Wednesday, 28 January 2009

There's Life in the Old Dog Yet: Hollywood's New Bruised and Battered Heroes

It’s the comeback that nobody could have anticipated. After 15 years of near-unemployment, Mickey Rourke is a Golden Globe-winning and Oscar-nominated success story for his performance in The Wrestler. The film has already scooped the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and Sight & Sound branded it 'the comeback performance of the year.'

Not only does The Wrestler provide the most unlikely of returns to the big screen (Rourke’s erratic behaviour in the last two decades left few directors willing to work with him), it also heralds an unlikely new genre of Hollywood hero.

Rourke plays ex-pro wrestler Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson. His former glories far behind him, Randy lives in a trailer, scraping a living by fighting in town halls and working in a supermarket. His body - ravaged by steroids, surgery and sun beds - is starting to give up on him. He wears a hearing-aid and, after suffering a heart attack, has been told never to wrestle again. But it’s all he knows. He’s got issues, and has made mistakes in the past that have rendered him friendless and with a daughter who hates him (Evan Rachel Wood). The only person he feels he can talk to is an ageing lap dancer (a still-foxy Marisa Tomei, who invests her character with a warmth and sincerity that lifts her above the usual ‘tart with a heart’ cliché).

Randy is devastatingly flawed, and that’s why we love him. There isn’t a dry eye in the house when he tells his daughter: ‘I’m an old broken-down piece of meat, and I deserve to be all alone.’ He personifies the type of imperfect male lead that a world bombarded with headlines of war and recession can relate to.

Some critics found it hard to sympathise with the character of Randy. There’s a reason his daughter hates him: he has let her down repeatedly throughout her life and, despite claiming to be reformed, does so again in the film. Why should she give him another chance? The fact is, he doesn’t deserve one. But this is exactly why his character is so identifiable to anyone with regrets in their life.

The other Golden Globe picked up by The Wrestler went to Bruce Springsteen for Best Original Song. In his acceptance speech, he told how Rourke had explained the character of Randy thus: ‘Some people invest themselves in their pain. They turn away from love and things that strengthen and nurture their lives. This was a guy that hadn’t figured that out.’ Springsteen added, ‘I know a couple of those guys.’

This is not the time for men who moisturise, or personality-free heartthrobs like Orlando Bloom or Zac Efron. Handsome, one-dimensional leading men are nowhere to be seen on the film release schedules for 2009. Nor are self-satisfied heroes who always get the girl. They just don’t fit in with the current mood.

And it’s not only in fiction that this development is apparent. One of the biggest hits of last year’s festival circuit – and getting its UK release next month – is Sacha Gervasi’s documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil. The film follows obscure heavy metal act Anvil as they attempt to resurrect the glory days of their music career. When we first meet lead singer Steve ‘Lips’ Kudlow, he’s working for a catering company in scenes that wouldn’t look out of place in The Wrestler. He’s at his lowest ebb, but is determined not to give up on his dream, even when he has to hide his flowing rocker’s hair under a regulation hairnet, just as Mickey Rourke’s Randy ‘The Ram’ has to when working on a supermarket deli counter.

Documentaries with flawed heroes – like Anvil and the forthcoming Tyson (although, as a convicted rapist, Mike Tyson is certainly more flawed than heroic) – are potentially more powerful than fictional tales, as they have a real struggle at their heart. However, in The Wrestler, the viewer gets the sense that Randy’s story somewhat echoes Rourke’s.

Indeed, after the success of films such as Nine 1/2 Weeks and Angel Heart in the ‘80s, Rourke renounced acting to become a professional boxer in 1991. Three years later he announced he wanted a 'second chance' from Hollywood, but that chance failed to materialise, perhaps because of his difficult reputation. ‘Working with Mickey is a nightmare,’ said Angel Heart director Alan Parker at the time. ‘He is very dangerous on the set because you never know what he is going to do.’ Apart from a small role in 2005's Sin City, it seemed that, much like Randy himself, Rourke was all washed up. But now his been-there-done-that face is the face that fits. Rourke has said that he could relate to the 'shame and disgrace' of Randy's life. When accepting his Golden Globe, he described the struggle of bringing the film to the big screen: how director Darren Aronofsky couldn’t get financing with such an unbankable lead, how Axl Rose let them use Sweet Child of Mine for free and how they didn’t even have a distributor when they turned up to the Venice Film Festival last year. He rounded off his speech by thanking ‘my dogs’ because ‘sometimes, when a man’s alone, all you’ve got is your dogs.’

The ultimate rough-around-the-edges actor (and Oscar stalwart who, surprisingly, isn’t nominated this year) Clint Eastwood is back next month with Gran Torino. He directs and stars as Walt Kowalski, a miserable, racist old Korean War veteran. Like Randy, Walt has made mistakes and is living with the consequences: a lonely existence, estranged from a family who can’t bear him. His only company is his dog, Daisy.

The film has received such a warm reception in the US that it has given Eastwood his biggest-ever opening weekend. Like Randy, Walt is a perfect icon for an audience worried and exhausted by a steady stream of bad news. And, with the world in the state it’s in, it looks as though these redefined cinematic models of masculinity are here to stay.

While there may not be many upsides to the worldwide recession, at least it’s providing us with some remarkable and complicated heroes.

Rosamund Witcher

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