His portrayal of a washed-up wrestler was the toast of the Venice Festival. Welcome back Mickey, says Geoffrey Macnab
The presence of Mickey Rourke at the end of a long queue at Nice airport during last year's Cannes film festival seemed symbolic. The once celebrated star of Diner, Rumble Fish, Angel Heart and Year of the Dragon was just a jobbing actor whose presence generated little excitement.
His career has been one of squandered talent. Fans remember the ungainly figure he cut when he took to the ring as a professional boxer in the early 1990s. They had noticed the way his once good looks had been distorted, because of surgery or boxing injuries. The Rourke cuttings file bulged with stories about drug abuse and turmoil in his private life. He looked destined to become a footnote figure.
Nicolas Cage was scheduled to play the lead in Darren Aronofsky's new film, The Wrestler. When the project was announced, Cage was on board as Randy "The Ram" Robinson, the washed-up 1980s wrestler who retires after a heart attack during a bout but then makes a Rocky-like comeback against his old nemesis, The Ayatollah.
By the time shooting began, Cage had dropped out and Rourke was in. Now, the late switch in leading man seems fortuitous. In the space of a week, Rourke's career has been reignited. Last Friday, when The Wrestler premiered in Venice, the response was wildly enthusiastic. The film won the Golden Lion.
"This is for a film with a truly heartbreaking performance in every sense of the word. And if I say heartbreaking, I mean Mickey Rourke," Venice's jury president Wim Wenders declared. Meanwhile, Variety's Todd McCarthy, one of the most influential "trade" critics, wrote of Rourke's "galvanising, humorous, deeply moving portrait that instantly takes its place among the great iconic screen performances". Rourke is sure to be a front-runner when the Golden Globes and Oscars season begins in earnest.
Randy Robinson is a role tailor-made for Rourke, who has experienced the rough side of life. In Venice, Rourke described his character as "a dreamer who is living like shit and living in a state of shame". The actor drew parallels with his own life, saying he'd "thrown away" his own career 15 years ago.
Everybody loves a comeback story. The same media outlets that chronicled Rourke's problems now rush to praise him. This isn't exactly hypocrisy: as Rourke has acknowledged, he had nobody to blame but himself for the way his career went into freefall. He was notoriously difficult to work with. When his lustre faded, few casting directors saw much upside in hiring someone so volatile and unreliable. However, it's easy to forget what an accomplished screen actor Rourke always was.
In the late 1990s, the Belgian director Erik Van Looy worked with Rourke for three weeks on a film called Shades. He recalls Rourke's professionalism with something approaching awe. Van Looy had written a lengthy, verbose screenplay. Rourke's reaction was to toss away pages and pare lines. "He [Rourke] was in a moderate physical condition," Van Looy says. "The first two weeks were wonderful. They were the proof of what we all know; that he was basically a great, great actor who went a rather self-destructive way. The third week he got a little homesick and sick and tired of us. I think he has a very short attention span. But I learnt a lot from him." As Van Looy points out, Rourke can convey more with a look or a gesture than a writer can express in many lines of dialogue.
In Eighties teen movies, Rourke's characters had a depth that the other youngsters' didn't. He seemed wiser and more vulnerable. His greatest role of this era was surely as "the motorcycle boy" in Francis Ford Coppola's Rumble Fish, a ghostly, charismatic figure in faded leathers, whispering homespun philosophy to his would-be hoodlum younger brother (Matt Dillon): "If you're going to lead people, you have to have somewhere to go," he says, and: "Blind terror in a fight can easily pass for courage."
Even at this early stage, it was apparent that Rourke was better suited to playing outsiders and dysfunctional types than conventional clean-cut heroes. Arguably, that was part of his problem. Hollywood wanted to turn him into a leading man, but he resisted fiercely, reportedly turning down roles such as Eliot Ness in The Untouchables and Axel Foley in Beverly Hills Cop.
When he did play detectives or cops – for example, in Michael Cimino's Year of the Dragon – his performances were less interesting than when he was cast as the outsider. Alan Parker's Angel Heart was better suited – private investigator Harry Angel was so crumpled and seedy that he made Peter Falk's Columbo look dapper. Rourke excelled, too, in Barbet Schroeder's Barfly as the brawling, alcoholic Henry Chinaski (Charles Bukowski's alter ego.) "A whisky and water for my friends" was his constant refrain as he sought oblivion through alcohol and fighting.
But Rourke's career soon became dogged by notoriety. His private life and some of his professional decisions ensured that he was less celebrated for acting than the scrapes he got into. Appearing in 9 1/2 Weeks and in Zalman King's Wild Orchid weren't such smart choices if he aspired to be taken seriously.
After The Wrestler, film-makers may offer him parts that let him show that same mix of bravado and vulnerability that he brought so memorably to Diner and Rumble Fish. It seems unlikely that he'll ever again find himself at the back of the check-in queue at Nice airport.
MICKEY ROURKE: A LIFE IN MOVIES
The beginnings of Rourke's career. In the early 1980s, in "Diner", "Rumble Fish" and "The Pope of Greenwich Village", he gave performances that had critics reaching for comparisons to Brando and James Dean. He had that mix of moodiness, machismo and vulnerability that audiences have always looked for in their favourite "method" actors.
Most of the rest of Rourke's career. The temperamental ex-boxer who had grown up in a tough part of Miami began to exasperate directors with his ever-more volatile behaviour on set. His appearance underwent bizarre changes. Whether through boxing (a sport he returned to in the early 1990s), hard living or surgery, the once delicate-featured star of "Diner" began to look grotesque. His performances grew ever more mannered and his sense of his own dignity seemed to vanish. At one stage, he was reduced to playing a bit part as a heavy in an Enrique Iglesias pop promo. His private life was as messy as his career. It's less than a year since Rourke was arrested in Miami while allegedly driving "under the influence" on a Vespa. It wasn't his first brush with the police. In 1994, he had been arrested by the Los Angeles police and charged with "spousal abuse".