Wrestling with the contradictions of fame

There’s a lot more to The Wrestler than Mickey Rourke’s stellar, art-imitating-life performance.

David Berkley

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If it is true that the best performances are given by actors who truly ‘live’ the character they portray, then Mickey Rourke surely deserves the Oscar nomination he received yesterday for his titular performance in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler.

In the film, the superficial, yet high-drama world of ‘professional’ (read ‘staged’) wrestling serves as a backdrop (pun intended) to examine the delusion and disillusionment of someone who used to be a somebody, and who is perpetually striving to recapture the elusive and ephemeral state that is fame, and the adulation that comes with it.

Although it is unclear how many chokeslams he delivered or dropkicks he had received prior to beginning filming, the parallels between Rourke and his character Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson are well-documented and striking (1).

Like Rourke, The Ram is well past his prime – about 20 years or so – having frittered away his early success on the all-too-common triumvirate of temptations: drink, drugs and women. Like Rourke, his years in the wilderness now mean his ‘comeback’ attempts are inevitably restricted to low-budget, gritty affairs with lower pay and less glamour than he was once accustomed to. And like Rourke, it is the nefarious, phony world in which he plies his trade that leaves him disillusioned and his personal life in tatters. In Randy’s case, that involves a daughter who hates his guts and an inability to keep up the rent on the pokey trailer in which he lives alone. Indeed, one could view Rourke’s entire life up until this film as one long, rigorous preparation for the role of The Ram.

And it shows. Rourke truly does inhabit his character in a way that I can recall few other actors doing. As a macho, steroid-injecting, testosterone-fuelled professional wrestler, The Ram is not especially adept at discussing trivial, sentimental issues like emotions and feelings, yet the depth and subtlety of Rourke’s performance and the tortured, divided nature of the character’s existence mean that mere dialogue is neither necessary nor sufficient to convey such complexities.

From sleeping in the back of his car through to wrestling exhibitions and jaunts to strip clubs, we follow the poignant, tragicomic existence of the ageing and gnarled Ram as he attempts to get both his life and career back on track – to re-establish a relationship with his estranged daughter and to make it to a potentially lucrative (by the standards he is now used to at least) re-match with his auld enemy from his Eighties heyday, the headdress-wearing, Iranian flag-waving ‘Ayatollah’ (real name: Bob). This despite doctor’s orders to retire after suffering a heart attack following a surprisingly gruesome amateur fight.

By now, the once-great Randy the Ram works shifting boxes and serving behind the deli counter in a soulless supermarket during the week – his bulging biceps and rough features laughably incongruous with daintily dishing out pasta and cold meats, wearing an apron and his long, dyed-blonde locks trussed up in a hairnet. During the weekends, he fights for next-to-nothing to handful-strong crowds of local fans. Along the way, his relationship with stripper Pam (Marisa Tomei) develops into something more complicated than the standard paying customer-service provider protocol. Pam and The Ram both put their bodies on the line in order to make a living, and it is perhaps this that draws them together.

Like many in our celebrity-obsessed age, where the public gaze is ubiquitous and all-important, Randy seems incapable of carving out his own identity or seeing himself as anything other than what others make of him: his public persona, ‘The Ram’. He bristles whenever anyone calls him by his real name, Robin Ramsinzski. He instead views himself vicariously through the eyes of his cheering, whooping knucklehead fans, chanting for him to execute his signature move, ‘The Ramjam’ – a diving head butt from the top rope, with elbows extended above his head to simulate The Ram’s horns – and he seems concerned only with satisfying them, to the detriment of his personal relationships.

In a recent documentary following the latest failed attempt of alcoholic ex-England footballer Paul Gascoigne (known as ‘Gazza’ to the nation) to regain control over his life, his stepson Mason proclaimed with simple eloquence: ‘If you turned to him and asked “who are you?” the best he could come up with is “Gazza”.’ (See Gazza as metaphor, by Tim Black.) Substitute ‘The Ram’ for ‘Gazza’ here and the observation remains just as valid for Rourke’s character.

Even when he finally appears to be flourishing as Robin Ramzinski, putting his skills as a showman to good use while charming the old ladies at the deli counter, fate intervenes when he is recognised as Randy the Ram. Unable to reconcile his public and private self, in a pique of frustration and despair at where the dichotomy has led him, Randy jams his hand into the meat slicer and quits his job, vowing to come out of retirement and take up the re-match against The Ayatollah.

If the expertly crafted slice of cinema that is The Wrestler could or should be reduced to a corny morality message, it would read something like ‘be true to yourself before anybody else’. But in the match-up between The Ram and Robin Ramzinski, there was only ever going to be one winner.

Given his own backstory and the resulting resonant pathos, Rourke’s magnificent performance will rightly continue to garner him praise and perhaps even an Oscar that very few would begrudge him. Yet to make this the sole focus of any analysis of the film would be to do The Wrestler and its many interesting and intermingling themes a disservice.

David Berkley is an intern at spiked.

Watch the trailer for The Wrestler:

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(1) I’ve been to hell, I’m not going back there, Guardian, 23 November 2008

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