In On the Waterfront, Marlon Brando argued, "I could've been a contender. I could've had class, and been somebody." Those lines sum up Mickey Rourke's life for the past quarter century or so. Once hailed as the actor of his generation, his several lifetimes' worth of lousy career decisions — including becoming a professional boxer and apparently turning down a host of major roles in the '80s and '90s including Axle Foley in Beverly Hills Cop and Butch Coolidge in Pulp Fiction — deprived him of critical and commercial success.
But that's all changed. Dude is back thanks to his role in Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler, in which he delivers at least three scenes that rival Brando's "contender" speech. As broken-down pro wrestler Randy the Ram, a character desperately seeking to make up for a life filled with mistakes and recapture the self-respect he had in his youth, no, he didn't have to suck too deeply from the well here. Not at all.
The imposing man, still a physical force to be reckoned with despite his seemingly emasculating habit of carrying his Chihuahua with him everywhere, has finally reached a point where he's able to talk about the war he's daily fought within himself since he was a kid. In fact, he can't shut up about the physical abuse he suffered and his subsequent attempts to sabotage any self-worth in his personal and professional life. All that hurt comes out when he speaks now, pouring from lips as well as the eyes set in his broken face. He is a fount of self-observation, all too aware of where he's been, and it turns out that's why the role of Randy the Ram scared the hell out of him.
"I knew why he wanted me to do this part," Rourke says, referring to Aronofsky's decision to cast him. "I mean, it didn't take a rocket scientist to figure that out." The director fought like hell to get Rourke into the part, only to be pressured into replacing him early on with Nicolas Cage in order to justify the $12 million budget. Rourke, after all, was a direct-to-DVD commodity, if a commodity at all. But Rourke was surprisingly OK with the decision. "Everyone was upset about it but me. Because when I sat across from Darren, I was looking at him and listening, and the monotone voice he has, and the way he looks at you — you can see how smart the guy is just hearing him — [and] I knew he'd want his pound of flesh, you know? And I thought, 'I'm going to have to revisit some really dark, painful places.' I wasn't so much worried about the physical stuff as I was that. And I think I was relieved when I was replaced, because I thought, 'Oh, let me just go do some half-ass movie, get paid ten times more than they're offering me on this.'"
Cage eventually (and thankfully) bailed on the part; reasons for this aren't clear, but some suggest it's because of on-set fighting when the notorious set-chewer realized Aronofsky did not want him for the part. The budget was halved, and Rourke was back in. Rourke admits he wasn't surprised; his gut had told him to prepare for the role, so he had packed on more than 30 pounds of muscle to re-create a Hulk Hogan-lite physique. He went on to deliver a performance that ranks with the best of the new millennium, not begging or demanding, but rather warranting your empathy for his character — an asshole who recognizes his mortal weakness, and wants to make up for his mistakes despite lacking the tools to do so. The praise his work and the movie have received has left him stunned and humbled enough that he stammers when talking about how it all makes him feel.
"I think the thing that's kind of unreal is after, like, 10 years went by and I wasn't working, ..." he begins, but stops when the right words seem to elude him. He draws his hand over his chin, as if wiping away his confusion, then: "You know, I thought, 'I really don't want to be in this business if I'm going to come in and work a day or two.' You know, that kind of career. You know, 'If I can't be the man, then I'd rather just go back to Miami and do whatever the fuck lands on my lap.'"
He came to this realization in the past couple of years; he was not willing to be a has-been bit player. He wanted back what he lost. "And I think after [my role as Marv in] Sin City, that kind of opened the door a little bit, and then this thing kicked the door down. And I'm really lucky to have a second chance, because I really misbehaved for 15 years — really fucking badly."
To emphasize this point, Rourke makes an observation about Aronofsky, who turns out to be a bit of an authoritarian director — an attitude that no doubt evoked memories of Rourke's troubled relationship with his abusive father. "When [Darren] points his finger at you, he doesn't understand that going like this" — Rourke points hard at you — "that somebody may break it," he explains. "And he didn't meet me 15 years ago, thank God. Somebody said to me, 'Do you think you could have given the same performance 15 years ago?' and I went, 'Fuck, yeah.'" There's a hint of his youthful bravado in the way he says that: "Fuck yeah." But then wisdom hard-earned kicked in. "When I thought about it, I went, 'No. I would have told him to [fuck off] or kicked him in the ass,' you know?"
Rourke regrets his years of misbehaving. "I just didn't have the tools to change at the time, and to really work and change myself outside, and work with somebody, get information on why I misbehaved, and destroyed everything I worked so hard to do," he says. "I [had] worked really hard to be the best actor I could be when I was at the Actors Studio. And I think early on, with early success, that brought old wounds up, and I questioned my life and what happened in my life. And instead of feeling good about it, I was really angry about it."
It's difficult to say if audiences will embrace Rourke again — who can forget his wonderful turns in The Pope of Greenwich Village and Barfly? With the awards he's been raking in for The Wrestler, it seems hard to believe that, after the inevitable Best Actor Oscar nomination he'll receive (and many believe he's a lock for the statue), there won't be a deluge of great roles to wade through. The question is this: Has Rourke overcome his past enough to properly manage this new chapter in his career?
"I'm getting there," he says, a half-smile screwing up his face. "I'm almost ... I'm pretty much there, kind of, sort of. As much as probably I'll ever be. If that's the question, that's the answer: As much as I'll ever be. There's always going to be a war going on inside of me. That's just, I think, my makeup. It just gives me the fire to burn to keep moving forward. But a lot comes with the territory. I've just got to keep a lid on it."
Cole Haddon is a Metro Times film writer living in Hollywood. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
The Wrestler opens Friday, Jan. 9.