Iconic is a word that’s bandied about a lot. Soft-drink bottles are iconic, handbags are iconic, even fading pop stars – careers held together by suspension of the natural laws of time and gravity through botox injections and the like – are iconic. So perhaps it’s not so unusual that the most recent performance by Mickey Rourke, the Irish-American actor born in upstate New York in 1952 or 1956, depending on which source you believe, has swiftly and resolutely been labelled as iconic by everyone from The New York Times and the BBC to notoriously arch movie website Rotten Tomatoes.
Director Darren Aronofsky’s faux documentary The Wrestler tells the story of a faded, down-on-his-luck American pro-wrestler who’s been living on past glories and is given one last shot at redemption and fame. It is, as anyone who’s even vaguely familiar with Rourke’s career knows, a tale so easily paralleled to the actor’s own story that the comparison in no way needs to be prefixed with the word ‘allegorical’.
Rourke was, for those too young to remember him in his previous, ascendant incarnation, one of the hottest stars of his generation when he broke through in the early ’80s – a pillow-lipped heartthrob with the kind of wry smile and half-mocking gaze that elevated him above the ranks of mere pretty boy. Better still, this boy could act. Rourke appeared in some of that decade’s most memorable movies: he was a rebel with a cause in Francis Ford Coppella’s beautifully shot teenage noir drama, Rumblefish (1983), and a detective in search of a fatal secret in 1987’s Angel Heart. Rourke was dubbed the James Dean or Marlon Brando of his generation. He was, consensus agreed, destined for ‘great things’.
All well and good, except that Rourke himself didn’t want to play ball. As a recent commentator in the UK’s The Guardian newspaper noted, ‘Some men have failure thrust upon them, but Rourke went out and seized failure by the throat.’ Such failure, the piece continued, was the result of consistently poor choices in terms of roles made by the actor. No doubt, but it’s fair to say that the finger on Rourke’s self-destruct button was aimed at exploding more than just his career.
Getting steamy with Kim Basinger in 9½ Weeks (1986) and down and dirty as cult alcoholic novelist Charles Bukowski in Barfly (1987) might have seemed like edgy career moves at the time, but they also revealed a fascination for dark compulsions (sex, violence, alcohol) that spilled over into his private life. By the early ’90s, amid tabloid tales of violent outbursts, on-set sackings and a turbulent private life, he packed it all in to go back to his first love – boxing. Rourke only retired from the ring four years later, in 1995, after he’d been punched into a stupor (‘I could remember stuff from 10 years ago, but not 10 minutes,’ he has been reported as saying about his mental faculties at the time), his face mashed – later to be reconstructed – into a parody of its former beauty.
Now at 52 (or possibly 56) he’s back, his return to form pretty much universally hailed as an ‘amazing comeback’. Rourke himself seems happy to reinforce the cliché. While doing publicity for his role in British teen spy flick Alex Ryder: Stormbreaker in 2006, he told Time Out New York that he was ‘grateful to have a second shot at [acting]. I thought the dance was over for me.’
His role in ‘the dance’, as that credit and those before it reveal, may have been more chorus line than principal in recent years (a truly appalling follow-up to 9½ Weeks excepted, he tended to play support in one-dimensional action roles). But the steadily determined pace at which he’s been slowly but surely plugging away at reviving his career over the past decade (something to do with the discipline of all that boxing training?) reveals that, for all the inherent drama of his life to date, there’s more to this man than storyboarding cliché.
Mickey appears to understand the need for redemption and lessons learned that all such tales must bring, albeit in his own, slightly less white-picket-fence way: ‘I didn’t handle myself in a professional way,’ he continued to tell Time Out. ‘I got all upset about the fact that Hollywood is a business, it’s political, and a lot of times, it’s not about acting. It took me a while to grow up and realise that stuff is the same in any business.’
The Wrestler has been described – in as sure a flipside to the American dream as there could possibly be – as an ‘American tragedy’. The phrase, first coined to describe Arthur Miller’s classic ’50s play, Death Of A Salesman, has become its own iconic symbol of sorts – that of the sad banality of a life lived through dashed hopes and mediocrity, crushed by a failure to keep pace.
Rourke could never be described as mediocre, but his sadly mangled face must surely be a stumbling block to the kind of roles his current success should augur; whether his tale will end in ultimate triumph or tragedy rests, in his fickle industry, on far more than talent alone. But with award season upon us and the Oscars, particularly, looming, those are not questions wanting for answers now. Now, we’re living the Hollywood version of the Mickey Rourke story, the one that comes with one final act of glory – the one in which, if the script goes according to plan, his ‘iconic’ performance is rewarded with a golden icon of its own. The consideration that, in real life, the story goes on long after the credits roll is one for another day.
The wilderness years
Rourke’s ‘amazing comeback’ followed well over a decade of plugging away in small parts in so-so films and leading roles in stinkers. Time Out charts his long climb back to the top.
Fall Time (1995)
This is Reservoir Dogs-lite – a foiled crime caper featuring a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it performance from the man himself.
Exit In Red (1996)
A starring role this may have been, but a tale about a psychiatrist who skips town amid tales of sexual misconduct only to be embroiled in a love-triangle murder plot? Unsurprisingly, this sank without a trace.
Love In Paris (1997)
Otherwise known as 9½ Weeks II, this ‘erotic’ drama is frankly an embarrassment to the genre.
Buffalo 66 (1998)
Vincent Gallo gives Mickey a break in this lauded, gritty drama, showing the boy’s still got the goods with the right material.
Get Carter (2000)
The remake to the ’60s Brit classic should have been great. It should have been a career reviver. It wasn’t.
They Crawl (2001)
Ludicrous horror flick about rampant cockroaches. Enough said.
Once Upon A TIme In Mexico (2003)
Robert Rodriguez’s Latin-themed crime thriller didn’t deliver all it promised, but Rourke is working his way up the bill.
Sin City (2005)
Two-dimensional action thriller with Rourke as an alcoholic ex-con. Unfortunately, tedious typecasting ensues.
Mickey’s self-professed ‘second shot’. The film may not have set the world alight, but The Wrestler was just around the corner.
The Wrestler is in cinemas now. The Oscars will be shown on Fox Movies on Feb 23 at 4pm