A few weeks ago, I was cantering towards the marvellous Joan Miro exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York when I heard one of the snooty, condescending senior citizens at the information desk ask her companion: "Have you seen that new Mickey O'Rourke movie?" Her interlocutor, the classic Gotham culture-vulture who has read every uplifting book and watched every heartbreaking film without seeming to have benefited from the experiences, replied: "Not yet. But it's on my list for the holidays."
Here in a nutshell was everything that is wrong with the wave of Mickey Rourke hysteria that began sweeping the US after The Wrestler was released last month. One, it's Mickey Rourke, not Mickey O'Rourke, ladies. Two, smartly dressed culture-vultures don't belong at a wrestling movie; there's nothing in it for you; it isn't aimed at your demographic. And three, all of you Johnny-come-latelies now on the Mickey Rourke bandwagon - where have you been all these years? Where were you when he sucked?
How many of you saw Harley Davidson And The Marlboro Man? Where were you when Mickey was scuffling for nickels and dimes in Masked And Anonymous? How many of you parvenus paid to see The Pledge, Domino, Desperate Hours, or Homeboy? I did.
I raise these questions as someone who has viewed Mickey Rourke as a fixture in his life for the past 27 years, ever since Diner was released. Spellbound, like so many other filmgoers, by Rourke's performance as the mischievous but charming Boogie, I watched in mounting dismay as his once-promising career stalled, then unravelled, then imploded.
His weird, self-destructive behaviour - he briefly retired to take up prize-fighting; he was arrested for assaulting his wife, Carre Otis; he became obsessed with dogs; he started terrifying directors by bringing his own bodyguards to film sets - inspired a 1992 Movieline article entitled "Mickey Rourke for a Day", in which I acted out scenes from the actor's life and films as varied as 9½ Weeks, Wild Orchid, Barfly and A Prayer For The Dying. The article was turned into a film by Gary Johnstone that can be seen on the internet at any hour of the day or night.
The premise of both the film and the article was that Rourke had miraculously abolished the distinction between his personal life and the repellent characters he played, engendering a "cosmic Mickey Rourkeanism". In the television film, I rolled around in the gutter, induced perfectly innocent women to swallow hot peppers, climbed into the ring and duked it out with a professional boxer, barged into editors' offices and threatened to punch out their lights and just generally behaved like a pig.
The film ended up being a paean of sorts to the actor, a backhanded homage, as I was forced to admit that what at first seemed like a walk in the park was anything but. Sure, a determined journalist could keep up the abhorrent Mickey Rourke act for 24 hours or so. But Rourke had to do it every single day of his life. My hat was off to him.
For the next 13 years, I monitored Rourke's strange, perplexing career. Most people I knew were unaware that he was still breathing, much less working. Not me.
Whenever a Mickey Rourke movie was released, I saw it, no matter how bad, no matter how obscure. It was a hobby of mine; one I enjoyed. It was like collecting Spandau Ballet bootlegs. Then, after Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler began drawing critical raves at film festivals in Europe and Canada last year, I started to feel a certain proprietary resentment towards all the swine jumping on the Mickey Rourke bandwagon.
Yes, Mickey was back. But the cognoscenti and hipsters huddling in the fashionably murky arthouse cinemas didn't even know where he was back from. They didn't know about films like Animal Factory, Thicker Than Blood, They Crawl or Shergar. They didn't know about Out In Fifty, Shades or the horrendous remake of Get Carter. And none of them knew that Mickey had once played St Francis of Assisi in a film entitled Francesco.
I did. I owned it.
The unvarnished truth is this: Mickey Rourke's overnight comeback is neither as surprising nor as precipitate as people would like to believe. Yes, he is the prodigal son returning from the fleshpots but while he was down there he was not merely cavorting. He was working, trying to get his career back on track. In 1997, Francis Ford Coppola (who helped launch Rourke's career with the 1983 film Rumble Fish) gave him a small part in The Rainmaker. It was the first movie of any consequence that Rourke had made since Angel Heart in 1987 and reminded at least some people that beneath all that sociopathic behaviour lurked genuine talent.
For the next 10 years, Rourke laboriously worked his way back into Hollywood's consciousness, if not the public's. He made a lot of bad movies but he also made a few good ones. Today, there is a suggestion afoot that director Darren Aronofsky tracked down the actor in a cave or a homeless shelter and personally lifted him out of the slime to cast him in The Wrestler. But this is not true.
Rourke has been working steadily, admittedly in obscurity, for years. He wasn't simply handed his chance for a comeback. In a roundabout way, he earned it. And when the opportunity arose, he seized it. He answered the bell.
What's more, The Wrestler would not be much of a film without Mickey Rourke. Written by Robert Siegel, formerly an editor at the satirical newspaper The Onion, The Wrestler is essentially Rocky in tights, a Cuisinart collection of hoary cliches that have been seen in films as varied as Requiem For A Heavyweight, The Wild Bunch, Fat City, Raging Bull and not one but six Sylvester Stallone films. The washed-up jock trying to win the affection of his child has been a Hollywood standby since King Vidor made The Champ in 1931. Nor is this the first time we have seen the stripper with the heart of gold (Marisa Tomei; if you're pushing 40 from the wrong side and trying to scare up an Academy Award nomination, this is where you go).
At various junctures, most particularly when a gimpy, bespectacled wrestler assaults Rourke's character with a staple gun, the film verges on farce.
What saves The Wrestler is that it is a film with a heart, and the heart is Mickey Rourke's. The Wrestler recounts the saga of Robin Ramzinski, a burned-out fiftysomething who was once one of the top draws in the professional wrestling circuit but is now a has-been living in a North Jersey trailer park. Busted up and broken down, "the Ram" is trying to pull his personal life back together as his career winds towards its end.
This in itself is a bitter-sweet set-up, since professional wrestling is viewed by the general public as a white-trash sham; in effect, the Ram is trying to recapture the glory of a profession that has no claim to true glory. But while it is true wrestling is staged and choreographed, the stunts themselves are dangerous and people get hurt in the ring, just like acrobats, lion tamers and circus clowns. The violence may be simulated but the pain of simulating violence is real.
Rourke, for the first time in decades, radiates the sweetness and innocence that he first displayed in Diner, the film that made him famous. Diner vaulted Kevin Bacon and Ellen Barkin to fame but it is also the film that gave us the appalling Daniel Stern and the oafish Steve Guttenberg. That hams like Stern and Guttenberg should have enjoyed far greater box-office success than the truly gifted Rourke is one of the bitter-sweet ironies of his comeback in The Wrestler.
The saga of Mickey Rourke is one of the saddest in the history of motion pictures. Some men have failure thrust upon them but Rourke went out and seized it by the throat. At a very early point in his career, Rourke made a fatal decision to turn down roles where he would play the man in the white hat and to instead appear in an interminable series of films lionising slimeballs.
The movie business is not hard to figure out. The public wants to see actors they admire playing characters they like. Henry Fonda played a villain exactly once in his career, as did Harrison Ford. Tom Cruise was a superb villain in Michael Mann's Collateral but he then went back to his day job, playing a slew of perfectly capital fellows.
For whatever the reason, Rourke either never figured out how the movie industry works or simply rejected its ground rules. Now, all these years later, the bulb has lit up. Where he goes from here is unclear; his face is a wreck; his leading-man days are over.
But in an era of creampuffs like Josh Hartnett and Orlando Bloom, it's great to have him back.
The Wrestler is out on Thursday. (Credit: The Sydney Morning Herald)
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