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In 1981, I turned 15 years old. That winter, me and a couple of buddies snuck into Body Heat, an R-rated movie that introduced us to Kathleen Turner, William Hurt, Ted Danson and, most important to me, Mickey Rourke.
Rourke’s part was small, but he made the most of it as an oft-incarcerated arsonist. His big scene, when William Hurt comes to him for advice on how to burn a house down without getting caught, was talked about by me and my buddies almost as much as Turner’s nude scenes. The movie launched his career.
From that point on, Mickey Rourke was an object of fascination and admiration as I fantasized about becoming an actor myself one day. By the time he starred in The Pope of Greenwich Village, I was also obsessed with all things New York and associated him with the city and great actors who started there, like Brando, DeNiro, Dean, Pacino and others.
Mickey Rourke was different from the other rising stars of that time. He has like a wild animal. Grimy, intense and quiet, with a feral sexuality. But also good looking and vulnerable. Sean Penn may have acted tough, but Mickey Rourke seemed like the real deal, a genuine badass.
I read everything about him I could get my hands on, which in those days meant Premiere magazine and maybe something in Rolling Stone or Interview, Andy Warhol’s oversized tabloid. When a friend handed me a copy of Playboy with a long interview with Mickey Rourke featured, I immediately made a photocopy at work (which I still keep among my prized possessions).
I don’t know what it was about Rourke that made him stand out above the rest. God knows I’m nothing like him. Maybe it was a desire to be self-possessed and cool, but still vulnerable and sweet. Who knows?
What I do know is that his early movies are rock solid. These days, if he’s mentioned at all, it’s often as the punchline to a joke. That’s too bad, because he’s a great actor. Here are five films to watch that prove this:
Diner is easily one of the best movies of the 80’s, as well as one of the most influential. Don’t believe me? If there was no Diner, there might not have been a Quentin Tarantino, the most influential director of the 1990’s and perhaps the early 2000’s.
Diner was one of, if not THE first talky guy-movie. Take one of the scenes with the guys in the diner and lay it next to the first scene of Reservoir Dogs and you’ll get the idea. Tarantino to the inspiration and ran with it.
Anyway, Diner, directed by Barry Levinson, is set in the late 50’s in Baltimore and tells the story of a group of lifelong friends who are negotiating that weird no-man’s land between high school and adulthood. Most of the guys are nice, middle-class Jewish boys except Mickey Rourke’s character, Boogie, a womanizing hairdresser with a gambling addiction.
When the rest of the guys argue over who’s best to make out to between Frank Sinatra and Johnny Mathis, pompadoured Boogie breaks a tie by quietly declaring “Presley.” With that line, you get the whole character – the danger, the vulnerability, the tragedy and humor.
Diner is a great film in the vein of American Graffiti, touching on universal themes that will never grow old.
Rumble Fish (1983)
During Francis Ford Coppola’s wilderness years, he made a couple of movies that came from books that were passed around in middle school and fawned over like classic literature. The first was The Outsiders, featuring a who’s who of up-and-coming teen stars of the early 80’s, and Rumble Fish, featuring more of those 80’s kids…and Mickey Rourke.
Both movies were based on novels by S.E. Hinton, and though the books might not rank with Fitzgerald and Hemingway, Coppola treated them like they did, making serious movies that were deeply appealing to teenagers like me, if not film critics.
Rumble Fish is my favorite of the two. Shot in black-and-white, it features Matt Dillon, Diane Lane, and Rourke as Dillon’s older brother, Motorcyle Boy.
Dillon is Rusty James, juvenile dilenquent trying to live up to the legend of his mysterious (read crazy) older brother, a tortured soul alienated from the streets and toughs of the dying town where he is a legend.
Once again, this role is custom made for Rourke’s own sense of alienation and otherworldliness that makes the character, no matter how flaky, seem so real. So heartbreakingly broken.
I haven’t seen the movie since I was in my 20’s, so this recommendation is given from that perspective. But regardless of how well the movie holds up, it’s Coppola and it’s Mickey Rourke, for crying out loud. Just see it.
The Pope of Greenwich Village (1983)
This is easily my favorite Mickey Rourke film, and probably his best. When Rourke was on Alec Baldwin’s Here’s The Thing recently, he said this is his favorite movie.
The Pope of Greenwich Village is the quintessential New York movie. Rourke and Eric Roberts headline this story, which features a terrific supporting cast that includes Geraldine Page in what had to have been one of her last decent roles.
Rourke plays Charlie, a former wiseguy and cook who’s trying to go straight as a restaurateur. Roberts is Paulie, Charlie’s fuckup cousin who can’t keep a job or keep his mouth shut.
Charlie manages a restaurant in the Village where Paulie waits tables. When Charlie warns Paulie not to overcharge his customers one night, Paulie does it anyway and gets them both fired. This puts Charlie in hot water with his waspy girlfriend (Darryl Hannah), who hates Paulie, and Charlie’s ex-wife Cookie, who sends her brothers to collect late child support payments.
Paulie tries to make it up to Charlie by letting him in on a big score – a robbery so easy, a coupe of kids could do it. You can see where this is going, right? They pull in a semi-retired safe cracker to round out the team and, against Charlie’s better judgment, plain the heist.
They get into the targeted warehouse easy enough, but when an undercover cop accidentally dies during the robbery, things go downhill quickly. It turns out that the warehouse – and money – belongs to a notorious mobster, Bed Bug Eddie, played by Burt Young.
Paulie is quickly identified by the mob and a prime suspect, and when he won’t crack, Bed Bug Eddie has his thumbs cut off. This sets Charlie on a course of revenge that takes us through the thrilling third act.
It’s a great story filled with memorable characters and lines. Rourke is at the top of his game as Charlie, and conveys Charlies tension between the streets and the good life that his waspy girlfriend represents. The chemistry between him and Eric Roberts, who steals every scene he’s in, is palpable. The guys really seem to love one another, and they both seemed to be having as much making the movie as it was to watch it.
The Wrestler (2008)
It’s hard to believe it’s been eight years since The Wrestler came out. Before that, it seemed like an eternity since those early great roles. Thank God for Darren Aronofsky and the vision he had for the character of Randy “The Ram” Robinson, who couldn’t have been played by anyone other than Mickey Rourke.
The movie plays as a metaphor for Rourke’s career. Randy is a has-been pro wrestler who can’t catch a break to save his life. His life and career are riddled with self-sabotage and a string of bad decisions. Despite enough wreckage to make the most Pollyanna-ish person disillusioned, Randy always manages to pick himself up and stumble forward, with some vague hope of a better tomorrow.
It’s a heartbreaking role that Rourke put everything into. It’s a towering performance that, sadly, didn’t usher in a late career surge. That may as much to do with Rourke’s appearance (too much bad plastic surgery and weightlifting) and boxing as it does with his reputation for being difficult to work with.
Regardless of all that, The Wrestler will no-doubt be Mickey Rourke’s legacy picture, the one that is used to encapsulate his strange career.
Angel Heart (1987)
John Huston said that Angel Heart was one of the best films ever made…until the third act. Who can argue with the great director? It’s a noir styled thriller that stars Rourke as Harry Angel, a private investigator hired by a mysterious Robert DeNiro to find a missing singer.
Alan Parker directed this frustrating mix of wonderful design, good cinematography, wonderful acting (except for Lisa Bonet) and a story with an undeniable hook. It’s too bad that Parker couldn’t land the plane on this one, because it could’ve been a classic. Instead, it devolves into silliness, completely usurping a great performance by Rourke.
I won’t spoil the movie here, but it’s well worth watching, even knowing that it goes to hell. If it would’ve been shot in black-and-white, you’d think the movie was made in the 40’s or 50’s, and Angel’s pursuit of the singer is filled with violence, humor voodoo and sex.
Speaking of sex, Angel Heart was as notorious for the steamy scenes between Rourke and Lisa Bonet as it was for the third-act breakdown. Compared to Game of Thrones, Angel Heart is pretty mild stuff, but back then it was a different story.
There’s one bonus movie I’ll toss in, though most will probably hate it. Probably my second favorite Mickey Rourke film is Barfly, a good natured story of life on L.A.’s skid row, taken from the stories of Charles Bukowski, another favorite of mine.
Rourke played Henry Chinaski, the Bukowski alter-ego, who inhabits the seedy bars of his low rent neighborhood when he isn’t writing or earning some money at a shitty job.
Rourke’s portrayal of Chinaski is borderline cartoonish and over-the-top, which suits the character perfectly, for that is Henry Chinaski, a loser with the ego of a champion, who picks fights with the muscle bound bartender, not because he hates him, but because he’s got nothing better to do. Well, not until Faye Dunaway’s Wanda comes into his life.
Barfly is a delightful comedy that is, oddly, a celebration of life, albeit a strange and foreign one to most people. Once again, Mickey Rourke is the only person I can imagine pulling off the role of Chinaski because so much of Chinaski’s charm and hubris and tragedy is what makes me love Mickey Rourke. Both are flawed men who you know will never end up on top…but you love them and root for them anyway.