Mickey Rourke delivered three star performances in the 1980s that should've nabbed him an Oscar, if not a better career. With quiet eyes beaming from beneath a pompadour that almost had a career of its own, Rourke shone in small establishing roles in the films Diner and Body Heat. His undeniable machismo was strangely strengthened and deepened by the vulnerability he allowed to slide past his smirk. The grin told you he was a wise-ass. The eyes showed you somebody who could feel pain and doubt. Seeing how he popped past the so-called stars of the movie, even in a great ensemble piece like Diner, and you knew he was destined for greater things.
And during the 1980s, Rourke came tantalizingly close to fulfilling that vision. He rules like a mad drunken king in Barbet Schroeder's 1987 Barfly, which remains the best screen adaptation of alcoholic poet Charles Bukowski's beer-soaked, heart-filled world. It's a knock-out performance at once celebratory and angished, and Rourke immerses himself in the role with fearless charm and gusto.
As a haunted private eye in Alan Parker's Southern gothic Angel Heart, Rourke gave that horror mishmash a heart and soul its predictable script really didn't deserve. Going into the movie, all the buzz was about his steamy sex scene with co-star Lisa Bonet. After the end credits, however, it was Rourke alone who remained in the viewer's mind, a lonely and tortured detective following clues to the sad mystery of his own soul.
For my money, he never burned brighter than in The Pope of Greenwich Village, an immensely enjoyable character-driven story elevated into the mythic by Rourke's magnetic presence. He stars as a struggling NYC restaurateur so desperate to make a buck that he foolishly steals from the mob. He's loose and fun and tense and frantic all at once -- an embodiment of the city itself. Rourke's amazing work here is matched on every level by Eric Roberts, never better anywhere, as his weak-willed and shifty cousin. In the shot above, Rourke's playing stick ball while dancing a dreamlike lilt to Frank Sinatra's "Summer Wind." It's always this scene that springs to mind first whenever I think back to this film.
Rourke vanished into the wasteland of the 1990s with bad script choices and an ill-advised boxing career that crushed his face a few times. He drank and partied and went broke and nobody wanted to work with him. Then a few years ago, Robert Rodriguez hired him for his ultra-violent neo-noir Sin City. Even under a thick layering of prosthetics, Rourke's macho humanity as the hulking hitman Marv shone through. Breathtaking silvered cinematography aside, Rourke is hands-down the best thing about the movie.
Rourke is now getting raves for his starring role in Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler, set to open this December. What you see below is not makeup, it's how his face appears now. He looks absolutely terrible, a puffy and misshapen version of his younger self (or, as Sheila O'Malley points out, he looks like the leonine deformed criminal he portrayed in another great 80s movie, Johnny Handsome). Blame the drugs, the reported steroids, the rounds of plastic surgery. That pale, sometimes ruddy but always soft face is gone. But as a washed-up and battered wrestler still struggling for glory, it's a face that fits the role. Look beyond the rebuilt cheekbones, the suddenly lantern-sized jaw, the plastic pug nose and Cro-Magnon brow, and there they are: that unforgettable pair of wounded, human eyes. Every critic who sees it says Rourke is finally on his way to that Oscar.
Here's Scott Foundas profiling Rourke for the Village Voice.
Welcome back, Mickey. It's good to see ya again.