With all the buzz surrounding Darren Aronofsky's new film The Wrestler, it's tempting to give tuxedo makers time off and just hand Mickey Rourke the Oscar for best actor now. That Rourke has so quickly been anointed statue-worthy is a little surprising - this is a comeback that would impress Robert Downey Jr - but it's not half as surprising as the fact the movie is about professional wrestling.
The film, which chronicles the decline of Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a headline act of 1980s rock'n'roll wrestling, now trying to reclaim past glories in school halls while working at a local supermarket, may seem an unlikely candidate for acclaim.
Respect and pro wrestling rarely go hand inhand. A combination of spectacle and athleticism, awkwardly dubbed "sports entertainment", it is, to use the parlance of a wrestling commentator, the red-headed step-child of entertainment.
Movies and wrestling have never had a particularly warm relationship. As Aronofsky told Film Journal Magazine: "Most films that deal with wrestling make fun of it ... I think people basically roll it off saying, 'Oh it's fake' and they forget all about it."
It's true that watching World Wrestling Entertainment can stretch credulity. We know the match is predetermined. We can see that the ref is not so distracted by the buxom valet that he can't hear the heel (wrestling slang for bad guy) landing a low blow on the face of the good guy.
But look beyond the garish tights and histrionics and wrestling is not so easy to dismiss.
Unlike movie actors and other entertainers, wrestlers have no stunt doubles, no crash mats. When hardcore wrestling arrived in the '90s, martial arts weapons and bowling balls became standard issue. In one scene in The Wrestler, The Ram and his opponent discuss how a staple gun can be used; a later scene shows a medic removing the staples from his torso and arms. This is not fanciful movie invention.
Just ask Mick Foley, the masked wrestler "Mankind", who had a successful run in the WWE in the late '90s and wrote several best-selling books about his experiences. One of his most famous matches was The Hell in the Cell 1994, where Foley was chokeslammed by "The Undertaker" on top of a cage, falling several metres into the ring and landing on top of a pile of thumbtacks and a steel chair. "I had one and a half teeth knocked out, 15 stitches below my lip, a dislocated jaw, a dislocated left shoulder, a bruised kidney and a couple of cracked ribs," he told me in 1999. "I imagine I had a concussion, although I didn't get that checked." This from a man who was already down half an ear after getting his head caught between the ropes.
Wrestlers can seem quite blase about routine head injuries. "There have been times where I was talking complete Greek and I wouldn't realise it," says WWE chairman Vince McMahon. "All you can do is laugh. Post-concussion syndrome they call it."
Even Rourke, who famously quit acting in 1991 to become a boxer, was surprised at the far greater risk of injury from wrestling. "I got hurt more in the three months doing the wrestling than in 16 years of boxing," he said at a New York press conference. "I think I had three MRIs in two months."
While Aronofsky's film lays bare the real pain experienced by these sportsmen, it also provides a glimpse of the tricks and make-believe that make up their carnival world.
It shows the wrestlers roughly outlining their match beforehand or, if they have particular confidence in each other, calling it on the fly by surreptitiously whispering the moves to each other as they go.
Then there's the matter of blading.
A wrestler will often hide a small piece of razorblade behind the tape on his wristbands. When he's face down on the ground after a "brutal" attack, he will discreetly cut his forehead, an area that can appear to produce a lot of blood, especially when it's mixed with sweat, and not cause too much damage apart from scarring. (That's no stunt blade Rourke uses in the film.)
Then there's the whole notion of play-acting, of being a character. Christian Bale can take off his Batman suit at the end of the day but the best wrestlers don't. As wrestler-turned-actor Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson once noted, a wrestling character is an extension of the wrestler's personality "with the volume turned all the way up". There can be a painful disjunction between the superman of the ring and the human being, though: one attracts legions of admiring fans; the other can hardly pay the rent on his trailer.
Which is what makes The Wrestler so heartbreaking. Fame, as we know, is a fickle mistress, but she seems particularly harsh on pro wrestlers. Not only is there the matter of being a has-been, there's the broken body: a combination of all that physical exertion and injury, and the steroids and painkillers that flood the locker rooms (not to mention the recreational drugs that go hand in hand with the party lifestyle of travelling on the road).
Barry W.Blaustein's 1999 documentary Beyond the Mat, with wrestling legend Jake "The Snake" Roberts smoking crack in his motel room and trying to make up with his estranged daughter, shows that The Ram's problems are not far from the truth.
And wrestlers such as The Ram are the lucky ones. They're not like Darren Drozdov, who became a paraplegic at the age of 30 after a pile-driver went wrong in a match. Or one of the 24 well-known wrestlers under 50 who have died since 2000, including WWE headliner Chris Benoit, who tragically killed his wife, son and himself last year.
Even in the bizarre world of sports entertainment, some unpalatable truths about the human condition emerge.
The Wrestler opens on January 15. (Credit: The Australian)
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