Awards are stupid. We all know it. The idea that it is quantifiable that one book is better than another, that one performance is greater than another, is ridiculous.
That said, I really like them. I follow awards assiduously. I root for people I like (Philip Roth) and against people I don’t (Hilary Swank). It’s fun. I’ve even won a couple small awards myself, and been really happy when I did.
So now, long past the point when it would have been even mildly relevant, I’m going to make a case that someone should have won an award. I fully realize that, in doing so, I’m contradicting myself. Graham Greene said it was an artist’s responsibility to contradict themselves, to see things from all sides. But that’s kind of a highfalutin’ sentiment in this case. Because all I really want to do here is talk about Mickey Rourke.
First, let me state the obvious – Sean Penn was brilliant in Milk. He is a superb actor and absolutely deserving of the award. But there is something that Mickey Rourke accomplished in The Wrestler that, to me, gets to the very heart of what acting can be. Indeed, his work in that film reconfirms my idea that being an actor is one of the most noble things you can do with your life.
One of the pleasures of watching gifted actors is not that different from the pleasure of watching an acrobat or a magician. Let’s call this the “How did they do that?” factor. Sean Penn had that in spades in Milk. Physically, he could hardly look less like Harvey Milk. And in person, or at least his public persona, he could hardly be less like Harvey Milk. Sean Penn has always come off as a very angry, very messy, very (let’s call it what it is!) straight guy.
But you never really think about that while watching Milk. Penn is so light on his feet, so irrepressible. I smiled every time he was on screen. And, fine actor that he is, he hit every emotional moment in the film squarely and honestly. It was a pleasure to watch him act.
But I think what Mickey Rourke accomplished in The Wrestler was something altogether different.
When I think of Rourke’s performance, the first thing I think about is his body. Not the juiced up cartoon physique that he captured so well, but that body’s pain. Mickey Rourke’s performance in The Wrestler was incredibly physical. I always knew where he hurt, though I don’t remember a single word of dialogue about it. You would see it when he gingerly held his right elbow, achingly stretched his lower back, or clutched at his chest.
Rourke delivered his big moments beautifully, especially his obvious-Oscarbait “I’m just a broken down piece of meat” speech. But what I remember is much smaller: the gentleness with which he removed his hearing aid before going to sleep; the endearingly silly dance he did for Marisa Tomei in an empty New Jersey bar; the way he hugged and encouraged the young wrestlers who obviously idolized him.
Put simply, there was no distance between Mickey Rourke and his character, Randy the Ram. I had a wonderful time watching Sean Penn play Harvey Milk. But in The Wrestler, I just saw Randy the Ram.
As for my pretentious statement above, about acting being one of the most noble things you can do with your life…well, I stand by it. And I’ll tell you why.
Randy the Ram is not a particularly admirable guy. While he’s very likable, his life is a disaster. He threw everything away, including his daughter (the overwrought Evan Rachel Wood), in the pursuit of an entirely ephemeral glory. And given the chance at redemption, he fucks that up too (literally – he sleeps through a reconciliation with his daughter because he spent the previous evening snorting coke and screwing a groupie in a bathroom).
But Randy the Ram is a thing of beauty. Selfish and vain, yet generous and kind, he is a mass of contradiction. As are we all. By showing his humanity without sentimentalizing him, Mickey Rourke did me a great service. He made my world larger. This is a man I would have thought laughable before I saw this film. And now, well, I kind of love him.
I think that’s what great actors do. They show us the world - truthfully, passionately, with unflinching honesty. And when they do, they make the world larger. That’s a pretty amazing thing to do.
So thank you, Mickey Rourke, for making my world larger. And for that reason, if I had a vote on Oscar night, it would have been for you.