Mickey Rourke Fights His Way Back as The Wrestler
I’m a sucker for a big comeback story (I’ll never forget the thrill I experienced as a child in 1980, when I spotted Angie Dickinson on the cover of People magazine to herald her appearance in the hit Dressed to Kill, a few years after her Police Woman heyday had ended), and therefore last Sunday night found me waiting in line three hours in hopes of gaining a seat to the free preview of The Wrestler at the Billy Wilder Theater, followed by a Q&A session with director Darren Aronofsky and his suddenly high-profile, career-rejuvenated star, Mickey Rourke. Obviously this was a hot-ticket event, and I witnessed the line circle the theater’s courtyard as the hours passed, while regular season members also showed up to claim their seats ahead of us cheapskates, and the twenty or so people in front of me in the “freebie” line increased to fifty before the box-office opened (one guy just in front of me “held” a spot in line for NINE of his dearest friends- this kind of evil “I’ll just show up when I feel like it and cut in front of the peasants” attitude must be destroyed). Fortunately patience was a virtue, and I managed to grab a spot in the nearly full theater before the start of the movie, and before I had a heart attack trying to control my temper and restrain myself from strangling the ten people in line directly in front of me, the bastards (sorry, I’m not sophisticated or mature enough to pretend that even the possibility of losing my seat to one of these nonchalant latecomers and their 'contact' didn’t piss me off. I’m sure they’re very nice people, but I hate them all).
I’ve never understood the attraction of Pro-Wrestling, with its blend of machismo, sadism, and overblown theatrics (if Bette Davis, puffing away at her most temperamental, showed up during the middle of one of these jaw-dropping knock-down bouts, you’d hardly notice her, what with all that other ranting going on). I still was shaking my head throughout the movie’s big fight sequences, which featured twenty-years-past-his-prime Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson attempting to battle his way back to the forefront of his odd but immensely popular profession. Fortunately, Mickey Rourke has a gift for playing rough-and-tumble characters with a gentle, graceful sweetness that brings out the humanity in these tough guys (I kept thinking of Rourke’s terrific work as Charles Bukowski in 1987’s Barfly as a close parallel, as Bukowski could be a distant cousin to Randy). It’s both funny and touching to watch the oversized Randy roughhousing in friendly fashion with a bunch of kids at the trailer park he inhabits, or bantering with customers at the deli he works at during his time away from the ring. Rourke’s endearing performance provides a nice buffer to the more brutal aspects of the film, such as an especially grisly match mid-film, and Randy’s volatile encounters with his resentful, neglected daughter, Stephanie (played with raging intensity by Evan Rachel Wood). Marisa Tomei continues to score playing sexy, keenly observant women of somewhat ill repute (following her on-target work in 2007's Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead), lending a terse, knowing demeanor to her portrayal of “Cassidy,” the stripper Randy hopes to settle down with. Aronofsky wisely chooses a simple, straightforward narrative approach to showcase Rourke’s intriguing character study, unlike the director’s brilliant but not-for-the-squeamish offering from 2000, Requiem for a Dream (in the discussion following the film, Aronofsky stated he doesn’t want to do the same kind of movie more than once, in order to kept his creative juices flowing).
After the screening, Aronofsky and Rourke, dressed in shades and a gray and pink-and-white striped shirt get-up that proved he’s still a wild man living by his own rules, came out to take questions from the audience. If we needed any proof Rourke hasn’t been tamed by his recent success, the actor supplied it before he said a word, responding to the audience’s standing ovation by good-naturedly flipping us all off (I can’t wait to see Rourke live at the Oscars). I’m sure Aronofsky had a lot of perceptive things to say about the movie, but I honestly can’t remember many of his comments- for me it was the Mickey show on Sunday, both onscreen and off, with Rourke asking an audience member to “Stand up and drop your pants before you ask that question, please” or looking at Aronofsky and saying “I’ll have to blow him for the rest of my life” after Rourke stated the director deserved most of the credit for his outstanding work in the movie. Rourke did display some self-control, fighting off an ever-increasing urge to light up during the (for him, endless) half-hour of discussion in the smoke-free auditorium, and only started smoking (literally, as opposed to figuratively) after the Q&A was over.
The star started the conversation by freely admitting he’d been out for drinks with his director before the movie was screened, and then pondered his life and career in an alarmingly honest manner throughout the Q&A session. He stated he considered himself very lucky to land a spot at the Actor’s Studio in the 1970’s, and he worked hard to become a success, before he let his reckless lifestyle and decision to return to boxing kill off his acting career. He said he tried to jump-start his film career, but stayed out of work as a performer for much of the last sixteen years. He claimed during the film’s production, “I just wanted to hang out at the beach and get laid, I didn’t want to wrestle” but Aronofsky kept him focused on giving his all to the part. Rourke said he admired Aronofsky as a filmmaker, as he does “his own thing. . . he makes smaller films that have integrity.” Aronofsky mentioned he started doing research for the film in 2002 before work on the movie really started in 2005. The director said he wanted the talented Rourke for the lead instead of a bigger star, even though the film’s backers were wary of Aronofsky’s casting decision, and therefore tightened the budget for the movie. Rourke was more to the point, saying those associated with the movie felt “We can’t raise any money on his ass.” However, Rourke’s involvement paid a dividend beyond his great performance, as Aronofsky claimed his star’s close ties to Bruce Springsteen and Axl Rose led to Springsteen contributing the memorable title song free-of-charge, and Rose allowing Aronofsky to use “Sweet Child of Mine” in the film almost free of charge (for $20,000, as opposed to the 1.5 million another filmmaker paid for the use of "Sweet Child"). Aronofsky and Rourke both stated they worked together closely, allowing an improvisational style to be incorporated into some scenes in order to give Rourke the freedom he needed to create his remarkable characterization of ‘The Ram.’ The actor also mentioned he wrote Randy’s final speech in the film, showed it to Aronofsky, and the director immediately agreed to shoot the compelling sequence using Rourke’s dialogue. Queried about his comeback, Rourke said, “It’s a little bit more than that, it’s a long road. There’s not a lot of jobs where you can have a comeback. You can’t have one in sports.” Rourke then commented on the “lost years” he’d spent trying to re-establish himself as a major talent in films, before Aronofsky came to his rescue with The Wrestler.
I didn’t get the chance to ask a question, but afterwards as I went to my car I found myself within a few feet of Rourke as he flicked out his cigarette before telling his driver, “Let’s roll” and hopping into his vehicle. I wanted to say something to him, but I couldn’t think of anything substantial, and I didn’t want to say anything trivial or stupid, as this is one star who’d have no problem telling you exactly what he thinks (I also had no idea what danger might lurk just beneath those shades, and I didn’t want to be an impromptu sparring partner for the bulky Rourke). The less bulky Aronofsky was also standing nearby talking to people, but I also drew a blank trying to think of something smart to ask him. I’m not in my element dealing with any post-1970 cinema, I guess. However, I’ve always thought Mickey Rourke deserved at least an Academy Award nomination for Barfly, and it looks as though good fortune will finally smile on him with an Oscar nod, and maybe more than that, early next year.