The 2008 Oscars are history, the awards presented, winners announced. But as is so often the case, awarding "Slumdog Millionaire" the Best Picture of the year was far from a unanimous choice.
In fact, in a year with so many excellent films, the elusive and subjective title of the Best could have very well been given to a movie not even selected as one of the five nominees - one like "Doubt," with Meryl Streep's riveting performance as a 1960s vintage Catholic nun, or perhaps "Gran Torino," shining with Clint Eastwood's best but regrettably final screen performance.
While these and the selected five were and are fine films, for me the clear winner was an unflinchingly honest story of the struggle for personal and professional redemption, Mickey Rourke's career resuscitation in "The Wrestler."
Randy "The Ram" Robinson was the biggest star in professional wrestling during its heyday in the mid 1980s. Video games, action figures and comic books all bore his likeness. Now, like the man himself, they have been reduced to the bargain rack of sports history. Where once he headlined a sold out Madison Square Garden, the Ram must now make due at nostalgia events featuring has-beens and never-weres, desperately seeking to regain that place in the center ring were once he ruled.
His personal and economic lives are in shambles, brought down from the mountain by a series of innumerable bad choices. He is forced to beg for work from a deli manager relishing his now found power over the forgotten celebrity. His only child is alien to him, the product of his own past history of poor priorities, a situation that the Ram so painfully tries to remedy.
But there is one place where the ravages of time are deflected, where the crowd still holds high the hero, where respect comes not from employment status, but from sweat. It is in the ring that the Ram - with all the bruises, the cuts and the broken bones - feels whole, feels alive, feels the power of purpose recognized and obtained.
The movie is a total tour de force by a seriously bulked-up Mickey Rourke, alternating between the brash braggadocio of the character to the sensitivities of the vulnerable man inside the mask, unsure where show business stops and reality begins. You will root for the Ram, only to have cruel fate dash his hopes. It is a truly outstanding performance, with Rourke literally in almost every scene.
In an Oscar nominated supporting role, Marisa Tomei is also very strong as Cassidy, bringing an incredibly authentic performance to a role that could have been but a caricature.
The Wrestler is not a pretty movie, in fact quite the opposite. It's a graphic depiction of the violence at the core of the man and his sport, serving as an unflinching background for the story of the Ram's struggle for recognition and acceptance both inside and outside the ring. He finds temporary solace in the sometimes companionship of Cassidy, a stripper now turned 40, facing many of the same issues brought on by a failing body, no longer giving credence to the physical demands of their chosen professions.
But unlike the Ram, she finally understands that the past lies in the past, and no returns are allowed. The future is about moving on, leaving the ways of a former life behind. Such is not the fate of the Ram, as despite the toll paid on the body, the soul craves glory, no matter how transparently fake, no matter how painfully transient.
The desire to still feel important, the idea that what you DO is what you ARE, is the core of the movie. In the end, notwithstanding the merciless effects of time, ignoring the remnants of a still fresh heart attack, the Ram returns to the ring.
It is what he does; he knows nor is comfortable in any other venue. It is part of his DNA, the reason for his existence. Sadly, the last scene is a Sopranos-like finale, leaving the audience to ponder the fate of the Ram. But the story of Randy Robinson is not unique to wrestlers, but to all who trade the love and responsibility of family for the addictive approval of strangers. Ultimately, this is the message of the movie, one that is both ancient and universal.
The Wrestler is a terrific film, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. For his performance, Mickey Rourke should have taken home an Oscar to place along side his Golden Globe, and the producers one as well to go along with their Golden Lion as the Best Picture from the Venice Film Festival.
It may no longer be showing locally, but it will be out on DVD by the end of the month. On a final note, stay around through the credits and listen to Bruce Springsteen's title song.
Like the Boss most often does, he nails it.