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Call it a comeback if you must, though Rourke would rather you didn’t. “Please do me a favor,” he says. “Look up what comeback means in the dictionary, because those two words ... I can’t relate to them. I don’t have a hang-up about it, but it’s like saying ‘come back’ from getting a ham sandwich; ‘come back’ from war without your legs. It doesn’t apply to everybody or everything.”
However you term it, The Wrestler,at least where Rourke is concerned, almost didn’t happen at all. Although Aronofsky and screenwriter Robert D. Siegel developed the project with Rourke in mind, they found it impossible to secure even the modest financing required for a sometimes explicitly violent wrestling movie starring an actor who hadn’t headlined a major motion picture since the first George Bush was in office. Shortly after Rourke and Aronofsky’s first meeting, “they called me up and said they couldn’t do the movie with me; the investors wanted a $20 million actor to do the part,” Rourke says. (When The Wrestler was first announced in the pages of Variety, Nicolas Cage was attached to star.) Rourke, meanwhile, was secretly relieved, “because I knew that Darren wanted me to revisit these dark places, these painful places. I knew he’d want a pound of flesh. And then there was the physical part — the two months of training — and the not getting paid.”
So, Rourke returned home to Miami, only to receive a phone call from his agent a few weeks later saying that the role was once again his. “My reaction,” he says, only half-jokingly, was, “Oh, fuck! Can’t you get me something else?”
The opening titles of The Wrestler play over a montage of photos, posters and magazine articles dating from the Ram’s heyday at the top of the pro-wrestling pantheon. The clippings, though, could just as easily be from Rourke’s own ’80s scrapbook, back when it seemed as though he was destined to be the next James Dean, the next Brando, the next big thing. “With luck, Rourke could become a major actor; he has an edge and magnetism and a sweet, pure smile that surprises you,” wrote Pauline Kael in her review of Barry Levinson’s Diner (1982), in which the actor played the compulsively gambling and girl-chasing hairdresser Robert “Boogie” Sheftell. “He seems to be acting to you, and to no one else.” That was a movie that launched the careers of at least a half-dozen actors — Kevin Bacon, Ellen Barkin, Paul Reiser and Tim Daly among them. (How curious, looking back at it now, to realize that Steve Guttenberg received top billing.) But Rourke, whose bit part as an arsonist in the previous year’s Body Heat had nearly stolen that movie out from under Kathleen Turner’s smoldering legs, stood apart from the crowd, and won the Best Supporting Actor award from the National Society of Film Critics for his efforts.
Rourke’s “edge,” as Kael (and others) termed it, was a welcome trait in a decade that gave us lots of clean-cut, boy-next-door movie stars like Tom Cruise, Matthew Broderick and — yes — Steve Guttenberg. Even among the talented ensemble of Coppola’s Brechtian Rumble Fish, which included the young Matt Dillon and Nicolas Cage, it was Rourke, cast as the doomed, Dean-like Motorcycle Boy, who carried the greatest gravitas. He seemed to have seen things and been places, to bear the marks of experience. And while Rourke went on to be perfectly convincing in white-collar roles like that of the Wall Street power player who cooks three square meals for (and on) Kim Basinger in Nine 1/2 Weeks (1986), he was never better than as a certain breed of sensitive, soft-spoken hustler-vagabond-dreamer — the guy more likely to be roughed up in some back alley than to be the one doing the roughing.
He was casually mesmerizing as the small-time hood who dreams of opening a restaurant in Stuart Rosenberg’s underrated The Pope of Greenwich Village (1984), and then, in a piss-and-vinegar tour de force, as Henry Chinaski, the autobiographical alter ego of Charles Bukowski, in Barbet Schroeder’s Barfly (1987). Already, though, there were stories that Rourke could be difficult to work with and hostile to those in authority. During the production of Nine 1/2 Weeks, a New York Times report described a brass plaque in Rourke’s trailer that warned “all studio executives and producers” to stay away. (“Stay the fuck away,” Rourke corrects me when I mention this.) He was said to have clashed with Basinger, who famously dubbed him “the human ashtray,” and with Robert De Niro on the set of Angel Heart (1987). In Hollywood, Bukowski’s 1989 roman à clef about the making of Barfly, the obvious Rourke surrogate, Jack Bledsoe, is a naturally gifted actor who refuses to read his lines until right before filming a scene and travels with an entourage of sycophantic street urchins and pseudo-gangsters.
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