Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Wrestler


{{In the clearing stands a boxer, and a fighter by his trade
And he carries the reminders of every glove that laid him down or cut him
Til he cried out in his anger and his shame
I am leaving, I am leaving, but the fighter still remains.}}

When I first heard those lyrics, on vinyl fresh out of the sleeve in 1968, I was moved to tears. And I wasn’t sure why. The only sport I hate worse than boxing is professional wrestling, so it didn’t really have much to do with a battered pugilist. And I was young, still full of piss and vinegar, barely scarred by the battles of life. But I had recently suffered a severe emotional upset, so bad that I had dropped out of college and gone on the road with no idea of what I was going to do next. I had learned that our lives do not always go where we had intended them to go, that you can be derailed in unexpected ways. My life had changed, and though I now know it was for the better, at the time I was very much up in the air. And I had, for the first time, met many of the ragged people Paul Simon sings about. Hell, I was one of them, in the sense that I was a dirty hippie and hitchhiker, and I knew drug addicts, welfare people, former (and future) mental patients, and derelicts. It was all very different from my small-town Texas middle class upbringing, and totally alien from my year and a half at Michigan State. I could see this scarred, angry, frightened man, beaten down and yet with a remnant of pride, and I cried.

We went to see this movie reluctantly, moved only by the unanimous praise for Mickey Rourke’s performance. We remembered that he used to be pretty damn good, and then had seemingly pissed it all away with erratic behavior. But … wrestling? The sport of choice for life metaphors is boxing, the “sweet science.” There have been hundreds of movies about boxers. I’m sure you can name a dozen without breaking a sweat. Many of them are quite good, though you have to be able to stomach the brutality of the sport itself. But I can only think of a very few wrestling movies. Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment has some wrestling in it, and so do The World According to Garp and Topkapi. The only serious movies I can find at the IMDb (as opposed to Wrestlemania compilations) that were about wrestling are All the Marbles (which idiotically pretended that it was an actual competition, that it mattered who won) and Nacho Libre, about Mexican wrestling, which sucked.

I don’t know how pro wrestling evolved into the obviously phony spectacle it is, but I’ve always thought it was kind of sad. Wrestling at the high school, college, and Olympic level is a legitimate sport, and much less brutal than boxing. But if you’re good at it and want to go pro, the only way is to put on a mask, strut around and bellow like an asshole. That these guys (and girls) are athletes is beyond dispute. If you don’t think so, try getting in the ring and pulling off some of the acrobatic stunts they do … without breaking your fool neck. These performers have to be strong, agile, quick, and have a good sense of timing, or … gasp! … somebody could get hurt! Hurt is relative, of course. If you can’t soak up a good deal of pain, you don’t want to get into this business. Though punches are always pulled, and body slams are ridiculously phony, some of this stuff is sure to be painful.

Speaking of pain … I knew about things like cage matches, “ultimate fighting,” and other perversions for the sick among us, but I had not realized just how nauseatingly brutal the slimy “extreme” end of wrestling has become. In “hardcore” wrestling, the object is blood, blood, and more blood, and it’s impossible to fake it. We see this in all its horror, and it’s hard to watch. I knew about the trick of hiding a little piece of razorblade … not to cut your opponent, but yourself! We see Randy “The Ram” (birth name, Robin, to his chagrin) cutting his forehead to make the blood flow, fairly harmlessly. This has been done for decades. But we also see a match where broken glass, thumbtacks, barbed wire, and a staple gun are used, and the ring looks like a slaughterhouse then the match is over, and the performers look like they’ve been in a plane crash. Sickening! Unimaginable! And all true! Who are the sub-humans who watch this stuff? They should be forced to wear a sign, “HARDCORE WRESTLING FAN,” so human beings can cross the street to avoid them.

This movie is much like Raging Bull, which usually ends up in critics’ Top Ten of All Time lists. Raging Bull is a masterpiece, and The Wrestler is not, but what they have in common is that I can appreciate the artistry … and yet never, ever want to see either of them again. I don’t need to see the story of that incredible anthropoid, Jake LaMotta, again. Once was ordeal enough. And though The Ram is a much nicer guy—think Rocky Balboa, not Mike Tyson—the spectacle of his career is painful to watch. The story line here is pretty predictable. Randy was a big star, fought in Madison Square Garden, but it’s 20 years later and he’s eking out a living in much more humble venues now. Can’t pay the rent on his pitiful little trailer, works as a stockboy, frequents a strip bar where Marisa Tomei works as the lap dancer with the heart of gold. He has a heart attack, and tries to reconcile with his daughter, hopes to get serious with the stripper, looks for more hours at the supermarket. But he drinks too much, has a temper, and can’t deal with frustration, so he goes back into the ring. What did you expect?

This kind of story works only if the performances are noteworthy, and if there is good, telling detail in the script, and both of these more than measure up. The best parts happen backstage, before and after the performance, when the wrestlers discuss what moves they’re going to make. It’s evident that, far from having ridiculous blood feuds over childish insults—the sort of stuff the fans eat up—these guys are all good friends and have a lot of respect for each other. I don’t know if this is the case, but it rings true to me. They are performers, and they know it, and they like it. In fact, most of these dudes are actual wrestlers (where else would they get enough actors who are that bulked up?), and they all acquit themselves very well in the acting department. Not surprising. And there are little bits of stuff for The Ram that make him interesting. He’s really just a working dude, he’s rather meek in his interactions with most people. He’s assigned to work behind the deli counter, facing the public, which he dreads … but he treats it as just another performance, and he turns out to be good at it, a big surprise to me.

2008 OSCAR WATCH: Our continuing quest to see most of the nominated movies and performances before Oscar time. First, Marisa Tomei is good, and could win. But we haven’t seen three of the more interesting performances yet. Then, there’s Mickey …

Here’s another similarity to Raging Bull. DeNiro was famous for gaining a lot of weight to play LaMotta in his declining years. Well, it’s nothing to what Mickey Rourke did, and we’re only now realizing it. He’s spent the last twenty years or so preparing for this role. We all thought it was mere dissipation, craziness, a return to the boxing ring (where he had been pretty good as a youth) and bad career decisions. No! He was making sure his face would be like a Halloween mask. Talk about “carries the reminders of every glove that laid him down.” This face is a road map to hell. And only years of steroid abuse could have given him the right body to play this part. It is a towering performance, no question … but so far, I’m sticking with Sean Penn. I liked Harvey Milk. Is that what I should base my (non-existent) vote on, whether or not I like the character? Probably not. So sue me.