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Rourke’s redemption tale appeals to everyone

Mickey Rourke, who seemed destined for the scrap heap, reinvented himself through a personal cleansing, a period of intense reflection, and a good agent.
/ Source: contributor

If F. Scott Fitzgerald had met Mickey Rourke before he uttered that classic morsel of melancholia, “There are no second acts in American lives,” he might have added, “… well, except for Mickey.”

Actually, every once in a while in Hollywood, a star who has taken a destructive detour or two and seems destined for the scrap heap suddenly reinvents himself through a personal cleansing, a period of intense reflection, and a good agent.

Rourke is getting raves — and he received an Academy Award nomination, his first — for his portrayal of Randy “The Ram” Robinson in “The Wrestler.” Since he broke through with a small but significant part in Lawrence Kasdan’s “Body Heat” in 1981 and then in a major role in Barry Levinson’s “Diner,” Rourke’s career has been marked by flashes of brilliance obscured by clouds of excess.

Robert Downey Jr. came from the depths of drug abuse to marquee bankability, and he just received another Oscar nomination, this time for “Tropic Thunder.” Lindsay Lohan made a mess of her career, and there’s no telling if she’ll rebound and achieve her potential as an actress.

What does it take to pull a Mickey Rourke and get back on your feet in Hollywood?

“No. 1, it takes talent,” said Peter Bart, editor of Variety and a former studio executive. “No. 2, it requires the ability to recast yourself in the right role. For example, (Robert) De Niro sustained his career by taking on brilliant comedic roles. With Mickey he chose to come back not as a boxer but as a wrestler.

“It’s important to be realistic. At a different age, you have to pick your spots.”

‘The right role, in the right movie’Rourke established a reputation in Hollywood for being difficult to work with, and as someone who was finicky about the projects he was offered. Like Downey Jr., Rourke also abused drugs and alcohol and behaved erratically. He once lost a role in a major film after punching out a drug dealer.

How does someone like that see a month like January 2009, in which he won a Golden Globe and received an Oscar nomination? How does such an actor, who seemed to debase himself with boxing in the same way his character in “The Wrestler” did with wrestling, suddenly find himself offered roles in major motion pictures like “Iron Man II” and the Sylvester Stallone-directed “The Expendables”?

That’s Hollywood.

Steven Zaillian knows the terrain better than most. He nabbed a screenwriting Oscar for “Schindler’s List” and has directed “Searching for Bobby Fischer,” “A Civil Action” and “All the King’s Men.” He is somewhat of an authority on actors who have faded but are not completely forgotten.

“Whenever I begin casting, I make a list of actors I like but haven’t seen in anything in years,” he said. “I don’t care if they have a troubled past. Can they act is the more important question. If there was a time they could, odds are they still can. I tried to cast the king of trouble, Marlon Brando, in ‘A Civil Action,’ but the studio wouldn’t do it. This is Marlon Brando we’re talking about.

“In many cases, actors’ pasts may not be troubled, but they’ve fallen out of favor to the degree they are no longer starring in high profile films like they used to.”

Zaillian offered the example of Jackie Earle Haley, who had made a mark as a young actor years ago in “The Bad News Bears” and “Breaking Away,” but effectively disappeared not long afterward. Zaillian wanted him for a part in “All the King’s Men,” but couldn’t find him. Finally, he tracked him down in San Antonio.

“He had given up acting because it had given up on him,” Zaillian said. “He auditioned by putting himself on tape. And it was stunning. He wasn’t 17 anymore, like he was in ‘Breaking Away.’ He was 43. But what he had as a young actor he still had. He proved it again in ‘Little Children,’ and has since worked in ‘Shutter Island’ and ‘Watchmen.’

“He’s back.”

Finding one’s way back onto Hollywood’s radar is no easy task, whether an actor withdraws from the spotlight willingly or not.

“I do believe comebacks are possible,” Bart said. “But I don’t believe they’re universal. There are lots of young kids too numerous to mention who blew it.

“If you have a remarkable talent like Mickey or Downey, you can do it. Downey is such a keenly intelligent person. Yeah, you can get back.”

So what is the secret?

“Very simple,” film critic Roger Ebert said via e-mail. “The right role in the right movie. I don’t know what else will do it.”

Ebert added that it takes the right person to fit the right situation, and Rourke happens to be special. “I’ve always admired his solid, authoritative presence — his physical bearing, his direct acting style, his wry humor,” Ebert said. “I think ‘Barfly’ with Rourke as Charles Bukowski, is the overlooked performance.”

Tales of redemptionLeo Braudy teaches English and film at the University of Southern California. He said there is an appetite among Americans for stories of redemption like those of Rourke, Downey Jr. and others.

“It’s certainly an old pattern,” he said. “The mythology is there for someone to come along and fill it. ‘Rocky,’ for example, which won best picture. That’s the basic story of a down-and-out boxer who comes back and redeems himself. Even if he doesn’t win, he redeems himself.

“It has to do with the puritan DNA of our country. It’s about revealing yourself to the congregation and then being washed clean by the audience essentially.”

And even though the comeback story is quintessentially American, Braudy pointed out that different cultures have different responses. The French, he said, never stopped liking Rourke.

“The French tend to like the primitive in American artists in general,” Braudy said. “They like what they feel is really American. They used to do this with the Brits as well. They don’t like the sophisticated American artist. They like the primitive artist. They like someone who has gone through the mill rather than someone with a more obvious acting style.

“It’s the noble savage, dating back to the 18th century. The primitive and the natural. That’s a pattern that’s American.”

‘He sort of gave up on himself’Bart, who was a Paramount executive on “The Godfather” and who also has worked at MGM and Lorimar Films, has seen his share of talent come and go over the years, and has covered many actors and actresses in his perch at Variety.

“I had worked with Mickey as an executive at MGM and gave him a part in a picture in the early ‘80s,” he said. “I always felt that at a certain moment in time, when he was ready, he would come back. He is an amazing talent.”

But Bart said just about any Hollywood career on the skids, including Rourke’s, needs an assist now and then. “He sort of gave up on himself,” Bart explained. “I give a lot of credit to agents and managers, who can figure importantly. He has a wonderful young agent at ICM (David Unger) who believed in him. He was really important in bringing him back.

“You need that outside intervention sometimes.”

Even talent is no guarantee, said Zaillian. “Sometimes people just forget how wonderful certain actors are,” he said. “Or they make one too many bad choices — in roles, or in their personal lives. Then the parts get smaller, the films get worse, and that spiral does not aim upward. For every Mickey Rourke, there are many, many other very talented actors who don’t get the call they need from a director like Darren Aronofsky (who helmed “The Wrestler”). It’s great Mr. Rourke did.”

And because the career footing in Hollywood is sometimes treacherous, there is no telling whether Rourke can use the heat and good will he generated in “The Wrestler” to continue on a positive path.

“I’m optimistic, but not certain,” Ebert said. “Downey has a wider range at this point in his career. Rourke could probably play outside of type, but he’d need a director to see that in him.”

In the meantime, Rourke has his following, those who were with him all the way and otherwise. “I was always rooting for him,” Bart said. “He’s a great guy.”