by Rob Gonsalves
He was arrested for kicking your ass in the future.
Welcome to the Hollywood Bitchslap Hall of Fame. This is the place where we, the critics of this site, induct a person — be they actor, actress, director or other — into our own Hall of Fame for their outstanding contribution to the cinema that we know and love. The criteria are simple: we are not bound by volume or era, so anyone from the 1920s to the present day, anyone with a career of 80 films or 8 films can be inducted. All we ask is one thing: that they have provided us, who are film lovers above all else, another reason to keep going to the cinema week after week.
This month's inductee: Mickey Rourke.
Excuse me: Mickey Fuckin' Rourke.
Philip Andre Rourke, Jr. was born 51 years ago. He has been in motion pictures for 28 of those years. His beginnings were not promising. Blink-and-you-miss-'em roles in 1941, Fade to Black, Heaven's Gate. Then the role that got him noticed: Teddy Lewis in Body Heat.
Jack Sommersby: I took in the 25th-anniversary DVD of Body Heat and Rourke's dynamic work as Teddy the arsonist blows William Hurt right off the screen. (In instructing Hurt's lawyer on how to do a torch job: "No, that's not all there is to it -- you gotta get in, you gotta get out, you gotta not get caught.")
Watch the scene now.
Well, that's obviously a young and hungry actor who came to play. Lawrence Kasdan must've seen something in Rourke, something that justified putting him up against William Hurt, and the result is that Hurt — probably as impressed as anyone by this kid — just sort of lets Rourke have the scene.
After that, things started to happen. Rourke was tapped to play one of the arrested-development guys in Barry Levinson's autobiographical Diner. Granted, when you're sharing the screen with the likes of Steve Guttenberg and Paul Reiser, it would take a concentrated effort of incompetence not to shine. But Rourke took it upon himself to create a complex character and turn dick-in-a-box slapstick to gold.
Jack Sommersby: Let's also think back to Diner in that marvelous scene where his Boogie successfully lies Carol Heathrow into believing that his penis accidentally poked through the bottom of the popcorn box. I don't think any other actor could have brought that off nearly as well. And how about his heartrending display of vulnerability when that bookie's henchman slaps him around while he's flinching like an 8-year-old? He more than deserved his two Best Supporting Actor awards from the National Society of Film Critics and Boston Society of Film Critics that year.
Slyder: Diner ruled because of Rourke, IMO. The guy just mops the whole damn floor with everyone else. The popcorn scene was just freaking hilarious. His attitude, his smug smile, the coolness in him, those are the reasons why I liked Rourke back in the day; he was the fucking man!
There followed a role in Francis Coppola's Rumble Fish, which baffled many at the time but has since become something of a cult flick. Rourke's next step? A little ditty more memorable for its acting teamwork than for its Mean Streets-lite plot:
Jack Sommersby: Oh, and in one of my favorite opening shots of all-time, in The Pope of Greenwich Village, a shadow of Rourke shaving with an electric razor while swinging in rhythm to Frank Sinatra's Summer Wind. Totally-A-Fucking-Cool. Also, Rourke remarked to an interviewer that something must be wrong in Hollywood when his co-star Eric Roberts is not considered a super-star. Many reviewers at the time thought Roberts' extroverted performance -- which is very, very uncouth in places, I'll readily admit -- wrecked Pope, but Rourke (along with the late, great critic Pauline Kael) certainly didn't think so. Myself, I think their Punch-and-Judy rhythm was quite incorrigible and very funny.
Christ, Sommersby should probably have the byline on this instead of me. Hey, the dude digs Rourke. So do I. So do you, probably, if you've read this far.
In 1985, Rourke reunited with Michael Cimino (Heaven's Gate) for Year of the Dragon, which is some kind of crackpot classic. Rourke is obscenely likable despite the racist fulminations of his Vietnam-vet character Stanley White, who stampedes though Chinatown trying to bust drug lord John Lone. He goes all the way into loutish machismo, but then when it's time to show his vulnerable side at a funeral, he just crumples. It's a bit out of whack because, as written, we haven't seen much love between Stanley and the deceased, but Rourke manages to make it look like the worst thing that could ever happen to Stanley.
Jack Sommersby: Maybe it's this vulnerability that made his work in the '80s stand out and affect us so much more than his work in the '90s. Think back to his devastating cry of horror in Angel Heart upon finding out his true identity; to his tearful, soulful confession of guilt to Bob Hoskins's priest while standing on a pulpit in A Prayer For the Dying; to his temporary show of hurt to the bartender in Barfly who tells him his new girlfriend Wanda left with Eddie for the fifth of bourbon he had on him (you think his Henry Chinaski is going to open his soul up to the bartender, only for him to order a scotch-and-water instead); to [the] funeral scene in Year of the Dragon; and to his taking care of cousin Eric Roberts who's had his thumb cut off by a gangster's henchman in The Pope of Greenwich Village.
Yeah, Rourke owned the '80s for a while there. Without actually busting out and becoming an A-list blockbuster actor — something he wouldn't have wanted in any case — he turned in one iconic performance after another; as Sommersby says, 1987 was his "banner year," what with Angel Heart, Barfly, A Prayer for the Dying ...
... and then the downfall. He burned too many bridges, called too many powerful people assholes, and appeared in too much crap. He became a joke, a punchline. Joe Queenan wrote the now-legendary Movieline piece "Mickey Rourke for a Day." Rourke went into boxing. He didn't do too badly, but he got his face banged up badly enough that collagen injections to stabilize his ruined cheekbones ended up making him look like Johnny Handsome in reverse.
In the meantime, a mainstream version of Rourke had risen to the heights Rourke was never interested in: Bruce Willis, whose smirk owes a lot to Rourke's macho insouciance. (Rourke turned down the Butch role in Pulp Fiction that eventually went to Bruno.) Willis was a relative professional who seldom made waves, and a lot of the action and dramatic parts that might've been Rourke's turned into the rungs on Willis' ladder to success.
Rourke never really stopped acting, though. 1993 is the only year for which Rourke doesn't have a movie listed in his filmography since his 1979 debut. That's still an average of at least one movie a year for almost 30 years now. The problem wasn't finding work — it was the quality of the roles he was being offered.
Gradually, things began to turn around. Old friends like Coppola (The Rainmaker) and new acolytes like Steve Buscemi (Animal Factory), Sean Penn (The Pledge) and Vincent Gallo (Buffalo 66) started giving him small but juicy roles again. I invite you to watch Rourke's brief powerhouse turn in The Pledge here. It's hair-raising in its sudden, raw grief. And once again, as in Body Heat, Rourke is up there with a major presence, and he dominates so thoroughly and yet so sincerely that Jack Nicholson seems to say, "I'm just gonna kick back over here. Watch this guy, he came to play."
MP Bartley: I love the fact that Rourke has done it absolutely his own way. You mention the smirk that has a little Willis to it, and he absolutely could have been John McClane — or Martin Riggs or an opponent for Rocky for that matter. But he didn't, he went off to be a boxer and when he came back, did it again on his own absolute terms. Witness his weird cross dressing turn in Animal Factory that he somehow avoids making a complete freak and turns into someone real and vulnerable instead. I believe that his most personal turn is Once Upon a Time in Mexico. Here's a guy, tired, sick of his old life, filled full of regret and looking for escape or at least a chance of redemption with one last glorious act. And he carries a dog around with him the whole time.
Heh, yeah, the dog. Doing research for this piece, I read more than a few recent interviews with Rourke. Your basic Mickey Rourke Interview Template 2004-Present goes like this:
(1) I fucked up
(2) I'm really trying not to fuck up again
(3) I'm just happy to be working, man
(4) I love my Chihuahuas.
Which brings us to recent years. It's ironic that Rourke's biggest success in years — decades — was for a role in which he was rendered nearly unrecognizable.
MP Bartley: There's also a reason that Rourke is the absolute stand-out in Sin City — Rourke is the only actor (maybe Willis) that you can imagine skulking around lurid and trashy noir flicks from the '40s. Everyone else comes off as like a kid playing dress up (hello Clive Owen and Brittany Murphy), and while that's not necessarily a criticism for something like Sin City, Rourke takes Marv, and runs with him. Whether it be his "I don't know about you, but I'm having a ball" grin as he runs a lowlife's face across the road from a car, his casual threatening of Rutger Hauer which you know carries all sorts of pain with it or his child-like, almost touching reprimand of himself to take his medicine, Rourke takes Marv, removes him from the comic book stylings and cartoony violence and makes him breathe.
Marc Kandel: Rourke's stuff of late is few and far between to single out (c'mon, Domino?) but he's a dependable, striking performer and I appreciate that out of all the various and sundry characters in Sin City — his for me is the most real, the most human despite being perhaps the most cartoonish of the bunch in makeup and physical feats (where he takes it away from Nick Stahl's Yellow Bastard). He's unafraid to serve the script as outlandish as it gets (check out the extended version where he tiptoes through his mother's apartment — it's hilarious and spot on from the movements implied in the graphic novel and 100% Marv), but brings a hesitance and confusion to Marv essential to the character that I can't imagine many other performers being able to pull off while steamrolling in hardcore badass mode.
So where does Rourke go from here? He was amusing in Domino, and he might've made an interesting Stuntman Mike in Tarantino's Death Proof, though, for mysterious reasons, that didn't work out. Will he throw it all away again, or will he stay hungry and work his way back to the Oscar that has always eluded him? Time will tell.
In the meantime, Mr. Mickey Rourke — even though you probably wouldn't give a fuck what we think of you, and we love you for that — for giving your all on multiple occasions and doing it all your way, we salute you. Motherfucker.
Welcome to the fuckin' HBS/EFC Hall of Fame.
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originally posted: 12/08/07 22:39:35
last updated: 01/18/09 12:15:30