The Wrestler marks the return to ‘serious’ acting of its bruised star, former boxer Mickey Rourke. His performance as a low-rent local wrestler, Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson, who haplessly risks his life to cling on to past glories, won Rourke the best actor nod at this year’s Golden Globes, and has also earned him an Oscar nomination in the same category.
But it’s not just Rourke that the film promises to revitalise. It picked up the Golden Lion at last year’s Venice Film Festival – a remarkable feat considering that director Darren Aronofsky’s (Pi, Requiem For A Dream) last film, tragically overblown sci-fi calamity The Fountain, was booed on the same turf.
The Wrestler is a film firmly rooted in a long American tradition of films that examine the mysterious allure of violence as a way of life. Here, Aronofsky explains how The Wrestler fits into that last strain of American cinema by discussing some of the ‘fight films’ that influenced him.
Angel Heart (1987)/Homeboy (1988)
‘I became aware of Mickey Rourke through Angel Heart. I remember being blown away by his performance. He was so cool, so tough and so soft at the same time. I got to know the film Homeboy when I started working with Mickey. He asked if I’d ever seen this boxing film he’d written, and he gave me a tape. Not many actors have armour like that. Then you look into his eyes and he’s got a jelly heart.’
Raging Bull (1980)
‘Well, Raging Bull is masterful in many different ways. It’s a very different type of film to The Wrestler, but it’s been a major influence. Scorsese was using the camera as a paintbrush, especially in the fighting scenes. I watch that film and I question whether it’s possible to make some-thing like that today. Raging Bull is an art film, and it’s harder to get money for those kinds of projects. For a film like The Wrestler, we had the one financial backer on the planet who was willing to make the movie with me. We had a very limited budget.’
‘For me, Rocky is a sports movie, but it’s also a performance movie. Wrestling and wrestlers err more towards acting and theatre than towards sports. Relating to the idea of Rocky, there’s a song written by Charles Mingus called ‘The Clown’, a jazz song with lyrics, and it’s about a clown who has to do more and more extreme stunts. One day, he gets hit in the head with a prop and the crowd goes crazy, so he has to keep putting more and more of himself at risk. That was a big influence.’
They Live (1988)
‘With They Live, John Carpenter was trying to lampoon fight scenes as they were clearly fake. And what’s interesting about the hardcore wrestling in The Wrestler (where Rourke’s character is beaten with broken glass, barbed wire and staple guns) is that the audience aren’t idiots – they know wrestling is fake. One of the reasons that hardcore wrestling exists is because the cat is out of the bag and everyone knows that what they’re experiencing is a theatrical number. People in that blood-thirsty world are looking for men and women who risk themselves and their health by doing more and more dangerous stunts. In They Live, it’s not about who wins; it’s about how much people can hurt each other.’
‘I used to love the Van Damme and Steven Seagal films when they came out. They were fun. They’re not making those kinds of movies in America any more; they prefer legitimate superheroes: middle-class, medium-build guys who become these pumped-up superheroes like Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Van Damme and Seagal from the ’80s. We don’t have many of those guys any more. Maybe Gerard Butler or Jason Statham, but it’s different. Then it was about body, now it’s about costumes. With our film, I don’t think we were commenting on those movies, but I’m sure it was floating around in my subconscious. There’s a lot about bodybuilding culture in The Wrestler and I’m sure that derives from all the early Schwarzenegger stuff like Pumping Iron.’
Fat City (1972)
‘John Huston’s Fat City was something we drew on, especially the atmospheric vibe, the poetry and the naturalism. There was also another film called North Dallas Forty (1979) with Nick Nolte, and even though it’s an American football movie, a lot of the themes apply. Then there’s Wanda (1970) by (legendary director) Elia Kazan’s wife, Barbara Loden. It’s a great film. I was interested in the realism. My previous films, Pi, Requiem For A Dream and The Fountain were stylised. I missed being in the gutter. I wanted to go back there with The Wrestler.’
The Wrestler is scheduled for release on February 12