Mickey Rourke, Oscar bait?

Talk abut unlikely Oscar candidates. First Anne Hathaway—once dismissed as just another pretty woman in Brokeback Mountain,The Devil Wears Prada and Get Smart—dazzles everyone with her hard-edged performance in Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married, which is the clear hit of the festival. And now, just a few hours ago I saw one of the most unlikely Oscar-worthy performances you can imagine: Mickey Rourke in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler. This film won the Golden Lion, the top prize at the Venice Film Festival, beating out Rachel Getting Married.

Not being that fond of either Aronofsky or Rourke, I found it hard to imagine what all the fuss was about. Now I know. You don’t have to be a fan of either the director or his star to appreciate the peculiar and astounding achievement of this film. Both have reinvented themselves utterly. Magnifying his iconic image as a washed-up, dissolute actor, Rourke delivers a body-slam tour de force as a washed-up, dissolute New Jersey wrestler, but one who clings to his pride like a heavy metal rocker locked in one last, death-defying solo. Rourke plays an aging legend of the ring who’s behind on his trailer-park rent, moonlights in a supermarket, dotes on a single-mom stripper (Marisa Tomei, speaking of comebacks), and tries to reunite with his estranged lesbian daughter (Even Rachel Wood). The scenario is not as tawdry as it sounds; in fact, it’s a remarkable tender drama with delicate touches of humour and pathos.

With long, bleach-blond hair and a scarred body pumped up to action-figure proportions, Rourke is virtually unrecognizable. And Aronofsky, who has a penchant for metaphysical puzzles (Pi, The Fountain) and high-style melodrama (Requiem for a Dream) directs with spare, unvarnished realism. On stage at the Elgin theatre, Rourke introduced his star this way: “The man I met was an eggshell—an incredibly fragile, beautiful human being. . . It’s been way too long he’s being playing tough guys.”

A wrestler who’s not a tough guy? That’s right. In The Wrestler Rourke is a pussy cat. Next week he turns 52, but his face looks older, liked a puffed-out Keith Richards. Evan Rachel Wood, by the way, turned 21 last night, and the crowd at the Elgin sang her a rousing chorus of Happy Birthday.