It’s been a season of bravura performances, starting early in the year with Heath Ledger, Penelope Cruz, Richard Jenkins, Melissa Leo, Anne Hathaway, Rosemarie DeWitt and Angelina Jolie and finishing with Sean Penn, Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Ralph Fiennes, Frank Langella, Meryl Streep, Kate Winslet, Cate Blanchett and more. But there is one that will likely be remembered as not just one of the best of the year, but maybe one of the best ever and that has to be Mickey Rourke as The Wrestler. I don’t know if he clocks as the best performance of the year. He has competition, but what he has done with this part in this film is the stuff of legends.
It isn’t even the bursts of anger, the freakishly real wrestling scenes or the tearjerking father/daughter scenes that stand out. It’s the quieter moments – wandering the supermarket aisle, a brief stint working the meat counter, joking with his buddies in the locker room, “now let’s all go take a shower together.” All of those smaller moments are what make his performance so great. In this film he is Quasimodo – he has become a monster who really has no choice by the end of the film. He has nothing, and I mean nothing, but who he is in the ring. And what is that? A guy who takes the pain, tears up other homunculuses. But to anyone who doesn’t get that world he might as well be disfigured. But underneath it all his bad heart is really a good heart and it doesn’t necessarily take a heart attack at the beginning of the film to reveal it.
While it’s easy at this stage to write off Rourke as the defactor frontrunner, or perhaps there are those who might doubt Rourke’s real-life suffering — he really isn’t so much Robert DeNiro in Raging Bull. This film, to me, wasn’t a typical fight film, though it could be categorized as such with no argument. But Jake LaMotta was a pig-headed, stubborn fighter who did one stupid thing after another to ruin his life; Randy Robinson is a one-man freak show. The sport has gnawed him up and left him with nothing. His hands are thick and scarred. His face is a puffy quilt of scars. It’s so bad, in fact, that it’s mighty hard to look at him.
At a certain point, though, you’ll feel your heart break. It isn’t many performances not this year or ever that can do that. The Best Actor race is going to be filled with heroes. If it’s down to Sean Penn, Frank Langella, Clint Eastwood, Rourke and a fifth to be named later, unless it’s Leonardo DiCaprio or Brad Pitt you’re looking at men who were either great men or heroes, especially Penn as Milk. Rourke stands out because of the physical transformation but also because of the array of complexities within. This isn’t to say that the others aren’t worthy, or that they aren’t career bests because they certainly are for DiCaprio and Pitt, maybe Langella, maybe Eastwood. This year has produced great performances across the board.
It’s just to say that Rourke’s performance will be remembered as one of the best. Period.