“I’d been out of work for fifteen years,” Mickey Rourke told FilmInk in 2008. “I’d heard that [director] Darren [Aronofsky] wanted to meet with me, and that he might have a project for me to do. I asked around about him, and heard that he was a very independent kind of director. He’s very innovative. A lot of studios wanted him to come out here and make big movies, but he was doing his own thing. We finally met, and he reminded me very much of [Francis Ford] Coppola when I was very young on Rumble Fish. He was very much his own man, and he knew exactly what he wanted. So right away, I wanted to work with him, but I didn’t know if I wanted to necessarily do a wrestling movie. The wrestling thing seemed too close to the boxing thing for me, which I’d gotten away from. But when I read the material, I liked it because it was a real character. I knew these guys. They’re old and they’re stuck in their own state of helplessness for the rest of their lives. I knew that Darren would demand everything inside of me, which meant that I would have to visit very dark, painful places. The way that I work, everything becomes real in the moment, and then there’s another take, and another take, and you’re bringing stuff out that’s very hurtful. I knew that he would want that. I also knew that I would have to put on 36 pounds of muscle. Darren tells me, ‘You’ve got to listen to everything I say, and I can’t pay you’, and I said, ‘Okay, let’s go to work’.”
The best kind of performance is the one that feels as if it has been dredged from the actor’s very soul. The true alchemy that can light up between actor and role – where everything just feels so perfect – is truly something to behold: witness Dustin Hoffman in Kramer Vs. Kramer, Jodie Foster in The Accused or, perhaps the best example, Marlon Brando in Last Tango In Paris. These stunning performances all find the actor directly mining their own life experiences to create from the ground up a screen character that feels like it’s constructed from honest-to-god flesh and blood, rather than just movie contrivance. Add to this list Mickey Rourke, who was briefly welcomed back into mainstream Hollywood (he was actually in Iron Man 2, remember?) after years of near-exile in B-grade films not deserving of his talents. The catalyst for that rebirth was his gut-wrenching, transformative, and emotionally raw performance in Darren Aronofsky’s masterpiece, The Wrestler, which saw him nominated for a Best Actor Oscar.
As Randy “The Ram” Robinson – a broken down, one-time superstar wrestler now reduced to plying his trade in violent, low rent bouts in suburban backwaters – Rourke channels all of his own pain and regret. An eighties superstar, he too was cut low and forced to work in films way below his station. Rourke brings all of this to bear on the hulking Ram, a tough guy whose sadness and loss is all the more affecting because of his hardened exterior – when that starts to crack away, what’s underneath seems even more damaged. Whether in his tentative relationship with a slightly past-it stripper (the brilliantly understated Marisa Tomei) or his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood, one of the best young actress in Hollywood), The Ram’s desperate grabbing for connection after a life of self-destructive excess will literally break your heart.
The parallels between Rourke and his character in The Wrestler – a once great contender clawing at redemption – are plainly obvious, but Darren Aronofsky never mined his leading man for material. “We never talked about it,” the director told FilmInk upon the film’s release. “I don’t think it’s my right. I mean, now I could talk to him because we’re good friends, but at the time, we weren’t as close. Actually, it was only two months ago that Mickey mentioned that a lot of the things that he had a hard time with during the shoot were because he could relate so much to The Ram.”
Spreading outward from Rourke’s defining central performance, Darren Aronofsky gets everything right with The Wrestler. The film has a singularly gritty look (evoking seventies classics like Fat City and Midnight Cowboy); every scene is pitched at exactly the right level; the soundtrack of eighties hair-metal is perfectly chosen; and every actor (particularly the real life wrestlers who fill out the supporting cast) is absolutely right for their role. Most importantly, The Wrestler has an all-too-rarely-glimpsed emotional resonance that marks it as a true original.
The Resurrection Of Jake The Snake will screen at a special one-off event on April 24 at The Astor Theatre, Melbourne. To purchase tickets, head to the website.