Monday, January 12, 2009

The great contender, by Stephanie Bunbury - The Age - 11th January 2009

Once considered down for the final count, Hollywood maverick Mickey Rourke is back in the ring and how, writes Stephanie Bunbury.

Couldabeen a contender. Nobody fits that phrase better than Mickey Rourke. Remember how he started out? Hailed as the new Marlon Brando in his breakthrough film Diner (1982), Rourke was then an actor of subtlety and can't-take-your-eyes-off-him presence who was also, just by the way, a smouldering sex god. It took just a few years, however, before he managed to squander those gifts through sheer craziness. Mid-'90s, Mickey Rourke was living on hand-outs from a mate, trying to be a pro boxer even though he was middle-aged. Every now and then he would do a day or two on films that hardly anyone saw or would want to see. Even his psychiatrist told him that out of all the hot talent in Hollywood of the time, only he could fall that far.

But now, quite miraculously, Mickey Rourke has been reborn as not simply a contender, but a hot tip for this year's best actor Oscar. In The Wrestler, the new film from Darren Aronofsky, Rourke plays washed-up Randy the Ram, a man who has lived only for the tinny glory of playing the good guy in the spit-and-sawdust theatrics of wrestling shows. Like Rourke himself, Randy is a clanking wreck after too many crashes on the ropes and cheap steroids; like Rourke, he chose hell-raising over child-raising and is paying for it in loneliness and a grey sense of general regret. Even as a member of the audience, it is painful seeing these parallels played out. Rourke, meanwhile, gives the performance of a lifetime. A Golden Globe nomination is already in the bag.

I met Mickey Rourke for the first time when Sin City premiered in Cannes in 2005. That was his real comeback; even though he was unrecognisable under a comic-book facial prosthetic. The part of Marvin, crazed avenger, was only one of the film's several leads, but everyone was talking about him. Mickey was talking about himself too; in fact, he would tell anyone anything. This was partly a habit born of therapy - at one stage in his chequered life, Rourke was going three times a week - but it was also born of gratitude. "You know," he told the Observer recently, "many years have gone by when no one wanted me to sit in a room and ask me questions ... so I'm thankful for it. It's been a long, long time."

Of course, he had quite a story to tell and, as a showman, he knew it. Young Mickey, he says, grew up tough in a dangerous, almost entirely black neighbourhood in Miami, shielding himself and his little brother, Joey, from an abusive stepfather. He started boxing in his teens, fighting the likes of Luis Rodriguez (who was soon to win the world middleweight title) until a bad concussion brought his time in gloves to an abrupt halt. So he worked his way into the Actors' Studio in New York - he liked the idea, he says, of becoming someone else - and became the Mickey Rourke we know from films such as Coppola's Rumble Fish, Alan Parker's Angel Heart and Barbet Schroeder's Barfly, in which he seemingly channelled the Beat writer Charles Bukowski.

But even after he became feted, famous and, briefly, fabulously rich, Rourke was still a fighter. "Working with Mickey Rourke is a nightmare," said Parker after they made Angel Heart. "He is very dangerous on the set because you never know what he's going to do." There were fights in nightclubs and tantrums on sets; there was the gang of Cuban heavies who went everywhere with him; in 1994, he was charged with assaulting his then wife, Carre Otis. By that time, he was virtually unemployable. "Of course, the drinking and the drugs ... did it," he says. "But the real problem was that I was nuts and angry and ashamed, too, and that shame turned into anger." During his worst period, however, he believes boxing was his salvation. That was when he was training seriously. "It was like a cleansing period. It was the point where I was the most out of control and it was almost the saving grace, because I could go into something and be an animal, which is what I was." But nobody in the film business will ever share that view, because fighting men at least a decade younger than him left him with a face that needed several reconstructions. His nose was rebuilt with cartilage from his ear. Rourke had become a wreck.

Then, in 1996, he failed his memory test and had to stop boxing altogether. That really was the nadir of his life. "I was heartbroken." Otis, "the woman I loved so f---ing much and still love", divorced him in 1998. He had nothing and nobody. He thought about killing himself; only the dependence of his pack of chihuahuas, whose various descendants remain his only companions, kept him here. He likes small dogs, he says, because you can cuddle them and feel their hearts beating. Their tiny lives were his responsibility.

And, as it turned out, he still had acting. After Otis left him, Rourke had a moment in front of the mirror when he saw what others saw - "You know, the armour; it scared the f--- out of me" - and resolved to change his life. It was a long road back, personally and professionally, but old stalwarts helped: Francis Ford Coppola gave him a part in The Rainmaker in 1997; Steve Buscemi had him for Animal Factory the next year and people began to notice that, yes, crazy Mickey Rourke was good again. Now it seems he is making up for lost time. Just this year, he has made The Informers, directed by Australian Gregor Jordan - in which he is reunited with 9 1/2 Weeks co-star Kim Basinger - and an Elmore Leonard adaptation, The Killshot, for John Madden. Another ensemble piece, 13, with Jason Statham, Sam Riley and Ray Winstone, all of whom he greatly admires, is now in post-production. And The Wrestler, of course, is doing its triumphant rounds. Mickey may have been crushed to a pulp back there, but he's back in the ring.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist, Rourke says soberly, to see why Darren Aronofsky wanted him to play Randy the Ram. He is no rocket scientist - he often observes how much smarter, "so Jewish and intelligent" Aronofsky is - but he knew that his own past was about to be exploited. "Working with a guy like Darren ..." he says, trailing off into a heavy sigh. "I knew he was going to want me to revisit some dark places I didn't want to revisit. Because I work a certain way, where I make it all very personal - I'll use things from my life, from my ex-wife to my childhood, so it's real - I thought, 'God, I don't know if I want to work that hard and give that much'." He also knew that Aronofsky would be able to push all his buttons, whether he wanted to work that hard or not. When most of the film's financiers refused to back The Wrestler, originally planned as a blockbuster, if Rourke played the lead, he says he was the only person who wasn't disappointed.

Aronofsky, however, was determined to have him. He wasn't worried that he would be difficult. "You know, he's done so many characters in so many films and somehow he's got through them. So I knew I could get through it with him. It was just a matter of what it would take." So he rewrote The Wrestler as a low-budget film; one remaining financier was prepared to put up $US6 million for a film with Rourke in it, so he cut his cloth accordingly.

Rourke, meanwhile, found that he really did want to do those hard yards. He had recognised that it was important to push himself artistically if he wasn't going to slip into straight-to-video misery again. Besides, he adds with that old edge of menace, he is relentlessly competitive. "I used to love playing football in high school; I don't want to lose a game by one touchdown or one point. And I don't want to lose when I'm acting. Darren's going to challenge me to bring it and to be the best actor I can be, and I'm going to give him every f---ing thing. I'm going to give him my f---ing blood. I got no problem with that at all. People go 'it isn't competitive'. But it is competitive."

Making the film was tough physically, of course; Rourke, now 56 (although he admits only to 52), trained with real wrestlers for three months, trying to learn what they might learn in five years about how to fall and get shaken around. Having been a boxer, he started out with no respect for the choreographed entertainment that is wrestling. He soon changed his opinion. "You still make sacrifices. You still get hurt. When a guy who weighs 230 pounds picks you up and throws you, f---! You feel it in every bone in your body. I'm not a kid any more. Here still hurts. And here. And here," he says, pointing to various bits of his frame.

The mood changed, however, once they started filming and he discovered that his hardest scenes were not the fights but those with Evan Rachel Wood, who plays Randy's estranged daughter, Stephanie. Rourke and Wood did not meet until they did their first scene together; Aronofsky kept them apart, wanting to keep their onscreen relationship "awkward and uncomfortable". For him, Rourke says, that first encounter immediately brought back his reunion with his own father in his mid-20s, wanting to know why he had abandoned his children. It was harrowing. "I didn't even know her name," he says. "We just did it. We introduced ourselves like a week or two later. I couldn't remember her name anyway." By the end of the shoot, he was completely wrung out. "I ended up not being able to get out of bed for four days, crying hysterically. I thought I was dying."

Fragility was always one of Rourke's many attractions; he may not have been boxing when he was at his acting peak, but he still seemed authentically, appealingly bruised. The Wrestler screened for the first time at the Venice Film Festival, accompanied by the usual intensive round of press promotion. Rourke disappeared just before our interview; someone, apparently, had upset him. Had he snapped? The publicist assured us he would return, but was visibly afraid he wouldn't. Twenty minutes went by.

He did come back, genial but clearly tired, the face around the dark glasses even more pouched, battered and puffy than it was when boxing and plastic surgery first put paid to his youthful beauty. He said, quite recently, that he felt more at peace than ever before. "But there's always going to be a war going on inside of me. That's just, I think, my make-up ... I've just got to keep a lid on it." And with the lid back on, the stories start, each one sounding like a script written for Sterling Hayden or Stallone or, indeed, Mickey Rourke himself.

According to a recent feature in the New York Times magazine, in which the writer doggedly chased up Rourke's stepfather and someone who knew him from his teen boxing years, it seems that many of these stories may not be exactly true. None of the amateur boxing officials and trainers he interviewed believed Rourke had been involved with the Golden Gloves competitions, as he claims. His stepfather, Eugene Addis, is now 81; he not only denies abusing his stepsons, which is hardly surprising, but says they didn't even live in the tough part of town where Rourke says he learned to defend himself. And while Mickey was "a helluva athlete", it was his stepfather who marched him down to the boxing gym because he thought he needed toughening up. "The trainer worked with him for six months and said, 'I can't get him into the ring to fight'." When there was a fight after school, he claims, the supposedly streetwise Mickey fetched the man he now called Daddy, too scared to have a go.

But none of this counts for much. A Mickey Rourke who wants to delude himself that he was hard is just as poignant, in his own way, as a Mickey who was hard because he was beaten. At the very least, he grew up with a stepfather who still believes that a bloody nose after school could have been the making of him. Perhaps that later stuff - "the anger and the armour and the toughness and all that macho shit and the craziness and the being unaccountable and not worried about consequences", as he puts it - compensated for his failure to measure up. Whatever, his behaviour was genuinely hair-raising. That we know for sure. Whether or not he fought in the Golden Gloves, he's a real contender now.

Perhaps, come March, someone holding a golden statuette on a Hollywood stage will say his name. I hope so. Because even if he is a fabulist and a fantasist, everyone loves a loser who bounces back to land that killer punch. Anyway, fable has a very honourable history. And as good a film as The Wrestler is, it is Mickey Rourke himself who is the stuff of myth. M

The Wrestler screens from Thursday. (Credit: The Age)

Media Man Australia Profiles

Movie Reviews