I’ve been ruminating for days now, trying to let the nuances and overall effect of Darren Aranofsky’s THE WRESTLER wash over me. I’ve seen it twice now, and I’m a guy with a wife and soon to be two kids… I get out to the movies once or twice a year.
Is it good? Sure. I could simply state – “This movie kicks ass”, “THE WRESTLER will defeat you” or “See the re-animation of Mickey Rourke’s scarred and supposedly lifeless body” or some other bullshit like that – and be done with it, but this is a movie that resonated deeply with me.
***NOTE: Excuse the formatting, I seem to be still working out some bugs here***
Is it the age-old parable of the ageing warriors fight for acceptance in his twilight? Is it watching a man so wracked with self-inflicted physical pain and destruction wander aimless through an unexamined life? Is it the simple interplay of human characters, desperate for a connection in an increasingly over-sedated and underwhelmed culture? To tell you the truth, it could be all – or any – of those facets of this fine piece of humanist filmmaking. Then again, maybe it’s just a fondness for the sport that was a backdrop for my misguided formative years… Or it could just be that it is a damn fine film.
I believe THE WRESTLER is one of those confluences of fate and desperate passion that have given us some of the greatest moments in modern culture. While most are hailing it (over-simplistically) as Mickey Rourke’s defining moment and ‘long-awaited comeback’, don’t forget that this film is a ‘Hail Mary’ for almost all involved. Director Darren Aranofsky, after the cryptic allure of π and the wild, experimental fury of REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, was already being touted as the forebear of a new revolution of smart, young and – according to the media hype – infallible, movie makers that were going to save us all. Zip ahead six years and Aranofsky had apparently channeled Franny Coppola or Cimino circa HEAVENS GATE and delivered the inscrutable, amazingly beautiful, but critically savaged film THE FOUNTAIN. According to all the usual Hollywood bullshit, he was a lost cause and dead in the water.
Likewise, Marisa Tomei, the lovely and always enjoyable multi-Oscar nominee/Oscar winner, hit the deadly age of 40 in 2004 and, while not unemployed, was delegated to bit parts and TV shows far from the spotlight being thrown on up and coming tween actresses and CW stars.
And we all know about The Mick… promising heart-throb actor of 80’s fare like DINER, POPE OF GREENWICH VILLAGE, 9 ½ WEEKS and A PRAYER FOR THE DYING, left his Hollywood career at it’s apex to become a pro-boxer. Had his face pummeled and, after botched plastic surgery, is far from the pretty-boy who made women swoon in flicks like WILD ORCHID. He never really stopped acting and has decent credits throughout the 90’s and into the new millennium, but now he’s generally used as an ugly, mush-mouthed thug. After Rourke turned down flicks like RAIN MAN, PULP FICTION and DEATH PROOF, Robert Rodriguez managed to convince him to appear in ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO and then gave him the ultimate ‘thug’ role as Marv in SIN CITY. Once back on the radar, Rourke continued to flounder until Aranofsky, looking for the perfect person to cast in THE WRESTLER (replacing Nicholas Cage – worst casting ever!), snagged him for the role of Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson. So the real recipe for success here is the teaming of three artists fighting against the downslope of Hollywood hell. Three artists willing to bare their souls, sell their bodies and go against the grain for another stab at greatness. And thank the sweet Lord of Cinema, they have achieved exactly that.
Aranofsky goes totally against expectations and delivers a verité-flavored, no-flash, no jump-cut look at a broken man and his very broken life. The colour pallete is muted, the camera work is kept still and unobtrusive and the soundtrack is equally restrained. He focuses on the relationships and capturing tiny moments that reflect the joy and pain of The Ram’s day to day struggle to maintain an identity that exists 20 years in the past. These are intercut with loud, frenetic blasts of in-ring excitement, but even then, it is from the POV of The Ram, replete with whispered conversations between wrestlers, the subtlest winces of pain and well-placed homages to the real-life Wrestlers that the film is based on and around.
Tomei is naked for all the world to see. Literally and figuratively. She holds nothing back. The stripper/hooker/drunk with a heart-of-gold is one of the most treadworn clichés in the movies, but Marisa Tomei not only avoids the pitfalls of the cliché, she twists and remolds them to suit the character as if it has never been done before. Despite all the praise over the heart-tugging subplot involving The Ram and his estranged daughter, the most riveting emotional exchange in the film, for me, was when Tomei’s character opens herself up to The Ram and offers her friendship and her affection, hoping to save him from himself… the look on her face when… well… let’s not have any spoilers here, eh? Go see the damn thing and you will know of what I speak. I would like to know who the morons running the studios who think she can’t play sassy and sexy are though… Tomei is sexier and more breathtakingly gorgeous (in and out of her clothes) than any half dozen pantyless ‘starlets’ you could throw at a paparazzi.
As The Ram, Mickey Rourke captures the broken body, the bullheaded attachment to the past and the brutal commitment to self-destruction that plagues real-life ring warriors and fuses enough pieces of their reality into an amazing performance that is imbued with what you have to assume are Mick’s own tragic demons. More than anything, The Mick has captured the real pain, heartbreak and physical anguish that pro wrestlers put themselves through in the name of the sport they love.
Rocky legitimized the lower echelons of the sport of Boxing. Now THE WRESTLER can do the same for the jobbers who have entertained millions and millions of us for well over a hundred years. They deserve it. So go watch THE WRESTLER and know that every frame is filled with the blood, sweat and very real pain of the sport of wrestling, and the men it uses, abuses and frequently leaves behind.
That covers the movie itself, but what about the other aspects that have me so buggered by this flick?
I grew up in Alberta, in Stampede Wrestling territory in the 80’s. I was one of the first wave of Hulkamania-era wrasslin’ fans. I went out to Toronto to see my Grandparents and my grandfather would take me to Maple Leaf Gardens and regale me with stories of the wrestlers he loved when he was a kid, and the guys he followed in the 50’s, guys like Lou Thesz, Gorgeous George and the almighty Bruno Sammartino… Killer Kowalski was one of his favorites, as was “Classy” Freddie Blassie… We both have a fondness for the ‘heels’.
By the time I was 12, I was a regular attendee at Stampede matches and, having an uncle who was training with a couple of new guys – Chris Benoit and Brian Pillman – I got to spend a lot of time backstage and seeing the reality behind the shows. Don’t get me wrong, I was still disgusted and outraged when I saw Abdullah the Butcher lay into the forehead of Bruce Hart with a metal fork, smashing his bloody head into metal guard-rails over and over and over, finding myself wearing bloody spatter on my white ‘Hot Rod’ T-shirt.
Truth be told, I had a real taste for it and, had my knees not been mangled by the front fender of a Honda Civic when I was 16, I may have gone down that road myself. As it was, I still had my share of rampant youthful stupidity – kickboxing, street fighting, drunken rumbles and more than a few instances of ‘backyard wrestling’. Pair that with a lifelong aversion to my own self-preservation and, as my wife likes to say, my body is a ‘roadmap of pain and stupidity’. Aside from the aforementioned bad knees, I have torn-up shoulders, arthritic fingers, mangled toes, scars aplenty and have had enough concussions to fell a very large bear. I have hearing loss, constant pain and endless trouble sleeping. All of that is nothing compared to what pro wrestlers put themselves through.
Even back then, Larry “Abdullah the Butcher” Shreeve, had a forehead that looked like it had been freshly rototilled. That guy had so many scars all over himself that he quite literally had a second skin. Stampede Wrestling was long considered one of the toughest outifts around and was pioneering ‘extreme’ wrestling long before McMahon and Bischoff hitched their train on the blood and mayhem brand of show. I remember 8 and 12 man cage matches, dog collar matches, street fights and ‘hardcore’ matches on an almost weekly basis. Most of the guys in Stampede left bleeding on Saturday night and came
back the next weekend with fresh scars and more damage from Friday night in Edmonton. Many of the problems The Ram has are appropriated from real guys. When I met Roddy Piper in the mid-80’s, he had already been almost deaf for years after a dog collar match ended with him taking a truck chain to the ears. Allen Coage, aka “Bad News Allen” aka “Bad News Brown”, lived in my building about five years ago. He was working as a security guard and was visibly hobbled by his bad knees. We had a few elevator conversations comparing our mangled joints. This was a tough man, a former Olympic medalist (Bronze in Judo in 1976) and some days he was barely able to walk. I still see Bruce Hart wandering around my neighborhood, near the legendary Hart estate. Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson could be an exact record of what Bruce looks like now. Shuffling, confused and, usually, looking like he just escaped a bar fight or 5 days sleeping in a ditch. That was what struck me the most about THE WRESTLER, was how completely faithful and unflinching it was in showing how these guys abuse themselves in the name of glory. It was equally concise in its depiction of how most guys meet their ends.
Sure there are a handful of guys like Hogan, Ric Flair and Randy Savage that are so ingrained in the sport that they will always have jobs. There are an even smaller handful of guys who have become B-movie action heroes, like Piper, most notably Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, one of the very very few to make the transition from wrestling to, well, anything… More often than not, guys end up working at Target, driving trucks, wandering the streets or still plugging away, paraded out as ‘legends’ in small local promotions, still beating themselves to death and fuelling the hopes and dreams of hungry up n’ comers. There is also an alarming number of them that have simply crashed and burned, dead from the taxes put on their bodies and minds.
Most exploited, of course, was the murder-suicide involving Chris
Benoit. I can say, from my own experience with him, that Chris was one of the most genuine, hard-working and generous guys out there. He was kind, engaging and always knew exactly what he was doing. He was long considered one of the greatest technical wrestlers around, and carried the utmost respect with fans and fellow wrestlers everywhere. There were a lot of exploitative rumors and presuppositions being made about what, exactly, led him to do the things he apparently did, most of it was shameless and disgusting sensationalism, not the least of which was perpetuated by Vince McMahon and the WWE. In the end, by the time autopsies had been concluded and a clearer picture was available, the world had moved on to the next fiasco and Nancy Grace was spewing her vitriol somewhere else. Evidentally, the final conclusion was not steroid abuse – although that was certainly a contributing factor to the downward spiral of not only Chris, but the entire industry – but that Chris had suffered so many massive concussions throughout his career that, at the time of his death, he had the mangled grey matter of an 80 year-old alzheimers sufferer and likely had little to no grasp of reality at the time. It certainly does nothing to diminish the tragedy of Chris taking his wife and son’s lives before he took his own, but it points the searchlight in the proper direction to hopefully avoid the same thing happening again.
More common than any other eventuality, wrestlers end up debilitated or dead at increasingly young ages.
Bad News Allen died in 2007. Owen Hart, Brian Pillman, Mike Awesome, Bam Bam Bigelow, Davey Boy Smith, Earthquake, One Man Gang, Eddie Guerrero, Curt Hennig, Hercules Hernandez, Biff Wellington, Yokozuna… those are just a few of the guys who have died in the last few years, almost all of them shy of 50 years old.
A young wrestler that appeared in THE WRESTLER, Paul Fuchs – better known as Paul E. Normous – passed away months after filming the movie. Most of these guys die from heart attacks, more die from organ failure from years and years of steroids and growth hormone abuse.
For a perspective from some of the best of the ‘old guard’ check out the following series of interviews featuring a round table consisting of Lex Luger, Dallas Page, Piper and the legendary tag team partners, Greg Valentine and Ed ‘Brutus the Barber Beefcake’ Leslie. I’ve shaken the hands of four of those guys and seen, first hand, the tremendous effort that they put into their trade. Even if you can’t believe the smoke and mirrors of promoters like McMahon and Eric Bischoff, you can believe the words of those hard-working guys that gave their bodies, their minds, and their lives, to make Pro Wrestling what it is.
And just for shits and giggles (and a little perspective on the trajectory of the sport) check out this footage of what is purported to be the oldest wrestling match on film.
and contrast it with this: