Let's put this on the table right away: As far as I'm concerned, Mickey Rourke is a schmuck in the old-school sense--a squinting organ, a thing that feels but doesn't think. A permanently wounded beast, a scar with legs. At best.
I know this because I saw the Mick at the bottom of the barrel late in 1994, spent two weeks trying to profile him while he was shooting a direct-to-video piece of crap with Tupac Shakur. That he treated me like dirt was no big deal and no surprise, but he also made a point of bad-mouthing his estranged (and now ex) wife, urging me--unprompted and at length--to smear her. He stank of both self-pity and braggadocio, and his effluvium of bullshit made it impossible to tell where the lies ended and the lunacy began.
In short, Rourke made it easy to write a fine profile, and I felt a certain pity for him, even as I called him a has-been: "Viewing his films in chronological order, watching a fine young actor re-create himself as a stumbling hack," I wrote then, "without range, without craft, without even giving a damn, is both astounding and tragic, like seeing a wrecking ball slam a building into dust."
I was wrong. Mickey may yet be a schmuck--while nobody should be judged only at his worst, how he deals with hard times says far more about a man than his waltz down easy street--but in The Wrestler, his new film, Rourke doesn't just make good on the promise of his early work; he makes a miracle. After a decade-plus of small-bore jobs in movies no one saw, after heaven knows how much plastic surgery, girdled by a musculature that looks like an off-the-rack job from Jose Canseco's chop shop, and onscreen nearly every frame under the harshest lighting since Jimmy Whale's Bride of Frankenstein, Mickey Rourke bares his ass and soul--and covers himself in glory.
There will be buzz--Best Actor buzz. It's a beauty of a performance, a harrowing of blood and brutal humor--and no critic will fail to note that Rourke's swollen lonesome clown of a wrestler hanging on long past his time is a version of the actor playing the part. All fine, all true as far as it goes, and utterly irrelevant. This rarest of cinematic wonders--an honest American movie--grim and funny and loud as hell, lumpen and lowbrow, saddled with a threadbare and timeworn plot but blessedly devoid of straining for high art, is simply impossible to imagine without Mickey Rourke's heart pumping at its core. Skip the Oscar; give him a Nobel.
If "There are no second acts in American lives" isn't the most abused quote of the last century, it's certainly the stupidest, especially when you consider that its issuer, F. Scott Fitzgerald, drank his gift to death by his early 30s and died at the age of 44. Sean Penn told me a while ago that Mick had become a different man since his brother, Joey, died in 2004. Maybe so, but probably not: We are who and what we are--even the actors among us--our selves and being finally of a single piece. A more precise gauge of life than Scott Fitzgerald, or any writer for that matter, is an actuary. And according to Darren Aronofsky, director of The Wrestler, only one firm in the movie business was willing to fund the film at any price with Mick as star.
You can shoot a real movie with no second act and no Mickey Rourke, but not without money. It's nice that Aronofsky got it done. Nice, too, for a writer to be wrong: The schmuck can act.