Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Wrestler

There's been a lot of back and forth discussion about the Best Picture nominees in this year's Oscar race (usually I post something about the nominees, but they were announced the morning after Lost's premiere... I was a little busy!) Critics and bloggers alike are asking: Is Benjamin Button worthy of 13 nominations or is it a rehash of Forrest Gump? (I plan to blog on that point separately soon.) Why was The Reader nominated over Revolutionary Road? Why did The Dark Knight get the shaft? Is Slumdog Millionaire worth all the buzz about it? Where was Doubt? Milk and Frost/Nixon were both brilliant movies, but... Best Picture?

I've seen it all. But rarely has anyone mentioned the oversight of what I now think is the year's best film: The Wrestler. I saw it last night when my husband and I went out to see it, and... wow.

First, some background. Growing up, my brother and I were huge wrestling fans. The year of the big Wrestlemania match between Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant was the year I was the perfect age to come into it. I saw the British Bulldogs live and fell in love with them instantly; I saw Randy "Macho Man" Savage and wanted to be Miss Elizabeth. My love of wrestling was deep. All of my (younger, male) cousins were into it, too. I remember one weekend at Grandma's where we were all playing an innocent game of Charades, and my brother and I took the stage and he immediately threw me up into a piledriver move (thankfully, without finishing it). My grandma gasped in horror while my cousins cheered and screamed, "PILEDRIVER!!" One of the youngest cousins had a ton of the action figures (my brother had them, too, and I borrowed them and put them in my Barbie mansion as security guards) and said, at the age of 4, that he was going to grow up to become a professional wrestler. And he did. He's appeared on WWE a few times and does various circuits as a really convincing heel. I LOVE that he set what appeared to be a fantasy goal and actually went for it.

The publishing house where I work as an editor is the publisher of the largest line of wrestling books in the world. If you own a book on wrestling, there's an 80% chance we published it. I've met a lot of wrestlers as a result, and I've proofread and edited so many of these books — memoirs of wrestlers telling behind the scenes stories of the good old days and how their lives were ruined by wrestling; announcers talking about the business and politics behind everything; fans writing about their favourite moments in wrestling — that the wrestling lingo is second nature to me. I went down to a sales conference in NY where I presented our titles to our sales reps (who then sell them into the bookstores) and I was presenting a wrestling title and talking about the ways the wrestlers hurt themselves. One rep finally blurted out, "But it's fake!" I looked at him and said yeah, but these guys REALLY hurt themselves. The chair whacks are real. Thunking your head off the mat after jumping off the ropes is real. Hiding a razorblade in your wrist tape so you can slice your forehead and make it look like the other guy hit you is real (that last bit came as news to everyone in the room... I thought it was common knowledge). The fact that so many of them are arthritic or in wheelchairs or dead by the time they're 50 is real.

And then we come to The Wrestler. The hype behind this movie, directed by Darren Aronofsky, is all due to Mickey Rourke. In the 80s, Rourke was beautiful. He was touted as the next big thing. He looked like James Dean, he acted like De Niro. With roles in movies like Rumble Fish (oh how I love my SE Hinton movies and books), Diner, Body Heat, and The Pope of Greenwich Village, he caught the attention of critics and fans alike. He was perfect: he had a look that directors would die for, and was a serious tour de force onscreen. He had an adorable smile that would have teenage girls crushing on him, but a brooding side that attracted older demographics.

And then... he threw it all away. He didn't want the attention. He didn't like people talking about his looks, which he saw as a curse. He started getting arrested and becoming difficult on sets. He refused to learn lines and wanted to do more of a method style. He showed up late (if he showed up at all). He began turning down career-changing roles in films (Axel Foley in Beverly Hills Cop and Tom Cruise's part in Rain Man, to name a couple). Directors referred to him as a nightmare and a disaster. Suddenly the A-list parts were gone, and he started taking second-rate movies. But he screwed up on those, too. When he finally had an argument with a director saying he wanted his beloved dog to appear in the scene with him and was thrown off the set, that was pretty much it. He was essentially blacklisted in Hollywood.

So... he took up professional boxing, and apparently got quite good at it. In a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly, the reporter asked him if it was a subconscious way of destroying the good looks he hated so much, and Rourke pauses for a moment and slyly smiles and says maybe. His face became bloated from drinking, drugs, and being hit so many times in the head. His facial bones were broken. Reports came out saying he'd had botched plastic surgery (he denies having any). His lips appeared very swollen, as if he'd had a collagen injection that didn't quite work. He started to appear in small roles, and anyone who did bother to mention him just referred to what a waste he'd become. Tarantino loved him and offered him Bruce Willis's role in Pulp Fiction. Rourke turned it down.

The comeback finally happened when he starred in 2005's Sin City, an amazing adaptation of a comic book that retained the comic-book feel, where Rourke's face was heavily made up. By hiding his face, it allowed him to show the world that the acting chops were still there, and man, did he ever come through. But again, following that film he turned down anything he saw as a blatant sell-out, until Darren Aronofsky stepped forward.

Aronofsky had this idea for a film about a wrestler, Randy "The Ram" Robinson, who had been huge in the 80s, and now, 20 years later, lives the life of most wrestling stars from that era -- broke, washed-up, and in a lot of pain, playing tiny wrestling circuits to make a few bucks on weekends. The studio wanted Nicolas Cage in the lead role, and originally he was attached to the film, but Aronofsky insisted that Rourke should play it. Studios laughed at him, he decided to fund it separately, and Cage graciously stepped aside. Enter Rourke. This wasn't an Oscar-type movie. This wasn't going to be a blockbuster, and it wasn't going to change his life. But he saw in the script his own story, in a way, and he went for it. Aronofsky told him in no uncertain terms that he'd better not eff this one up or he'd be gone. Rourke respected that, and the result is this movie.

And what a movie it is. For the first few minutes of the film, the camera is firmly planted behind Ram, and we never see his face. This could be a young wrestler in the ring (Rourke's body is amazing), but when he steps out of the ring, the persistent cough would suggest otherwise. After the show a couple of young men ask for his autograph, saying they'd been big fans of his years ago, and we finally see the lined, bloated, mangled face of Robinson. In the following scenes, by barely saying a word, Rourke projects the physical pain this man lives with, his isolation, and the fact that he's still living off accomplishments he had years earlier.

In the 80s, many wrestlers ascended to full-scale stardom, but few were paid their worth. They didn't see residuals for action figures or video games (the scene where Robinson asks a neighbour kid to play the Nintendo game with The Ram vs. Ayatollah is a wonderful example of that... and a really heartbreaking scene). If you've seen this movie (or want to... and you should) and haven't seen the documentary "Beyond the Mat," I'd encourage you to see it. In that movie we see Jake The Snake Roberts, who at one point was a huge star in the WWF. Fifteen years later, he's washed up, has no money, and is searching for his daughter whom he'd abandoned when he was a star. I think that documentary might have been the idea behind this film, since Robinson also tries to reconnect with a daughter he'd left so many years earlier. Roberts was very unhappy with his portrayal in the documentary, but the scenes speak for themselves. Those independent circuits can be very depressing places, with young go-getters on their way up, wide-eyed and thrilled to be fighting with their heroes, who happen to be has-beens who have hit rock bottom, living from one cash appearance to the next.

The movie is about how fleeting youth can be. Robinson tries to cheat death throughout the movie, pushing his body to do things it's no longer meant to do (and was never meant to do, even when he was young -- there's one scene with a weapons match that is horrific). The woman he connects with, played by Marisa Tomei, works at a strip bar, and now in her early 40s, is finding her g-string isn't filled with as many dollar bills as it used to. Society loves the young, and whether it's a one-time wrestling god now shuffling around behind a deli counter serving customers, or a one-time sought-after stripper now practically begging for someone to pay attention to her, these people are living in those past memories while trying to eke out an existence in the present. They both made mistakes in their past, and when Robinson tries to make his right, by visiting the daughter he'd abandoned years earlier (Rachel Evan Wood) to see if he can start a new relationship, what he finds is both devastating and touching.

This is not a happy film, I'll warn you (if you've seen anything by Aronofsky -- Pi, Requiem for a Dream -- you won't expect it to be). But it's a beautiful, amazing film, and the acting is like nothing I've seen all year. I thought Heath Ledger was absolutely brilliant in The Dark Knight, and it's one of those performances that is NOT overrated: it deserves every kudo it got, and had nothing to do with the fact it was a posthumous performance. Mickey Rourke's performance in this is similarly groundbreaking. I thought Sean Penn was amazing in Milk, but while I thought Penn breathed life into an incredible man, I still think his best performance was in Dead Man Walking. Rourke's showing in The Wrestler is the performance of a lifetime. And the movie is a sadly accurate portrayal of the forgotten members of our society... those who continue to hear the cheers in their head that are long gone, those who dwell in the could've-been, those who sit at little tables at the legion hall on weekends wondering if someone will walk in and pay eight bucks for their autograph, those who put their bodies through such a rigorous beating that it gives up on them. And those who are so filled with regrets they'll do anything to make things right.

I hope Rourke wins the Oscar for this one -- for the performance, and not for the story behind it (I told it simply because it's fascinating to me). We probably won't see him in A-list movies even if he does, because I believe his story has been as much about his own choices as other people choosing not to work with him. But I hope there are a lot of indie parts lined up for him, and that his potential comes to fruition. Let's hope Rourke gets that second chance The Ram spends the film desperately searching for.


Anonymous said...

This is on my list of films to see. I loved him in Sin City. It's funny, but I haven't heard much of anything about Marv - most reviewers are talking like The Wrestler is his big comeback film, but he was amazing in Sin City.

Anonymous said...

I too fell into loving wrestling as a young girl because my younger brother and cousins were into it. We used to make our nearly life-size WWF dolls have tag team matches. And now, as an adult, I find it a fascinating world. I can't wait to see The Wrestler. Thanks for the review.

Jonathan said...

Amazing review. I've seen the movie, and agree that this movie was overlooked for best picture and, to me, best song.

Paticus said...

I thought the fact that Rourke had me sympathizing with this character was amazing. In lesser hands, I think it could have been an incredibly unlikeable character.
I cringe when i think of that movie with Nicolas Cage in it.
great review. And I agree with Jonathan about Bruce's title track. I cannot believe it was not even nominated.

Austin Gorton said...

This is definitely on my must see list before the Oscars.

I'm also looking forward to your post on the Button/Gump relationship. I have a lot to say about that, and I'm curious what your take on it is.

yourblindspot said...

I cannot wait to see this. Don't know if you caught it or not, but Rourke had a bit part in the Sean Penn-directed film "The Pledge" with Jack Nicholson about eight years ago. The movie wasn't a happy one either, and Rourke's part is very small, but the 90 seconds or so he spends onscreen are absolutely brilliant, and I don't exaggerate when I say that it is well worth watching the whole movie just to see his brief performance.

Also, I met Hulk Hogan once a couple of years ago, and when he shook my hand, I almost blacked out from the pain. He is approximately the size of a yeti and looks like he breaks things over his own head for fun. He was very nice, though. For a yeti.

Anonymous said...

Rourke's performance was amazing, and Tomei was nearly as good. But, it certainly was a performance that was better than the film itself.

My favorite movies of the year:
Happy Go Lucky
Frozen River
Tell No One
The Visitor
The Dark Knight
Let the Right One In

also very good this year: Doubt, Milk, Iron Man, Pineapple Express, Slumdog Millionaire.

J. Maggio said...

Oh, and I thought Ben Button was lame.

(And that was me above.)

J. Maggio said...

Oh, and that Woody Allen film was really good too.