February 19, 2009

"The Wrestler"

Here's an excerpt from my review of "The Wrestler" in The American Conservative:
Hollywood’s Golden Age leading men tended to be disproportionately Irish-American, such as Jimmy Cagney, Spencer Tracy, and John Wayne. They were amiable tough guys from a concussion-centric culture who could throw -- and take -- a punch.

For a half decade after his stunning cameo as a professional arsonist in 1981’s “Body Heat,” Rourke looked to be their worthiest successor. The languid and cocky Rourke was the most magnetic star to emerge in the 1980s. The movie industry offered him the best and biggest parts—such as Eddie Murphy’s eventual role in “Beverly Hills Cop,” Tom Cruise’s in “Rain Man,” Kevin Costner’s in “The Untouchables,” and John Travolta’s in “Pulp Fiction”—all of which he rejected.

At first, Rourke’s determination to play sleazeballs rather than likable heroes was admired as a brave, even brilliant, artistic strategy. He was praised for his Method acting dedication that required him to stop bathing to play a Charles Bukowski-like drunken poet in 1987’s “Barfly.”

But when he didn’t resume washing his hair after shooting wrapped, suspicion grew that Rourke, who had racked up a 20-7 record as an amateur boxer in his teens, wasn’t quite right in the head. He proved it by becoming a professional boxer in the 1990s, winning six of eight bouts before his neurologist convinced him that he soon wouldn’t be able to count his winnings. His face needed at least four operations to repair the damage, including taking cartilage from behind his ear to rebuild his nose. (Combined with the muscle-building drugs he used to prepare for this new role— “When I’m a wrestler, I behave like a wrestler”—he looks only quasi-human in his comeback.)

In most artistic endeavors, a bit of madness is accepted, even encouraged. The stars of big budget movies, however, have to be approved by the firms that provide “business interruption” insurance. When producers are spending up to a million dollars per day, their insurance companies have to be sure that the main man will show up.

Nor was Rourke terribly suited for character roles, since he just might pull himself together long enough to show up the film’s stars as lightweights. Still, he kept working in dozens of trashy movies, while spending countless hours off-set with his therapist and priest, with impressive results.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer


green mamba said...

Rourke did an excellent and entertaining turn as a meth "cook" in the movie "Spun" from a few years back. Having lost track of Rourke's career, at the time I thought it was a sort of comeback.

"Body Heat" may have been the first role that got him noticed, but it was in Barry Levinson's "Diner" that he had his real breakthrough part.

Gene Berman said...

Just thought I'd add a sad note.

A day or two ago, Verne Gagne, 82, got into a fight with another resident of a nursing-home "memory-loss" (Alzheimer's) unit in Minnesota and mangled him somewhat, after which the guy, in his 90s, died.

Gagne was one of the most celebrated wrestlers of his era, twice NCAA champ, subsequently popular on the pro circuit, and then an active organizer of the modern pro, especially-for-TV spectacle.

Another wrestler, easily the winningest wrestler in history, was Henry Wittenberg, whom I knew very slightly. Starting in his soph or jr. year at CCNY (never any prior athletic experience), he piled up over 300 wins in AAU competition, with Olympic Gold in '48 and Silver in '52. He beat Gagne in the AAUs almost at the beginning of his career, during which he lost only 2 bouts.

Henry's also in a nursing home (upstate NY), also an Alzheimer's patient, and doesn't even recognize his best friends from former life.

Tony Danton said...

Insurability is one of those interesting behind the scenes vectors making casting what it is in feature film production, which has been underdiscussed.

One reason you never see very old people in film even where the part calls for someone very old (the only fairly old substitute here) is insurability. There were a lot of parts that should have went to duffers of the Bukowski or Burroughs variety in the 80s that didn't because of this factor.

Insurability is also a key plot complication in Arthur Miller's last play, "Finishing the Picture". If the protagonist (who, like 'Maggie' in the play that wrecked Miller's commercial career, is baldly really You Know Who) doesn't finish the picture her career- and the co-protagonist, Miller's own alter ego's cash machine!-is done for.

In real life, You Know Who was pushed over the edge at least partly when she was fired from her never finished next project so Fox could cash in on the insurance, and ostensibly killed herself.

It's quite an end to a career so defined by the end of someone else's.

daveg said...

The movie 9 1/2 weeks got me to the 'next level' in a relationship more than once during college.

It was actually a great performance, but nobody like to talk about it because it is too 'hot' for some.

Danindc said...

He was pretty good in Fantasy Island.

Anonymous said...

John Wayne was Irish? He was mostly Scots Irish and English and culturally as anglo-protestant as you can get.

Disproportionally Irish? Clark Gable, Cary Grant, Bogart, earlier Fairbanks, what?

Anonymous said...

I'm trying to figure out what Steve has against boxing

Jim O'Sullivan said...

Take it from an expert: he's that particular brand of nut known in my "community" as "Irish crazy." He's the quintessence. If you're of Irish descent, the more intelligent and/or creative you are, the crazier you are likely to be. Believe me, I know whereof I speak. That's my real name at the top of this comment.

Anonymous said...

I'm trying to figure out what Steve has against boxing

Brain damage and disfigurement? Too few whites? Too few brain damaged and disfigured whites?

anony-mouse said...

Thomas Sowell, in his writings about various American ethnicities showed some eerie smilarities between Irish-Americans and African-Americans (both good and bad)

Anonymous said...

"The movie 9 1/2 weeks got me to the 'next level' in a relationship more than once during college."


Ray Sawhill said...

Rourke was great in "Spun," and he was also great in "Sin City."

l. ron hoover said...

There's a hilarious bit in the current Onion, "Oscar Handicapping":

"Best Leading Actor, Mickey Rourke, 8-11: Rourke's performance as a contrite actor just looking to do the best work of his career has wowed Academy voters"


josh said...

To Gene Berman re Verne Gagne: Any word re Mad Dog Vachon??

Anonymous said...

I think he just fancied himself the next Brando and started aping Brando's self-destructive "up yours" behavior. But he failed to realize that the days when studios would put up with that kind of crap from movie stars are over.