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Gone Away, Come Back: Mickey Rourke

It hasn’t been easy for Mickey Rourke fans over the last 15 years. He’s given us much cause for complaint, and even despair.

Gone Away, Come Back: Mickey Rourke
Photo: TriStar Pictures

It hasn’t been easy for Mickey Rourke fans over the last 15 years. He’s given us much cause for complaint, and even despair. He has forced us to defend the indefensible, and say things to our scornful friends along the lines of, “I think there’s a lot to like in Exit In Red.” I have grasped at straws, I have seen terrible straight-to-video movies and soft-core porn, I even suffered through the abysmal Another 9 1/2 Weeks which actually caused me pain because of how tired and defeated he seemed. I have stuck up for him in the face of dwindling evidence of his genius, but I am not a fair-weather fan. Fifteen years of badness is difficult to withstand. His early promise was such that it galvanized an entire generation of young actors, making them want to do better, push harder, take more risks, and then, it felt like overnight, he left us. Where did he go? The details are coming out now, and much was obvious at the time as well. He flamed out publicly. He got involved in a crazy-making tabloid-frenzy marriage. He hated acting, became bored with it, so went back to being a boxer (his first love). Then followed the strange (and tragic, to me) morphing of his face into something unrecognizable. He had multiple operations on his face due to his boxing, but I think there was a little lip-and-cheek-plumping action going on before that. Something happened to him in the early 90s, and you can see it unfold if you watch his films in chronological order. It made me really sad at the time.

The first Mickey Rourke film I saw was Angel Heart. I was in college, studying acting. His performance in that film riveted me, made me almost nervous, because I wondered if I could ever be that raw, that good, in my own work. This was not a singular experience. I have spoken with many of my actor friends and it was the same for them as well. This was a contemporary, blazing onto the scene, with work that rivaled the best I knew from the past: Brando, Cagney, Clift. The only equivalent I can think of is when Russell Crowe exploded onto the American scene with L.A. Confidential. I had been aware of Crowe for some time, having loved him in Proof and Romper Stomper, but it was like a meteor from outer space when he starred in L.A. Confidential. Obviously it wasn’t just actors who loved Crowe, and Rourke, but there was a special lightning-bolt of excitement in that community at the prospect of these new guys—doing exciting, powerful work—inspiring us. My friend David and I went out after seeing Angel Heart to Bickford’s, and sat up all night, ranting and raving about Mickey Rourke, especially the relentless last standoff between Rourke and De Niro when Rourke says “I know who I am” probably twenty times in a row. I kept thinking he would stop, that there were not further depths he could possibly plumb in the same line, but he kept proving me wrong. This was a man not only at the top of his own game, but the top of anyone else’s as well.

Turns out, I had seen Mickey Rourke before, I just didn’t know that it was him. It was in Body Heat, where he has one chilling star-making scene as the arsonist with a conscience. He dominates that scene with a sense of taut energy mixed with gentleness and relaxation (Mickey Rourke’s stock-in-trade) and he is one of the takeaways from that film. That was his breakthrough.

As far as I was concerned back then, he was “it.” He was the one I wanted to watch. New Mickey Rourke movies were anticipated like the release of the latest Harry Potter. And for a while there, it felt like he kept topping himself, he kept fulfilling on that promise first seen in Body Heat. It was an extraordinary run.

He was captivating in Diner, and the 50s seemed to me to be his proper milieu. There was something old-school about him. He belonged in diners at 3 a.m., with a cup of coffee and a crumpled newspaper and some floozy dame crying about him across town. He was not a modern man. He was unashamedly masculine, yet with that undercurrent of softness and vulnerability that all of the great old movie stars (Bogart, in particular) had. He would be completely at home in Only Angels Have Wings, or Dawn Patrol or The Big Sleep. His manliness was not a pose or anything ironic. It was not defensive or postured. It was authentic. He was a throwback, but it just goes to show you that that kind of energy is always in style, and it went a long way in describing his appeal. Crowe had it too in L.A. Confidential. A pre-“enlightened” man. Robert Mitchum is another actor Rourke reminds me of. Rourke had the same drawling easiness, the same tangible potential for danger and violence, but also the same sizzling sex appeal that turn women movie-goers into puddles in the aisle. Rourke’s sense of humor is wry, a little bit pained, he is always distant from events in some way, there is some long horizon he always seems to be looking at which keeps him from full involvement. Perhaps it is an awareness of death, of failure, of the foibles of mankind. His cards are held close to the chest. He is tough, but he is not dumb. You can see this at work in Rumble Fish, where he plays the mythical Motorcycle Boy, one of his loveliest performances. He belongs in black and white. Even his color films seem like they should have been in black and white.

It is interesting to me that Rourke so often played “stars,” meaning he played the person in the group of friends who had that extra something: smarts, pizazz, charisma. You can see it in Diner, The Pope of Greenwich Village, Rumble Fish. Rourke was never really an ensemble player—he was too much of an individual for that, and his presence, even very early on before he was a star, tipped the balance of a movie. He was like a magnet, drawing all of the attention. He couldn’t help it. But he was lucky, then, because he played characters who were also like that, in their smaller scope of life. You don’t need to be a star, in the Hollywood sense, with a salary and an entourage, to be a star. We all know guys like that, guys who are not famous, but who have a glitter to them, something “extra.” It could be the security guard at the building where you work who throws out flirtatious comments as you walk by, and instead of being weird or offensive, it makes your day. Or it could be the old guy at the corner coffee shop, who sits there every day, doing the crossword, holding court, over-tipping the breakfast waitress just because he knows it’s the right thing to do, dispensing advice and opinions that everyone remembers.

These people are “stars.” Mickey Rourke played guys like that. Boogie, in Diner, is down on his luck, he’s a hairdresser, he’s wild, he’s kind of a loser, actually, in the surface of his life. But he is ‘the one’ of that whole group. He is connected to something deeper, his own sense of truth perhaps, or an existential yearning for something more. He wonders if there is something “more” than the narrow circle he currently resides in. He has “it,” star quality, and all of his friends look to him for advice and support and validation. He has his own planetary forcefield. Charlie, in The Pope of Greenwich Village is the same type of guy, a “pope” no less, someone who walks down the street, all dude-d up with his manicured nails and shiny spats. A man aware of the sensation he makes, just by walking into the room. Heads turn. “Do I know that guy?” Henry, in Barfly, although an alcoholic, fringe-dwelling mess, also pulls attention towards him, mostly negative attention, but it’s just the flip side of the same coin. Beneath the narcotic haze, his intelligence flickers, making him individual, funny, unexpectedly romantic, and still somehow sensitive. He also can take more punches than any other man and still remain standing. This gives him a certain cache in the sorry swirl of a world he resides in. He is notorious. He couldn’t be anonymous if he tried.

Rourke needed to play people like that. His star quality was so intense that it could not be submerged or ignored; it had to be utilized and acknowledged in whatever role he was playing. Marlon Brando had the same thing. It is difficult to cast these men properly. It is difficult to place them in a context. Their force of personality tends to take over the story, whether that is right for the project or not. Elia Kazan tells stories of how troubled he was during rehearsals for the Broadway production of Streetcar Named Desire with Brando as Stanley and Jessica Tandy as Blanche. He knew that the audience sympathy should reside with Blanche, but Brando’s power made him undeniably the focus of the entire production, and audiences started to “side” with Stanley. They cheered when he raped Blanche. It upset Brando, too, because he felt that men like Stanley were why the world was such a horrible place, but he couldn’t help what he was doing up on that stage. He simply entered a scene, saying nothing, and couldn’t help but pull all of the attention his way. That kind of magnetism cannot be easily explained, but, like pornography, you know it when you see it. It cannot be faked.

Rourke’s star-power ended up isolating him more and more, and you can see it in films like 9 1/2 Weeks, where that character floats in an unconnected world, alone, his only connection to humanity through the brief affair with the woman. Although that film was a giant hit and made him the sexiest man in the world for a brief season, it is a harbinger of things to come. No longer will Rourke sit across the diner table from a group of his friends, shooting the shit, living and listening, joking and advising. He will be alone. In the late-80s/early-90s, Rourke made, in succession, Wild Orchid, Desperate Hours and Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man, and that, as they say, was that. Rourke did not recover.

Obviously, the desert that Rourke found himself in in the 90s was not just due to bad movie choices. He was notoriously difficult and combative. He was not well-liked. He was violent. He became un-insurable. He bad-talked other actors. He knew he had talent, he knew he was at the forefront of the new pack, but he could not reconcile the fact that this was also a business. He hated “suits” and authority figures. He didn’t give a shit who he pissed off. One of his major errors in judgment was bad-mouthing Sam Goldwyn Jr. after 1987’s IRA thriller A Prayer for the Dying, blaming Goldwyn for the movie’s failure. Doors began to slam shut on Rourke, doors of opportunity and second chances, and he didn’t realize what was happening until there was no way out.

What a spectacular and self-inflicted fall from grace.

In the late-90s, Rourke started to appear again in movies that people could actually see, directed by people you had actually heard of. The newer batch of directors were less interested in his past shenanigans and terrible reputation. They remembered his tender and violent genius in the 80s and wanted him in their projects. Sean Penn put him in The Pledge, and Rourke’s five minutes onscreen in that film is as wrenching and shattering as any acting I have ever seen. It is nearly unwatchable. You want to look away to give that character some privacy in his grief. I remember the buzz in my group of actor-friends after The Pledge came out. “Did you see Mickey Rourke’s scene?” we asked each other, as excited as the tuxedoed waiters at Harmonia Gardens were at the prospect of Dolly Levi’s impending return. “Did you see Mickey Rourke? Did you see Mickey Rourke?”

As corny as it sounds, I never got over missing him. I never reconciled myself to the fact that he was no longer on the scene. He had elevated the art form, he had reminded us what we loved about good acting. Sean Penn, no slouch himself, tells of how, as a younger actor, he would sneak onto the sets of Mickey Rourke movies just to watch Rourke act. When Rourke stepped aside, he laid the playing-ground clear for other actors because, as long as he was there, he couldn’t help but dominate. It was his nature, his talent.

To contemplate the long-deferred dream, that Mickey Rourke might return, was exhilarating.

One night in 2000, I sat in a small movie theater in New York, part of a sparse, polite audience, to watch Steve Buscemi’s Animal Factory, starring Willem Dafoe and Edward Furlong. A rather typical prison drama, with a nice performance by Defoe and a terrible amateur performance by Furlong, the entire thing comes alive every time Furlong goes back to his cell, because his character’s roommate is a cross-dressing queen with no teeth named Jan the Actress. Jan the Actress has a hard oiled body, but she dresses in frilly bras and cut-off vests. She reads celebrity magazines and pontificates on life in a friendly way from her bottom bunk. She has a long rambling monologue about how she wants to go to “Paris, France” and “sit in a motherfucking cherry tree on the Champs Elysees,” and while this character could have been a cliche, a stereotype she is not. She emerges as a living, interesting human being.

She has a moment when, in the distance, she can hear the slamming of a cell door, not even her own, and it is as though, for the first time in her life, she feels what it means to be behind bars. The character probably started off in juvenile hall as a teenager and graduated to more serious adult crimes. She is fully “institutionalized.” There are no lines to suggest this, but it is all in that moment, the brief flicker of panic and despair in her eyes at the sound of a cell door clanging shut in the distance. It is a terrific cameo. I missed that actor when he wasn’t onscreen. I was disappointed when Furlong’s character was moved to another cell block because that meant no more appearances of Jan the Actress, and so the movie, for me, never quite regains its balance after Jan the Actress exits the action. Jan is in the film for probably fifteen minutes all put together, but you feel, through the rest of the film, that something is missing. I stayed to watch the credits roll and when I saw that that vivacious flirty and logical-minded criminal (Furlong, in trouble, asks Jan what he should do. Jan replies, “’What are you gonna do’, sugarplum? You’re gonna get a fucking knife, that’s what you’re gonna do.”) was actually played by Mickey Rourke, I gasped out loud in the theater, frozen in my seat. That was Mickey Rourke?

Here he was, yet again dominating an entire movie, not just when he was in it, but when he was not in it as well.

Rourke is the reason to see that film.

Sin City was the beginning of what people are now calling “the comeback.” One of the things that is interesting about Rourke and the roles he is choosing in this second or third wave of his career is that directors and writers are openly utilizing the baggage Rourke brings to every part: the memory we all have of his arresting, almost fragile beauty, the years of obscurity, the wild-man persona. These things must be dealt with, they cannot be ignored. Rourke cannot now just slip back into an ensemble drama. He brings too much with him. The only way to handle such a situation is to deal with it head-on, and Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City did just that. It was based on a graphic novel, so the pressure to achieve kitchen-sink realism was gone, something that worked in Rourke’s favor.

He could be grotesque, he could be campy, he could (as he used to do) allow us in the audience to project all kinds of things onto him. He was strong enough, he could take it. He growled and sneered, he mourned his lost love (a hooker he spent one night with, but even that would resonate for someone like Mickey Rourke, and he knows that we know that), he kicked major ass left and right, and in the end, it was near-impossible to kill him. He is run over repeatedly, he falls out of windows, he is shot at … but he keeps getting back up. Metaphor for Rourke the actor? Of course it is. Rourke is obviously just fulfilling the needs of this particular character here, but it’s never that simple. He cannot “disappear.” He never could. The charisma of his persona was too strong. Early on, when he was in projects worthy of him (Pope of Greenwich Village, Angel Heart), the result was often powerful, riveting. But later on, when the ease of stardom was taken away from him, he just looked lazy, adrift, bored. He knew he didn’t have to work as hard as other actors to pull focus, so he just stood there, smoldering and whispering and it all began to look schticky and cheap. He was imitating himself. It was painful to watch.

In Sin City, Mickey Rourke fans from way back could watch him take that persona, that persona we missed so much, and pour it into this brilliantly high-camp venture. He didn’t have to carry the film—there were other leads—but, again, he dominates. I think everyone is good in that movie, but he is what I remember. It was a thrilling moment for diehard fans. It felt like … something was about to happen. Sin City wasn’t it, but it felt like a precursor, a deep breath before taking the plunge.

Over the last couple of months, the text messages and emails and phone calls have been flying back and forth amongst my group of friends. “Did you hear about Rourke in The Wrestler?” “When does it open again?” “I can’t wait!” “Is he back? Do you think he’s back?”

I saw an advance screening of The Wrestler a few weeks ago and there is a moment, early on in the film, when he staggers down the street, through a bleak New Jersey morning, a great hulk of a man, too big for his clothes. His face looks battered and puffy, and suddenly, out of nowhere, I got an acute and clear memory of his performance as the deformed criminal in 1989’s Johnny Handsome. In the opening shots of that film, “Johnny Handsome” skulks down the street; his face has a ballooning forehead, a bulbous nose, a cleft palate. We know it is Mickey Rourke because he is the star of the film, but we cannot tell it is him. The story of that film, of “Johnny Handsome” getting an operation on his face that leaves him looking like, well, a young and handsome Mickey Rourke, is the reverse of what we have seen happen in Mickey Rourke’s real life. It is one of those odd art-meeting-biography truths.

In The Wrestler, Mickey Rourke’s actual face looks like the makeup-job he had done in that movie almost 20 years ago, and it’s a strange, tragic thing to contemplate. It is not my place to ponder why Mickey Rourke did what he did to his beautiful face. I have some theories. We’ve all got theories. They are, ultimately, irrelevant. What struck me, in watching his performance in The Wrestler, is how he consciously references us back to those old performances. He lets us remember him how he was. He is not trying to hide anymore, like he was in, say, Wild Orchid, where we, the audience, were supposed to look at his plumped-out cheeks and lips and not ask ourselves the question, “What the hell is he doing to his face?” Now he knows that we know. No more lying and smokescreens. It’s all out now. No need to hide or pretend anymore. He has set it up that way. The change in his face is an undeniable fact, and the film does not soft-pedal it. The ghost of the old Mickey Rourke does hover around him still, but in the context of The Wrestler, with its opening montage of newspaper clippings of his old wrestling triumphs, it is perfect. The baggage Mickey Rourke brings doesn’t just work, it is essential to the film. He owns it.

Down on his luck, Rourke’s character Randy “The Ram” Robinson takes a job working behind a deli counter in a local grocery store. He is nervous. He treats his first day almost like a wrestling match, getting pumped up to be with the public again. On the underside of this is, of course, his existential despair at what his life has come to. What about his dreams? What about who he used to be? What about the glory, the fame? But “The Ram” is a survivor, if nothing else. This guy doesn’t just act tough, he is tough. He stands behind the deli counter and the customers start coming. It is my favorite scene in the film, and tears flooded my eyes as I watched Mickey Rourke treat his service job like a Borscht Belt comedy club. He is peppy, humorous, he banters with customers, he makes sure that the person walking away from the counter has had a nice experience, something that might brighten their day. He is “on.” A small woman in her 70s comes up to place her order, and he jokes with her, “What you havin’ spring chicken?” There is pathos in the scene, because you can’t help but wonder what would have become of such a beautiful spirit if he had had a different life. But there is also joy because he is doing his best with the hand that he’s been dealt, and isn’t that what most of us are trying to do in life? Even in bad times?

It makes me realize that, yet again, even though Mickey Rourke is playing someone in The Wrestler who could be classified as a “loser,” this character is a “star,” not just because he was a once-famous wrestler, but because he has the personality for it. You either have it or you don’t. Even when his career as a wrestler is taken from him, due to having a heart attack, he finds a way to channel it elsewhere, meeting and greeting people on their level, unafraid to be corny or silly, wanting, above all else, to connect.

But make no mistake, this is no romantic Rocky tale. The joy of that scene is short-lived, and events begin to conspire to push “The Ram” out of all areas that might provide comfort, love, connection.

It is a great performance, one that I am still processing and thinking about. I am not sure where Mickey Rourke fits in now. He “fit in” when he was young because he made it to the Alpha-Dog position of male Hollywood stars, and was gorgeous and sexy. He can no longer rely on those things. He must rely on something else that is much more permanent: his talent. He needs to choose wisely, and the problem still remains that it is difficult to cast Rourke properly, even more so now.

David Thomson, in his New Biographical Dictionary of Film, writes, in regards to Rourke:

“For Mickey Rourke has rather “gone away,” leaving us to marvel over what happened to this glorious, rebellious kid actor, so tempted by silly sexual show-off, by the idea of becoming a boxer, and just being difficult, out of reach. He could come again. The guy one sees in The Rainmaker could still be waiting for his right moment, the big role, the unequivocal revelation that he has always been in charge.”

Is that time now? We Mickey Rourke fans can only sit back and remain hopeful.

After all, we’re used to waiting. We can hang on a little bit longer.

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
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