explain the dangers of bomb making, while discouraging him as best he can. He gave his scenes a remarkable intimacy that was exciting to experience.
From there Rourke soared through the eighties with brilliant work in Diner (1982), Rumble Fish (1983), The Pope of Greenwich Village (1984), Year of the Dragon (1985), Angel Heart (1987) and Barfly (1987). There were weak films along the way and Rourke became more and more disenchanted with Hollywood, behaving poorly on set, showing up to meetings with studio heads accompanied by Hell’s Angels. He admits now he was a perfect ass. He then left acting for a pro boxing career, and though he won some bouts, his good looks took a savage beating, and plastic surgeries were required.
When he started getting back into films, The Rainmaker (1997), The Pledge (2001) and a big role in Sin City (2005) brought him back into the eyes of audiences and directors leading Darren Aranofsky to cast him in The Wrestler. Written for Nicolas Cage, they found they could not afford him, whereas Rourke saw in the script a possibility for a comeback and the role of his career. The actor placed his complete trust in Aranofsky and jumped into the role, packing on muscle for his role as Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a washed up, over the hill former superstar wrestler now doing bouts in high school gyms in shows of what used to be. Like an old timer’s hockey game, steroid popping wrestlers, some masses of muscle, go to war in the ring, forgetting they are 40 and 50 years old, no longer in their prime. Randy at one time was a big deal, filling stadiums, posters of him sold, his face was on clothing, he even had his own action figure. But age has caught up with him and, having never planned for the future, his life is hardly ideal. He lives in a trailer park, though is often locked out for nonpayment of rent. His hard-earned cash seems to be spent on a litany of drugs, including steroids and narcotics, to build muscle and deal with constant pain, respectively.
Randy works in a grocery store, in the deli, between weekend fights and frequents a local strip joint where he gazes lovingly at an aging beauty, Cassidy, portrayed by the lovely Marisa Tomei. Randy also has a daughter, portrayed by Evan Rachel Wood, and is doing his best to make amends to her for never being there as a father. Befriending Cassidy, whom he longs for, the two spend some time together shopping for a gift for Randy’s daughter, with Cassidy choosing a perfect coat, which his daughter loves.
Things appear to be going well for Randy with both his daughter and Cassidy when he is felled by a massive heart attack. The attack nearly kills him, but he recovers, though is told his days in the ring are finished. Unable to leave the sport behind he decides to take part in a reunion event, after his daughter has rejected him, leaving him distraught. Unknown to him Cassidy arrives at the wrestling event, but sadly seems to witness his last fight. Does he go out in a blaze of glory, dying in the match? It seems so, though the ending is left ambiguous to the audience. If he lives, it seems he might have a chance with Cassidy, who has come to care for him very much.
Rourke made a stunning comeback as a man who has been forgotten by the sport that he once ruled, which defined him yet ruined him physically. Though well muscled, we learn Randy takes a litany of drugs to remain in shape, drugs which are hard on the body. His glory days long behind him, he is deluded about making a comeback, convinced the high school auditoriums he wrestles in might be replaced by the stadiums he once stalked. He is a sad man long past his prime, who devoted his life to a sport that chewed him up and spat him out. In many ways the performance and film reflect Rourke’s own career and life. There is genuine sadness in Ram, at what he has become, heartache at his estrangement from his daughter, yet for each we see and sense a glimmer of hope, undone by his desperate need to be adored by the crowds once again. Preening like a glorious peacock, he colours his flowing blonde locks, oils his muscled, steroid assisted body and, with a fresh scar where doctors opened his chest to save him, climbs back for one last round. Rourke is profoundly heartbreaking in the role and deserved the acclaim he received.
Marisa Tomei is equally superb as Cassidy, the pretty stripper no longer the first choice for private dancing, fast approaching being too old to be stripping. In a bold move, Tomei has the courage to take her clothes off, something Jennifer Lopez refused to do in the stripper’s yarn Hustlers (2019) which I found cowardly. If you are giving yourself over to a role, go all the way as Tomei does. Like Ram, she too fears getting older, being left behind, having no one in her life to love, and though not as desperate as Randy, she is every bit as heartbroken at how her life has turned out. Tomei deserved to win that Academy Award for which she was nominated.
The Wrestler was the hottest ticket at TIFF in 2008, and very quickly snapped up by Fox for distribution, turned into an awards season juggernaut. Going into Oscar night, despite Sean Penn’s brilliant work in Milk (2008) which had swept the critics’ awards, deservedly, Rourke was the sentimental favourite. He did not win the Oscar, Penn did as he should have, but did win awards from the Golden Globes and Independent Spirit Awards and it seemed his career was reborn.
Darren Aronofsky gave audiences a fascinating, realistic though grim look into the world of wrestling, where the sport is a lot of theatre, choreographed by the fighters, but the pain is all too real. We come to recognize these modern gladiators are there to entertain and really, up for anything. Watching staples pulled from Ram’s body gives some idea of his dedication to his sport. Once again Aronofsky plunged his audience into a world foreign to them, using his directorial skills to capture a remarkable authenticity rarely seen in movies.
Nominated for just two Academy Awards, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress, ignored were Aronofsky, the script and the Golden Globe winning song by Bruce Springsteen.
In the 12 years since the release of this gritty, powerful film, Rourke has never again ascended to the heights of glory he achieved in The Wrestler. Like Ram, this might have been his last stand.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.