I didn’t write about The Wrestler when it came out because, as good as the film was, I couldn’t quite get a (Kurt) angle on it. I toyed with the discussion about Mickey Rourke’s chances of an Oscar, and then thought better of it. Because at the heart of The Wrestler there is a contradiction. It is a naturalistic film, with minimal plot about a man who is past it, and refuses to let go of his past. It plays out with a degree of predictability, but is subtly and heartbreakingly played by its two leads, Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei. But is it great acting?
Well yes, it is good screen acting by a faded star like Rourke. There was a groundswell of sympathy for him, as there is a groundswell of sympathy for his character in the film. Because just like The Ram, Rourke is a washed up has been in his profession. The last film I saw him in I think was Stormbreaker where he played a ridiculously campy and over the top Bond villain, and he was lousy. So is Rourke a great actor? The jury is out, and they didn’t come back in this time because they, like I to some degree, wondered how much of a stretch it was for a washed out actor cum boxer to play a washed out wrestler? Up against a humourless political actor playing a gay political activist, maybe its close, but its not quite Jamie Foxx playing a blind man*.
So the question is, how hard is it to play a washed up professional wrestler? The washed up bit is easy, but we do see Rourke wrestling in the film, jumping on barbed wire and doing signature moves which look a bit hairy. Not only that, but he is wrestling real wrestlers. Mainly low league guys from New Jersey, but there are a few in there who made the bigtime of WWE and WCW playing his opponents (The Ayatollah in the film is WCW wrestler Earnest Miller aka The Cat). And what is it to play a wrestler anyway? What is a wrestler but a super-fit actor, marrying the tricky aspects of playing a role whilst faking a fight which, however well you fake bits of it, is still probably going to hurt. So I have changed my mind a bit about Rourke’s role here. Because he is not just a washed up boxing actor playing a washed up wrestler. The roleplaying within the wrestling complicates matters. If Sean Penn had played Harvey Milk when he was in the closet then perhaps there would be this type of nested acting involved. But he doesn’t. On the other hand, Rourke’s Ram is a tragic figure because he does not realise that his wrestling persona is just that, an act. So honours even, and I am sure both actors will go back to making knuckleheaded political statements and annoying me elsewhere (I still haven’t forgiven Penn for All The Kings Men. Mind you his Cannes jury got it right with The Class so maybe I am mellowing).
*This argument falls down precisely at this point, because trying to perm great performances from best actor Oscar winners is not as easy as you might think.