A couple of years ago, I met with a respected and successful producer who believed that one day, the motion picture industry would finally make a great pro-wrestling movie … and that I was the guy to write it. I had written several books— fiction, nonfiction, and children’s —over the course of my 20-plus years as a pro wrestler, which apparently made me a credible candidate for this type of project. But I didn’t have high hopes for it. The wrestling business has been the source of more than one critically acclaimed documentary—I was one of the subjects of Barry Blaustein’s Beyond the Mat—but I worried that my vocation was not respected enough to merit a thoughtful fictional screen representation. The chances of seeing a great pro-wrestling movie seemed right up there with the likelihood of a Mickey Rourke career renaissance.
You can see why I was pessimistic about Darren Aronofsky’s wrestling project. I received an inquiry early on about serving as a consultant but cited the need to “spend time with my family” as a reason to refrain. If I felt like having my name attached to a failure, I figured, I’d write another novel. Casting Rourke in the lead seemed like a mistake. Sure, he had been in some good films a few election cycles ago, and I’ll admit to stealing his popcorn-box trick from Diner back in ‘82. But he seemed unlikely to deliver the portrait of a wrestler I wanted.
And so I attended a recent New York screening with a dab of cynicism. Sure, I’d heard the film had been a hit at the Venice Film Festival, that there were shades of Beyond the Mat, that Mickey Rourke gave a great performance. I even heard that I was one of his influences in preparing for the role. But what did Hollywood know about my business, anyway? Who had they ever beaten? (As we say in the biz.)
I was hooked within a minute. Within five, I had completely forgotten I was looking at Mickey Rourke. That guy on the screen simply was Randy “the Ram” Robinson, an ‘80s mat icon on a two-decade-long losing streak in the game of life, searching for a way, any way, to fan the dying embers of his career. Rourke somehow makes the pathetic seem heroic and imbues in this sad, broken man a sense of quiet dignity and deep-down decency that makes the prospect of not rooting for him—in both his life and the ring—impossible.
I found great authenticity in so many aspects of Randy’s battered psyche. His constant need for acceptance—from his estranged daughter; from his possible love interest, a stripper played by Marisa Tomei (who is wonderful, if a bit shocking for any guy who ever had a crush on her in My Cousin Vinny); from a random collection of customers at the deli counter where he works; from his dwindling number of nostalgic wrestling fans—is a theme that many a wrestler will grudgingly admit to connecting with. The scene depicting a poorly attended “Legends Convention” where Randy, a man so proud of his past, is forced not only to accept his present but to take a glimpse at the future, will strike an uncomfortable yet legitimate chord with every wrestling star whose personal appearances have ever been met with a symphony of silence.
I also loved the wrestling scenes. Rourke deserves great credit not only for whipping himself into incredible shape—packing 30 pounds of muscle on for the role—but for doing his wrestling homework. Learning the trade at age 52 could not have been easy, but Rourke’s in-ring work is good enough to pass this wrestler’s sniff test. No one will ever confuse Randy’s clothesline with Stan Hansen’s, and the scenes surely benefited from careful editing, but much of what Randy did—his flying “Ram Jam”; a Japanese enzugiri kick—actually looks pretty good. Importantly, it doesn’t look any better than it should. His first in-ring scene, with a starry-eyed rookie thrilled just to be in the same arena with a former mat legend, looks realistically rudimentary. I could have done without the self-induced bloodletting, especially because it seemed so slow and deliberate, like a magician performing a card trick in slow motion. While such acts are a small but accepted part of the business, you wouldn’t often see them at a sparsely attended event like this.
And everyone involved—Rourke, Aronofsky, independent wrestler Necro Butcher, stunt coordinator Douglas Crosby—deserves credit for creating a memorable midmovie bloodbath, a fight involving broken glass, barbed wire, a staple gun, and other implements. Difficult to watch but impossible to forget, the scene shows not only how far Randy has fallen but what lengths he’s willing to go to in order to get back in the game. Fights like this do exist, but stars of Randy’s magnitude, no matter how faded, don’t often venture into matches this extreme.
Aronofsky also achieves an authentic atmosphere in the variety of wrestling venues he showcases. His decision to cast working independent wrestlers and to film at real independent wrestling shows was wise and gives the film a gritty documentary feel. The Wrestler also does a wonderful job depicting the backstage camaraderie among Randy’s fellow wrestlers, the eclectic blend of muscle heads, dreamers, athletes, and artists who serve as an unlikely support system for Rourke’s character.
I have been thinking a lot about The Wrestler since that New York screening. Feeling a little guilty. You see, I’m not sure if I should feel so good about a movie that doesn’t seem to show my world in a flattering light. The wrestling business as a whole has always reminded me of Dorothy Gale’s postgame analysis of her time in Oz: “Some of it was horrible, but most of it was beautiful.” We don’t get to see much of that beautiful stuff in Aronfsky’s film (although we do see shades of it in the opening montage of the Ram’s glory days). Still, I didn’t find The Wrestler to be a downer at all. Sobering at times, but not at all depressing. Despite all the suffering—both physical and emotional—that Rourke’s character endures, the movie is sprinkled with moments of genuine warmth and great humor. Indeed, I dare any hardened, grizzled moviegoer not to laugh out loud at Rourke’s delicious deli counter dialogue.
I may be in the minority here, but (SPOILER ALERT!) I also felt a certain amount of hope at the movie’s end. In the final scene, Randy—who over the course of the film has suffered a heart attack and been told by his doctors to stop wrestling—is back in the ring for a match with an old rival, the Ayatollah. The aging adversaries do their best to overcome the tag team of Father Time and Mother Nature and put on a decent match. By the end of the bout, Randy is clutching his chest and panting for breath. As he leaps from the ropes onto his opponent, the film cuts to black, the credits roll, and we hear Bruce Springsteen’s haunting title tune. Still, I couldn’t help but feel that things were going to work out for ol’ Randy. Then again, I thought Alan Ladd was just really tired at the end of Shane.
Now for the nitpicking. The steroid transaction seemed either a little too convenient (All those substances at once? In the locker room?) or like an anabolic homage to Travis Bickel’s purchase of enough weaponry to quell a Third World uprising in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. And I wish there had been some visible difference in Randy’s physique after he underwent heart surgery and gave up ‘roids—even if just to illustrate the effectiveness and necessity of those substances in “the Ram’s” life.
There was one other minor note of disappointment for me: I never did detect any of myself in the movie. Believe me, I tried. Hey, if you are going to be an influence on a movie, it might as well be a great one like The Wrestler. Who knows, maybe I inspired Randy’s ratty assortment of faded flannels.And a few people have suggested that I inspired that grisly wrestling scene. But I can claim with a clear conscience that I never used a staple gun on an opponent. Thumbtacks, yes; barbed wire, definitely; but never a staple gun. Maybe one day I will find out I did play some kind of role in the development of one of the great characters in modern movie history. I hope so. Because I kind of feel like I owe Mickey Rourke—you know, for that popcorn trick back in ‘82.
Update, Jan. 13, 2009: I saw the film again after filing this piece and realized that the locker-room steroid transaction I had criticized as unrealistic actually took place in the locker room of a hardcore weightlifting gym, not the locker room of a wrestling match. I really don’t know whether such a deal would be likely or not, and I shouldn’t have flagged it as a weak spot in The Wrestler.