Saturday, July 11, 2009

For the Love of Mickey Rourke

To love Mickey Rourke, you must forget Mickey Rourke. That's the only way to go about it without exposing yourself to some pretty extreme cognitive dissonance. Forget the many horrible movies: Double Team with Jean Claude Van Damme, Fall Time with Stephen Baldwin, Exit in Red, Out in Fifty, Point Blank, the ready-for-Cinemax soft-porn combo Wild Orchid and Another 9 & 1/2 Weeks. Forget the diva behavior on set, the surgery, and the arrest for spousal abuse. And forget every interview he's ever done.

Fix in your mind instead three movies: Rumble Fish, Angel Heart, and The Wrestler. When I first saw Rumble Fish on late-night TV back in the early 90s, I thought Mickey was about the coolest dude I'd ever come across: the tousled hair, soft voice, confident swagger, and thousand-yard stare pretty much did it for me. And beneath those rugged good looks was some serious darkness into which I couldn't help but be pulled. Angel Heart, which I saw not long afterward, sealed the deal. What's not to love about that movie? You've got a plot that is, in Roger Ebert's words, "Raymond Chandler meets The Exorcist", a moody, jazz-inflected score by Trevor Jones, tough-guy dialogue, the rainy streets of New Orleans, and Mickey Rourke and Robert De Niro firing on all cylinders. Mickey's gradual implosion over the course of the film didn't feel like acting...probably because it wasn't.

As for The Wrestler, there's not much I can say that hasn't already been said. To call it a career resurrection would not be an overstatement. While it's true that Rourke managed to deliver some fine cameos even in the midst of his crap years, I never allowed myself to dream that he'd get a starring role again--let alone nail it in the way that he did. There are many high points in the film, but it's the boardwalk scene that secures his place as one of the greats.

So...we're back on track, but it's been an abusive relationship--this thing between Mickey and me. He kept breaking my heart and I just kept coming back, hoping like a battered housewife that the halcyon days of our courtship could somehow be recaptured. Perhaps, under all that muscle and scar tissue, the quietly brooding persona that had so attracted me in Diner, Body Heat, and The Pope of Greenwich Village still slumbered, awaiting the nudges of a perceptive director to be roused once again.

What has emerged instead is an entirely different and better actor: a large shambling wreck of a man who is able to transmit from his deep well of misery straight to celluloid. His metamorphosis (self-induced) from beauty to beast only means that his outsides now reflect his insides. To the viewer, it feels a little like voyeurism to have such direct access to someone else's pain, but I can't tear my eyes away.

Having carried the torch for this guy for fifteen years, I felt vindicated when the previously unthinkable happened: Mickey got nominated for an Oscar. Suddenly the rest of the world was tuned in to my frequency, and the looks of disbelief I used to get when I said "Mickey Rourke is one of my favorite actors" evaporated, replaced by vigorous nods of assent. A groundswell began to build. TV commentators started openly predicting that the Mick would walk away with the golden statue. I allowed myself to hope.

On Oscar night, I stood right next to the TV so I could hear it above the gossipy roar of my friends ("Look at Kate Winslet's dress!" "John Mayer and Jennifer Aniston are together??"), praying more fervently than I had at any point since I was a teenager trying to get laid. I needed to know if the outcast could be redeemed--if Lucifer could repent and be welcomed back to heaven.

The moment was upon us.

"And the Oscar goes to..."

"..."

"..."

"Sean Penn."

Without a word, I walked out the door, down the stairs, across the complex to the swimming pool, and sat under the night sky for ten minutes. I said, softly, "I'm sorry, Mickey."

This story became legendary: Harper's oddball husband who boycotted Sean Penn's acceptance speech with the gravitas of Martin Luther King at Selma. All for greasy old Mickey Rourke. What can I say? We don't always choose the things we hold dear, and they don't always make sense to others. I mean, I care about world suffering, I really do. But at that particular moment in time I felt bad for one specific person who, despite--or perhaps because of--some very self-destructive tendencies had touched my heart and the hearts of countless others, and should have been acknowledged for that.

Oh well. We'll always have Rumble Fish.

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