By Scott Bowden
Scott Bowdens Kentucky Fried Rasslin
2009-01-22 - Requiem for a Heavyweight
Requiem for a Heavyweight: Scott Bowden puts over THE WRESTLER
When Memphis wrestling legend and current WWE commentator Jerry "the King" Lawler was asked about THE WRESTLER in the weeks leading up to its release, he was decidedly unoptimistic about the film's potential to accurately portray the business. "Aw, that's not gonna be any good," he said. "They're gonna fuck it up. They're not gonna get it right."
More often than not, however, director Darren Aronofsky, screenwriter Robert Siegel and actor Mickey Rourke, who brilliantly plays the role of aging '80s superstar Randy "the Ram" Robinson, did get it right, weaving a realistic, heartbreaking tale of a man chewed up and spit out by the wrestling business. In fact, there are moments in the film that I found all too painfully familiar, given my experiences as a wrestling manager in Memphis in the mid-'90s. For every wrestler like the Rock and Steve Austin who I worked with who were on their way up to World Wrestling Federation stardom, there were a half-dozen guys like former NWA World champion Tommy "Wildfire" Rich, who after a few years as the hottest babyface in the country, was washed up and an afterthought by the time he was 32.
After years of fame and squandered fortune, the Ram finds he has no place in the real world. Outside the ring, he's rejected by single-mom stripper Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) and Stephanie, the daughter he abandoned years ago (Evan Rachel Wood) in his quest to be loved. Ultimately, Ram discovers that the business is the only way in which he can experience adulation, respect and love, as he lives off a name and reputation built in the '80s, continuing to perform in high-school gymnasiums, community centers and National Guard armories in front of hundreds of fans in 2006.
In an inspired casting decision, troubled actor Rourke paints an amazing character on a blood-stained canvas, charming yet tragic. A shell of his former self, Ram still cherishes the ritual of putting on his wrestling gear backstage, methodically slapping on his elbow pads and preparing the razor blade that will penetrate his forehead to provide the illusion of being busted open.
School of hard knocks and Samoan drops: To prepare for the role, Rourke spent three months learning the ropes with Samoan Afa.
In preparation for the role, Rourke was trained for three months by former NWA/WWF star "Wild Samoan Afa" (Afa Anoa'i), helping to give his performance a rub of authenticity. In the dressing room, younger wrestlers stop by to shake Ram's hand and share a moment with the man they grew up idolizing on TV. (Older wrestlers tend to hate when reminded of how old they are. Shortly after getting into the business as a ref in the early '90s, I nervously told Bill "Superstar" Dundee that I'd followed his career since I was a child. His reply: "Ah, shit, you know how many times I've fuckin' heard that?")
Although some of the dialogue amongst the boys didn't ring true for me, the decision to cast actual performers for nearly each wrestler's role gives the film an edge. For example, two of the boys going over various high spots backstage before their match use sound effects: "Then I'll make my comeback, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM." Another nice touch: In the opening scene, an indie show promoter timidly hands Ram his lower-than-expected payoff, and feebly attempts to use wrestling jargon, speaking out of context: "You really put them over out there." Ram simply grunts. (Some of the boys will laugh at Ram's fanny pack, a staple of many a wrestler's wardrobe.)
More than anything, Ram feeds off the rush from the crowd when he makes a comeback and performs his "Ram Jam" finisher, a double elbow smash from the top rope. Ram even gets a kick playing as himself in an '80s Nintendo wrestling game against a disinterested neighborhood kid who would rather be playing the latest incarnation of CALL OF DUTY on PS3.
Heavy-metal jam: Randy performs his Ram Jam finisher from the top rope.
Raven (Scott Levy) reportedly once told the WRESTLING OBSERVER's Dave Meltzer that the rush from the crowd is more intense than any narcotic -- and he's tried them all. The cheers of the crowd are enough for Ram to ignore the warnings of his own body telling him to stop taking copious amounts of steroids to maintain his physique and prescription painkillers to withstand the bumps inside the ring. (PURE DYNAMITE, the biography of former WWF star "Dynamite Kid" Tom Billington immediately comes to mind. In the '80s, Dynamite, along with partner Davey Boy Smith, formed the British Bulldogs, one of the Fed's top tag-teams and a top-earning act in Japan for years. Smith died of a heart attack at age 39 in 2002, and today Billington is practically broke and confined to a wheelchair.)
Like a drug addict after his next fix, Ram is constantly anticipating the adrenaline that comes with his next match. More than anything, the film accurately captures how addictive the business can be and why some of the boys continue to perform and put their bodies on the line for as little as $50 to $75 a payoff. The desire for one last run in the big leagues has led many wrestlers to become entrapped in the same vicious circle as Ram. In that sense, THE WRESTLER is a film I never thought I'd see brought to the screen.
Even King Lawler, who said for years he'd retire while in his 30s, continues to wrestle in small arenas outside of his WWE commitments, certainly not because he needs the money but because he still enjoys the thrill of working in front of the crowd.
Ram tough: A bleeding Robinson is on the ropes but not out.
Ram's is a story that I've seen firsthand over the years. A little "Wildfire" Rich here, a little Greg "the Hammer" Valentine there, a dash of Terry Funk in his ECW days, and a snort of Jake "the Snake" Roberts, and you have Randy the Ram, a former star who cashed in on the pay-per-view revenue explosion that fueled the expansion of Vince McMahon's expanding circus tent in the mid- to late '80s, only to be put out to pasture once his box-office value had been used up.
The film opens with a video set to Quiet Riot's "Bang Your Head," (a song used by the Memphis promotion for a montage featuring "Lumberjack" Joe LeDuc in the territory days) illustrating the Ram's rise to stardom using headlines and photos from the Apter mags, with Rourke's face superimposed on the body of Lex Luger, among other stars. Rourke has acknowledged Luger as an inspiration in at least one interview. Luger, a big star in WCW and the WWF in the '80s and '90s, is currently disabled after a stroke and has burned through his wrestling earnings. Luger's girlfriend, the WWF's Miss Elizabeth (Huelette), died in 2003 at the Marietta, Ga., condo the couple shared after mixing prescription drugs with vodka.
Pro wrestling illustrated: The fictionalized career of Randy the Ram is captured in the fictionalized pages of the Apter mags.
Though the WWF/E is never mentioned, nor is there a Vince McMahon-type promoter character, undoubtedly the film was inspired by the stories of some of the boys who achieved fame working for the Former Fed, living a rock-star-like existence of big money, sex and drugs only to see it fade away with time.
Over the years, McMahon has been accused by many in the industry as treating his performers like cattle, though the same could be said for most promoters from the territory days. In a poignant moment with his estranged daughter, the Ram admits he's a "broken-down piece of meat." That line had to resonate with several of the boys who have seen the film.
Nearly 20 years to the day Ram had his biggest WRESTLEMANIA-type payday with the Ayatollah (wrestler Ernest Miller), an indie wrestling promoter aims to cash in on that nostalgia, telling Ram he's "got two words for ya: 'rematch.'" Ram can't help but think this is perhaps his ticket back to the big time. Paranoid about maintaining the look that helped make him famous and believing a WWF-type scout might be in attendance (WWE's John Laurinaitis does not make a cameo), Ram takes care of his hair extensions with a visit to the beauty parlor and scores loads of steroids from a huge motherfucker backstage before a show.
In 2000, after seeing Aronofsky's REQUIEM FOR A DREAM at the Director's Guild building in Los Angeles, Darren, along with stars Jared Leto and Ellen Burstyn, joined the crowd afterward for a question-and-answer session. With a smile, Aronofsky deflected my question regarding the possibility of him directing the next Batman movie; the buzz on REQUIEM was so strong that he had his choice of projects and wasn't prepared to show his hand, though he was rumored to be directing a revamped vision of the Caped Crusader. REQUIEM had to be the most physically draining film experience I'd ever had. (For starters, I arrived late, so I was relegated to the front row, uncomfortably watching as three heroin addicts and an aging mom hooked on speedy diet pills gradually slipped into hell.) When I heard he was taking on THE WRESTLER, I knew that if anyone could capture the dark side of the wrestling business, it would be Aronofsky.
Like the haunting scenes in REQUIEM, I squirmed in my seat during the hardcore match between Ram and Necro Butcher (played by the wrestler of the same name, Dylan Keith Summers), a guy who looks more like an Orthodox Jew walking the Fairfax District area of L.A. than a wrestler. Although part of me dismisses that a guy like Ram would be willing to participate in a garbage match like this at this stage of his career, with ladders, thumbtacks, a staple gun -- even roach spray -- used as weapons, you can't help but think of the extreme measures Funk went to earn those "E-C-Dub" chants years after being the NWA World heavyweight champion. The gruesome aftermath in Ram's dressing room is equally as disturbing.
Of course, such gigs don't pay the bills at his trailer-park home, so Ram supplements his income working in the loading dock of a supermarket, supervised by a disrespectful heel-type manager. After a health scare and a sobering experience at a bleak "legends fan-fest" autograph show, Ram contemplates retiring. He asks for more hours, even at the expense of giving up his usually off-limits wrestling weekends, causing his boss to coldly shoot back, "Isn't that when you sit on other guys' faces?" When Ram is moved to the deli counter, he initially shines, using his charisma to get over with the indecisive potato-salad-buying grannies and playfully tossing orders like touchdown passes. Rourke is wonderful in the lovable loser role, much like Sly Stallone in the first ROCKY film. His courtship of Tomei at a bar has that same clumsy charm of the ice-skating scene in ROCKY.
Ram's unwavering, though misguided, commitment to the business reminds me of wrestler Troy Graham, who worked the Memphis territory for years as "The Dream Machine." I was 9 years old and in the audience when Graham, working under a hood (mask) as the Dream, headlined a sold-out Mid-South Coliseum against Lawler, who was returning to the ring after a near-year layoff from a broken leg, in 1980. Little did Graham know that would be the highlight of his career. Fourteen years later, I was Graham's manager in Memphis, the big crowds long gone, a victim of McMahon's '80s expansion into traditional territories nationwide.
Even though we were often working in front of under 1,000 fans, Graham put his battered, broken-down tattooed body on the line working a very stiff, physical style and getting color (bleeding) in nearly every match. Following a tag-team brawl with Lawler and his son Brian at the Mid-South Coliseum, Graham was preparing to shoot a promo (interview) to promote next week's rematch, when I walked past his dressing room. I stopped when I heard a repeated, sickening smack against flesh -- it sounded like someone was getting his ass kicked. I peered into the dressing room to find a bleeding Graham punching his eye, trying to close it. He saw me in the mirror and asked, "How do I look?" Wincing, I replied, "Dream, you look terrible." Excitedly, he said, "Great, let's do this!" And off we went to shoot the interview. Graham died of a heart attack in 2002. Apparently, he'd spent some time living on the streets.
Deep down, Ram knows he'll die if he continues wrestling. But he doesn't quite know how to go on living without the business. To call THE WRESTLER a "wrestling" movie is an injustice, though it's without question the best film about the biz ever made, even though that's not saying much. THE WRESTLER is an engaging story, with some of the best performances of the year.
(In addition to his Golden Globe win for Best Actor, Rourke has received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, while Tomei is under Oscar consideration for Best Supporting Actress.)