Happy 70th birthday to Mickey Rourke, perhaps the unlikeliest star I’ll ever cop to going ga-ga over, to the extent of even emulating him for two minutes when I was at the appropriate age to do that. Obviously, my thing is usually comedy, and the best comedy is usually as uncool as it is possible to get. And I’m the farthest thing from a tough guy. But in acting school you’re encouraged to get out of your comfort zone and test other possible selves. I was in my early 20s and was just gonzo over him, in the same way, though surely to a lesser extent, that young men had been over Brando and James Dean 30 years earlier.
Rourke never quite attained that status as an actor, because the right roles weren’t there, but he had the same kind of over-the-top charisma, and the same elusive, almost supernatural quality where he was putting out huge amounts of both hyper-masculinity AND femininity. He was macho, a boxer, he wore bomber jackets and a pompadour and rode a motorcycle, but he had this sensuous, girlish mouth, a soft voice that seldom seemed to go above a whisper, and oddly innocent and pretty eyes. He was the kind of guy who’d wrap one arm around your shoulder, and punch you in the face with the other one.
Above all, he seemed a throwback to the stardom of the late studio years. He knew how to pose in front of a movie camera and act truthfully at one and the same time. It was a post-modern era. Other stars of the day, e.g. Harrison Ford, Sylvester Stallone, and Tom Cruise were also throwbacks, but none had as much going on internally or threw off as much wattage as Rourke, in my opinion. Put another way: unlike those other guys, you got the feeling that Rourke could tackle REAL drama. He could do something with a part like Stanley Kowalski or Joe Bonaparte. As it happens, early in his career he had played Eddie Carbone in a 1975 revival of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge. If he had played gotten some movie roles like that early in his career, things might have gone a lot differently.
As I write this, we’re at the 40th anniversary of Diner (1982), the movie that first made everyone sit up and pay attention. As I wrote here, my friends and I were obsessed with that movie. Though the role was smaller, he had made a similar impression in Body Heat (1981, set in his native Miami), and I also loved him as Motorcycle Boy in Francis Ford Coppola’s Rumble Fish (1983), and appreciated his thuggish comedy two-act with Eric Roberts (then much more famous than his younger sister Julia) in The Pope of Greenwich Village (1984), as well as performances in things like Alan Parker’s voodoo noir thriller Angel Heart (1987) with Lisa Bonet and De Niro, and his thinly veiled Bukowski in Barfly (1987). His first movie had been Spielberg’s 1941 (1979), a film I loved at the time but Rourke wasn’t famous yet so I never noticed him. It was decades later that I first saw him in Nicolas Roeg’s interesting period yarn Eureka (1983), and Michael Cimino’s unjustly panned Heaven’s Gate (1980).
Rourke worked with Cimino again in Year of the Dragon (1985) and that’s when the edifice of magic seemed to give way for me, and I believe for much of the public. Apart from a tissue of racism that was patently obvious even 30 years ago, Rourke was badly miscast as Vietnam Vet who is now a police captain in Chinatown. He looked preposterous in a uniform, and seemed entirely too young for the part. Adrian Lyne’s creepy, semi-pornographic 9 1/2 Weeks (1986) with Kim Basinger was also widely ridiculed, as was the aforementioned Angel Heart, though I happened to love it. Wild Orchid (1990), another erotic film, was panned, and a couple roughly appropriate noir pictures Johnny Handsome (1989) by Walter Hill and Cimino’s remake of Desperate Hours (1990) failed at the box office. The coup de grace was the egregious and idiotic Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man (1991) with Don Johnson, at which point even I was ridiculing and dismissing him.
A hint of what the next years would bring had been dropped in the 1988 boxing picture Homeboy, which Rourke had written himself. Rourke had fought at the amateur level since he was a boy. In 1991 he went professional. And while it clearly made perfect sense for him to box as a personal choice, to the public at large it seemed like he had gone completely cuckoo. Show biz is full of nuts, of course, but now he seemed to be reaching levels we associate with the likes of Kanye and Randy Quaid. He co-wrote a movie called Bullet (1996) in which he co-starred with Tupac. The pair were sued by Donald Trump after they destroyed one of his hotel rooms. He then went on to make such lofty piles of poop as Another 9 1/2 Weeks (1997), and The Rainmaker (1997), a movie so reviled that director Francis Ford Coppola stayed away from directing for a decade afterwards (and it remains his last major Hollywood film as director). A lot of Rourke’s films from this period were straight-to-video. Charges of spousal abuse and DUIs did not help his reputation.
Ironically Rourke had turned down an offer from Quentin Tarantino to appear in Pulp Fiction (1994), in the role that eventually went to Bruce Willis. A light dawns, right? Willis seemed a campy choice at the time, similar to the casting of John Travolta. But the boxing element speaks to the fact that it was created for Rourke, and it would have been perfect for him. The film is already great; it would have been even better had Rourke taken that role. One assumes that he figured it was an indie movie and therefore beneath him. Apparently its success taught him something, for he did accept a part in Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo ’66 in 1998.
Meantime, though he won some bouts, the fight game destroyed his face, and his voice also became hoarse and husky. Yet he also began to get cast in films again that were more respected critically and/or successful at the box office. Most notably he won several awards including an Oscar nom for his role as the lead character in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler (2008), a bit of meta casting not unlike what Tarantino had intended for him a quarter century earlier, only now with much more poignance, more along the lines of James Dunn in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. In 2003 he was in Robert Rodriguez’s Once Upon a Time in Mexico and Masked and Anonymous, a collaboration between Bob Dylan and Larry Charles of Seinfeld and Sacha Baron Cohen movies. In 2010 he was in the commercial hits Iron Man 2 and Stallone’s The Expendables. He seems to see-saw back and forth between stuff like that and straight-to-video throwaways.
I am pretty excited about a film slated for release later this year: Roman Polanski’s The Palace, in which he stars along with John Cleese and an international cast. (Yes I know what Polanski did and even think he should, or should have, suffered the legal consequences. But if we stopped consuming art that was made by awful people, we’d only be watching movies like That Darn Cat). (P.S., I picked it at random. Please don’t write to me voicing your defenses of That Darn Cat).
Happy birthday, you weird old son of a bitch!
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