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It’s best not to hazard a guess as to whether Mickey Rourke will pick up a best actor Oscar for The Wrestler this Sunday night; the odds have him losing to Sean Penn, but it wouldn’t be the first time this sly, mercurial, irreplaceable actor has overturned everyone’s expectations. As Rourke awaits his big moment (though, in fact, if the portrait of him that’s emerged in recent interviews is accurate, he may not give a shit about the outcome—he’s just enjoying the ride), I want to revisit the role in which many of us first noticed him and in which I remember him best.
I don’t propose to provide a full survey of Rourke’s career: Sheila O’Malley has done that, definitively and beautifully, in this chronicle of her long-standing love affair with his work. But for those who haven’t had the chance to confirm Rourke’s talent via Netflix lately, let me just state that your fond memories of Diner are not wrong. In the 27 years since its release, I’d come to assume that the movie couldn’t justify the level of affection I had for it. Diner had congealed in my mind into a kind of feature-length Happy Days, a cutesy time capsule of ‘50s nostalgia. Whenever I’d think about Diner (or hear any of the songs from its glorious soundtrack, especially the novelty hit “Ain’t Got No Home“), I’d feel an almost guilty glow of well-being that somehow never translated into the desire to see it again: I didn’t want to be let down, to discover it was never as good as I’d thought.
Something similar seems to have happened with our cultural memory of Mickey Rourke. When he got so embarrassing in the early ‘90s—if I had to date it precisely, I’d say 1991, the year of Desperate Hours and the deeply unfortunate Wild Orchid—it was as if we had to forget why we once loved him so much, to downgrade his image retroactively in our minds. Adrian Lyne, the director of 9½ weeks, once said that “if Mickey had died after Angel Heart, he would have been remembered as James Dean or Marlon Brando”: a gifted young man too beautiful to live. Instead he aged, drank, took bad roles, made stupid decisions, and eventually disappeared from sight. If you’ve picked up a periodical or clicked on a Web site in the last few months, you know about Rourke’s brief, doomed career in boxing, his decade or more on the skids, and his unlikely resurrection in The Wrestler. But the arc of his comeback is hard to appreciate unless you peel back the layers of ‘90s cheese and look again at what Rourke was in the ‘80s: the freshest, most vivid, most exciting actor around.
So, then: Diner (1982), Barry Levinson’s first and best movie, a wistful comedy about a bunch of young men in Baltimore in the winter of 1959. Though the ensemble acting is perfection (has Daniel Stern ever been so well cast? Ellen Barkin certainly hasn’t), it’s Rourke’s movie before he even appears on-screen: In the opening shot, Modell (Paul Reiser) enters a crowded party, looking for Rourke’s character, Bobby “Boogie” Sheftell. “Have you seen Boogie?” he asks as the camera tracks him through the jitterbugging crowd. “Have you seen Boogie?” And then, in the distance, we see Boogie—just standing around like everybody else, but clearly the guy to know at the party. As O’Malley cannily points out, Rourke always plays that guy, the one to know: “We all know guys like that, guys who are not famous, but who have a glitter to them, something ‘extra.’ ”
That “something extra” is apparent in everything Rourke does in Diner: the loving sadness in his eyes as he watches his developmentally arrested buddies bullshit around the diner table, or the strange, almost feral way he suddenly pours half a dispenser’s worth of sugar into his mouth as he sits at the diner counter, chasing it with a swig of Coke. By way of illustrating what made the young Rourke such a marvel to watch, it’s worth doing a close reading of one of Diner’s raunchiest and yet tenderest moments, known among Diner-heads (oh, they’re out there) as the “pecker in the popcorn” scene.
The setup: Boogie has made a bet with his pals that he can get local beauty Carol Heathrow to “go for his pecker” on the first date. Unbeknownst to the guys, Boogie has a lot riding on this bet: He owes his bookie $2,000, and things have started to get ugly. So he stacks the deck against Carol: As they sit together in a Sandra Dee movie, he maneuvers his manhood through the bottom flap of the popcorn box on his lap, so that she unwittingly touches it while reaching in.
Like most of the rest of Diner, the “pecker in the popcorn” scene is a single, long-form, punch-line-free joke, and it’s irresistibly funny. But the moment I want to show you comes just after (beginning around the 3:30 mark in this clip), when a grossed-out Carol flees to the ladies’ room and Boogie follows her. He proceeds to win back her trust with a preposterous (and physiologically impossible) lie about how the pecker got in the box. The multiple and conflicting motivations at work are a Thanksgiving feast for any actor: Boogie must win Carol’s affections back by faking boyish vulnerability. But we, the audience, know that Boogie truly is vulnerable; he needs that $2,000, not to mention the esteem of his friends, and he’s using every tool in his toolbox—the gentle, self-deprecating smile, the feigned embarrassment at his disingenuous “confession”—to maneuver Carol back into the movie theater and eventually to bed. He’s a ruthless manipulator—and yet we still like Boogie so much that we pray he’ll pull it off.
That’s the thing with Rourke: He always plays the counter-emotion beneath the emotion, the anti-intuitive expression or gesture. (In his lazy midcareer period, this came to look like a reflexive tic—instead of seeming to hold a part of himself in mysterious reserve, Rourke simply seemed to be not trying.) But there were bad movies in which Rourke still managed to be great: 9½ Weeks is muddled and witless, nowhere near as sexy as it thinks it is. But behold the striptease scene, in which Kim Basinger strips to a Randy Newman song as Mickey watches in a bathrobe, eating popcorn and smoking a cigarette. It’s such a stylized ‘80s scene—the silhouetted blonde in a doorway, the white soul on the soundtrack—that it borders on being an MTV music video. But Rourke undermines the slick voyeurism by laughing in pure delight at his lover’s performance. A few years later, in soft-core-porn trash like the unwatchable Wild Orchid,Rourke would caress his soon-to-be-wife Carré Otis with a grimacing solemnity meant to be “erotic.” In 9½ Weeks, he sketches a whole relationship—a sick one, yes, but affectionate too—with a laugh.
Pauline Kael wrote a legendary review of Diner—legendary because when it appeared in TheNew Yorker, the studio was contemplating shelving the movie, and Kael’s rave was rumored to have helped secure the film’s release. In it, she singles out Rourke for praise that, in retrospect, breaks your heart: “The sleaziest and most charismatic figure of the group is Boogie, played by Mickey Rourke. … With luck, Rourke could become a major actor: he has an edge and magnetism, and a sweet, pure smile that surprises you. He seems to be acting to you, and to no one else.” Of course, Mickey Rourke never had that kind of luck, or maybe he had it and threw it away. But he’s finally becoming the actor those early appearances promised, and his smile still goes right through you.