Tom Jolliffe looks back at the early career of Mickey Rourke…
When you think back through cinema you can easily think of an array of icons. Brando, Stewart, De Niro, Pacino, Sandler (okay…maybe not)… I could go on. The role of Acting Deity includes being a point of comparison. When De Niro first broke through he was quickly lauded the new Brando…a fair few actors also got given that tag. It’s like any role played out in public with icons. We’ve seen many a ‘next Pele’ or ‘next Maradona’ not quite live up to the billing in football (soccer). Just as many actors haven’t quite lived fully to the billing of ‘the new Brando.’ Whilst De Niro may have lived up to it and developed further, gaining his own deified placing among the cinematic Gods a lot just fell by the wayside.
Sylvester Stallone, compared with Brando in his younger days (whilst breaking out in Rocky), has obviously done very well. He’s iconic. His respect as a thespian has been in waves of course and as much as he’s gained critical fawning throughout his career, he’s also had a strong share of derision. Further down you can point to many examples of younger actors throughout differing eras, compared to legend and more quickly falling by the wayside. One example of an actor with so much expectation placed upon him was Eric Roberts. In the 80’s he was a potential legend. By the end of that decade he was a direct to video joke with a tarnished reputation in Hollywood. He co-starred with another young actor with big expectations in 84’s, The Pope Of Greenwich Village… that actor was Mickey Rourke.
Rourke’s career started well. A few walk-ons and getting to work with the likes of Steven Spielberg, Nicolas Roeg and Michael Cimino (albeit in weaker efforts from each) he had his first significant breakout in Body Heat with an engaging support turn. The film was a success too, providing ample platform for Rourke to shine. He then had a significant break with Francis Ford Copolla’s excellent Rumble Fish. It was one of an array of standout supporting roles. He was often the rogue, the charismatic, mesmeric scene stealer in films like Rumble Fish and Diner (a great film, which would have a greater legacy if not for American Graffiti being that much more iconic) before stepping into lead duties in The Pope Of Greenwich Village. Carrying himself with quiet cool, softly spoken, with the ability to explode into bouts of aggressive power, Rourke was a magnet to Brando comparison. That ‘edge’ made him a mesmerising and fiery cinematic presence. Great (or once great) directors were lining up to work with him, whether Coppola, Roeg, Cimino, Stuart Rosenberg, Mike Hodges, Alan Parker and more.
Rourke was prolific and the films almost all featured him in searing form. The trouble was, they were largely successful without being iconally successful, or they bombed. Some were flawed, or had these great directors either on their way down, or in experimental mood (or in the case of Lawrence Kasdan, Barry Sonnenfeld or Adrian Lynne, on the way up). The film which grabbed pop culture most was probably his least interesting in that run, in 9 ½ Weeks. It was what it was, but it didn’t have the flawed enigma or complexity of Angel Heart as an example. Some of those films, like Angel Heart or Rumble Fish wouldn’t click with their audience until later. Other films, like Barfly with Rourke playing a fictionalised version of poet Chuck Bukowski, who wrote the screenplay, was overlooked on release. Playing opposite an equally enthralling Faye Dunaway, it’s a deep and melancholic look at lost souls broken by alcohol and the mundanety of living on the edge of society.
By the time the 90’s were rolling in, Rourke’s choices were less inspired. Failed attempts at ‘star vehicles’ and films lacking edge. It was one misstep after another, even if a few have gained some cult appeal over the years, such as Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man. Still, gone were roles that offered complexity, replaced by convention. All the while, Rourke was becoming increasingly unpredictable in the industry and on set, and to put it mildly, burning the candle at both ends. Much like his buddy Eric Roberts, he’d got a reputation as something of a hellraiser and too much trouble. This was something which saw the standard of director he was working with seemingly drop. By the mid-90’s his career had slumped. Video thrillers or villains in Jean-Claude Van Damme films, Rourke had burnt too many bridges and whilst still capable of raw magnetism on screen (even opposite Stallone in a dire Get Carter remake or Van Damme in Double Team, he stole his scenes easily). In other films though, he was clearly disinterested.
The odd bone was thrown Rourke’s way from Robert Rodriguez or Tony Scott, but largely, from the 90’s onward up until The Wrestler, his career was a forgettable wasteland, compounded by plastic surgery, a boxing career (contributing to the former) and ignominy. That brilliant comeback The Wrestler would mark a role that perfectly fit with Rourke’s persona. A once great artist of his field, battered and destroyed by his career. His share of disgraces and demons, and all culminating in a ‘comeback’ moment. It’s a beautiful piece of work. It rings so true (and indeed, it’s depiction of the turmoil that jobbing wrestlers inflict on themselves was raw and honest).
Still, when I look back to that blooming career, filled with interesting roles and the kind of magnetism that very few in the history of cinema have reached, Rourke’s sudden drop, before that greatness was fully grasped will remain one of the most regrettable things to happen in cinema. It was whilst burning through an early Rourke-a-thon a few years back, not long after seeing The Wrestler, I realised just how good he was. Maybe he was a decade late. Coming alongside Messrs De Niro and Pacino, and working with the likes of Cimino or Coppola in their perfect pomp, he might have had that all round masterpiece to increase his iconic status.
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has several features due out on DVD/VOD in 2019/2020 and a number of shorts hitting festivals. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/