Mar 09

Who Wrestles The Wrestler?

FT4 comments • 339 views

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.


  1. 1
    Mark M on 11 Mar 2009 #

    1) I reckon being able to play yourself (or someone similar) is underrated, just as Oscar-pleasing jumping through hoops is overrated.

    but 2) having said that, I don’t think Rourke is the Ram: while he’s a screw-up in his personal life, Randy seems to be humble and professional in his wrestling life. I can’t remember exactly what the film states, but the feeling I was left was not that he had self-destructed, simply that he had been stranded by the passing of time.

  2. 2
    Pete Baran on 11 Mar 2009 #

    Hmm, I see your point in 1), though of course there are actors who specialise in it – Steve Coogan springs most to mind whose schtick seems to be to create a “Steve Coogan” character who is such a twat that we don’t believe the real Stve Coogan is like that. Nice try, but I actually believe Coogan is that annoying (or at least as annoying as the Steve Coogan character in Festival played by Steven Mangan).

  3. 3
    Mark M on 11 Mar 2009 #

    As was the case with fellow Hollywood casualty Robert Downey Jr, I was briefly flummoxed by the “where has he been all this time?” questions asked by all the newspapers before realising this said everything about my strange movie watching habits – I’ve seen more films featuring Rourke (and Downey) made over the last decade or so than I have ones featuring Undisputed Number One Box Office Champ Will Smith.

  4. 4
    Pete Baran on 11 Mar 2009 #

    That has to mean you have seen the Downey “Singing Detective”.


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