Originally shown June 3, 2009
There’s no sport in the country – except possibly professional football, where a 20-year-old superstar can be washed up by 30 and unable to walk straight by 40 – that punishes the body like professional wrestling does. At least football players have pads to protect them and play on Sunday; wrestlers have almost no protection and they have to perform several nights a week. Once the damage is done, they’re tossed aside, and usually penniless to boot, because not everyone gets into movies like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson did. Broke and broken-down before middle age is even done, some don’t know how to survive; the average age of death for the real-life subjects of the Dead Wrestler of the Week column is 45.
In short, I don’t know if you can call professional wrestling an art, but if it is, then it is absolutely certain that wrestlers suffer for their art. Darren Aronofsky’s 2008 film The Wrestler is about that suffering.
Mickey Rourke plays Randy “The Ram” Robinson, who spent the 1980s as a wrestling superstar capable of headlining Madison Square Garden and with his own Nintendo game, and is now reduced to half-full high school gymnasiums and state fairs. A heart condition puts his career in jeopardy, forces him into a menial job at a supermarket, and encourages him to tend to long-neglected relationships with his stripper girlfriend (Marisa Tomei) and estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood). Yet the siren’s call of the ring and the crowd continues for him.
Much was made of the real-life similarities between Rourke and his character. After a few consecutive failures, Rouke said that he “had no respect for myself as an actor” and stopped making movies. He embarked on a boxing career that ravaged his face and eventually required a disastrous plastic surgery; I was shocked to see Rourke in Sin City because he didn’t even remotely resemble the same man. The strange thing is that Rourke’s boxing career was only four years long, and he was never in the running for any sort of title because promoters thought him too old. He did it for some reason that only he can know, and that is probably what helped him understand Randy the Ram most easily.
As good as Rourke is – and he’s great – I think Tomei’s character is the one which really brings the movie together. Like Randy, she’s facing down middle age while still playing a young person’s game. With Randy, one might be tempted to think he’s a hero, since there are still crowds cheering him, even if they’re smaller than in the old days. Tomei’s character tells us the truth: the people who are watching are watching in contempt. She endures the cruelest taunts from her customers, because she’s just an object to them, and they would prefer the hot new object than the older model. She is there to illustrate that it’s the same for Randy, and she does a fantastic job of doing that while also being a fully-realized person and not just a stock character.
Almost all of The Ram’s opponents are real-life professional wrestlers, but they’re guys who are in the WWE’s minor leagues or in smaller independent federations. Some of those opponents are so well-known for the damage they’re willing to do in the ring with props like barbed wire, broken glass, and staples, that I wondered how many of the stunts in this film were fake. It’s all in the service of making wrestling culture real for this movie; while some of the in-ring antics shown here are newer, “blading” – secretly cutting oneself with a hidden razor blade so that the opponent’s moves seem to draw blood – is older than Vince McMahon himself.
That’s what makes this story unique to wrestling, in a way that not even a football movie can match. Football fans will put on an attitude of loving the violence and appreciating when players endure pain to achieve a win, but many don’t know the extent of the punishment that their heroes take until story turns up in Sports Illustrated. Wrestling is all about watching a guy suffer even though the result of the match has been decided beforehand. Randy the Ram feels driven back into the ring because it’s the only thing that the audience wants to see from him, that spilling his blood is the only thing which defines him as a man. Given that, there’s only one way the movie can end.
You want to know how aging wrestlers turn out? Read this article about the famed Ric Flair and his financial struggles (Warning: you won’t be able to un-see the photograph which accompanies that article). Much like Randy the Ram, Flair is completely responsible for his own problems. No one is saying these men didn’t choose the lives that they live. But so few people really understand the punishment that they take, to the point that this movie would be a revelation even if it didn’t feature such peerless acting.
Reviewed by Mark Young