Hollywood’s Golden Age leading men tended to be disproportionately Irish-American, such as Jimmy Cagney, Spencer Tracy, and John Wayne. They were amiable tough guys from a concussion-centric culture who could throw -- and take -- a punch.
For a half decade after his stunning cameo as a professional arsonist in 1981’s “Body Heat,” Rourke looked to be their worthiest successor. The languid and cocky Rourke was the most magnetic star to emerge in the 1980s. The movie industry offered him the best and biggest parts—such as Eddie Murphy’s eventual role in “Beverly Hills Cop,” Tom Cruise’s in “Rain Man,” Kevin Costner’s in “The Untouchables,” and John Travolta’s in “Pulp Fiction”—all of which he rejected.
At first, Rourke’s determination to play sleazeballs rather than likable heroes was admired as a brave, even brilliant, artistic strategy. He was praised for his Method acting dedication that required him to stop bathing to play a Charles Bukowski-like drunken poet in 1987’s “Barfly.”
But when he didn’t resume washing his hair after shooting wrapped, suspicion grew that Rourke, who had racked up a 20-7 record as an amateur boxer in his teens, wasn’t quite right in the head. He proved it by becoming a professional boxer in the 1990s, winning six of eight bouts before his neurologist convinced him that he soon wouldn’t be able to count his winnings. His face needed at least four operations to repair the damage, including taking cartilage from behind his ear to rebuild his nose. (Combined with the muscle-building drugs he used to prepare for this new role— “When I’m a wrestler, I behave like a wrestler”—he looks only quasi-human in his comeback.)
In most artistic endeavors, a bit of madness is accepted, even encouraged. The stars of big budget movies, however, have to be approved by the firms that provide “business interruption” insurance. When producers are spending up to a million dollars per day, their insurance companies have to be sure that the main man will show up.
Nor was Rourke terribly suited for character roles, since he just might pull himself together long enough to show up the film’s stars as lightweights. Still, he kept working in dozens of trashy movies, while spending countless hours off-set with his therapist and priest, with impressive results.
February 19, 2009
Here's an excerpt from my review of "The Wrestler" in The American Conservative: