I used to think no one pursued a career in entertainment without hoping to be famous, but that’s not true. There are plenty of faces you’ve seen in films over and over, but couldn’t tell me their names if your life depended on it – and they like it that way. There are plenty of working actors, writers, musicians who just want to make a living doing something they love. But with Mickey Rourke, it seemed he was destined to be a star, regardless of what his initial goals were. The look he had, the roles he played: he should’ve been the next big thing. And he kind of was, but he kind of wasn’t. Either way, it stopped. The general consensus is that it stopped because Hollywood had enough of him and his attitude. Maybe he had enough of Hollywood. Maybe it was suicide by cop. Maybe he didn’t know that an actor couldn’t want the amazing heights of fame and so, like someone too cowardly to break up with someone, even when they know they should, he made them make the decision for him. He made the cop shoot him, the girl leave him, the industry toss him.
And so that might be the key to understanding the whole “reluctant star” thing. “Careful what you wish for” may not always apply, especially when referring to someone who did no such thing. Did Mickey Rourke sit in his bedroom daydreaming of – wishing for – the Hollywood glitz and glamour? I doubt it. He just wanted to be good and for people – not everyone, but some nebulous, satisfactory someone – to respect him for it.
Unlike many stars who “make it” before they’re really good – who we watch grow and improve over the years – Rourke showed up to the bank robbery with a loaded gun and the confidence to approach the teller without hesitation. He just didn’t have an escape plan. There he was, just on the outskirts as his film career began to burgeon. Fame started to just happen to Rourke. It probably wasn’t his goal, but he probably didn’t mind that it was part of the package. It wasn’t a matter of a guy not wanting the fame. It was a situation where a guy didn’t know what to do with the fame. His career choices, and perhaps personal ones as well, seemed bizarre and erratic. His temperament would go on to hurt him, and so would his seeming indifference toward his career. But I think he cared too much.
First off, taking his talent, his looks, his voice, his walk and the way he smoked cigarettes into account, he should have been the biggest thing since Brando. He was on the outskirts, even from the get-go, as far as Hollywood is concerned. Some people enter that limelight, or arrive in that limelight, so perfectly that they become a sort of Chairman of the Board and perhaps any odd career choices they make after are simply forgiven, while others sort of drift into the spotlight sideways and everything gets scrutinized because they’re always on probation. Mickey’s gotten comfortable being the forever-probated juvenile delinquent, but it’s a role he only later embraced. When Hollywood loves their star, all is explained away. When Hollywood, and the world, is unsure of their star, they look for holes. Mickey had plenty of holes. Did the public scrutinize this new Hollywood fixture because he sorta snuck in ‘round the back or did he have to sneak in because he wasn’t being accepted? Maybe neither. Maybe he didn’t arrive because he wasn’t meant to be a star after all. He was just a guy who was good at what he did and just happened to look the way he did.
It’s sort of how you enter that very system that can dictate your career. Take Richard Gere for example. He should’ve, taking into account his résumé, popped more immediately in Hollywood and maybe he would’ve had he “arrived” to some fanfare, but he came in through the back door. He still entered confidently, just not to much initial notice. And so, it’s almost as if his career were “retconned” once he arrived with American Gigolo and An Officer and a Gentleman. It was as if to say “look at this new star”, but he’d already been around. Lots of stars were already around before their big break. But it’s how that big break is featured, handled and, ultimately, accepted (or not) by the public. Gere showed up with a few films in the early 80s that made people take notice. The movie star thing seemed like it really might be happening for him, but then he sort of had these starts and stops in his career before eventually going back and forth between fluff and gritty dramas, all the while leaving us, the audience, not sure what to do with him. Embrace him? Sure. Adore him? I don’t know about that. Idolize him? Not since 1983’s Breathless.
But it’s the idolization that makes a star.
In many ways, Mickey Rourke’s career was like Marlon Brando’s. They were taken very seriously and were wildly talented and idolized. They also seemed to have squandered their respective talents as their careers, seemingly by their own hand, washed away. Mickey Rourke’s career is a bit like Richard Gere’s too. They didn’t immediately arrive and take the world by storm as others had. They kinda creeped into the limelight, held on for a bit then, again, seemingly by their own design, backed away. But not fully. They didn’t back away with the quietness of Phoebe Cates, Rick Moranis or even Emilio Estevez. They still wanted in. But why? They were in. Perhaps because Mickey, or Richard for that matter, didn’t instantly “pop”, they weren’t afforded the career trajectory so many other stars have had. One could argue that they just didn’t have hit after hit. But why not? On paper, Rourke should’ve been the owner of the 80s as far as leading men go in Hollywood, but he wasn’t. Not even close. More people knew who Ralph Macchio was. Ah, it’s the project then. The vehicle. Did Rourke not pick those vehicles? Were they not offered to him? Why wasn’t Rourke a bigger deal?
Look at the originals who popped. The fellows who laid the groundwork for how to be a star, how to be a man. The originals that spawned so many other actors to follow in their footsteps, not only because they were talented but because many of those actors that followed wanted to be them. Their perceived lifestyles were romanticized and it was those lifestyles that were to be emulated by the next crop of wannabe cool guys, more than the work brought forth by the original actors.
Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, James Dean, Paul Newman and Steve McQueen.
You’ve got an array of men ranging from artsy weirdos to classic muscle car tough guys. You’ve got the sensitivity and passion of Kurt Cobain and the toughness of Lee Marvin or Robert Mitchum.
Looking at Clift, Brando, Dean, Newman and McQueen, they all had starring vehicles that we remember them for, whether it was their best work or even first work, or not. Clift arrived with A Place in the Sun but had already starred, or co-starred in, Red River and The Heiress. But for many moviegoers, A Place in the Sun was the birth of this cool, tender, somewhat tortured man. Sure, he played a murderer, but he looked cool doing it. And not just Fonzie-cool, but tortured-cool. It was the birth of the identity we’d stamp on him. And maybe that’s part of it too. The guys who make it big either are the parts they’re recognized for or we at least believe they are, and go on believing that even with evidence to the contrary. Brando had, like Clift, a lengthy Broadway career before starring in The Men, but it was a Hollywood reprise of his lead role in A Streetcar Named Desire that made the world take notice and make men start wearing undersized undershirts. The world never really let Brando not be Stanley, and he claimed to hate how identified with the part he became. Dean had a lot of television work, some stage work and a couple of uncredited bit parts in films before starring in East of Eden, but when he did, all the teens finally had someone to identify with. The kids finally had a tortured, confused, doe-like animal playing out their problems for them and all the kids liked knowing, or at least thinking they knew, that Dean was as mixed up as his roles (and therefore they) were.
Paul Newman had a lot of stage and TV work as well. He even had a leading role in a feature he hated before technically “arriving” in Somebody Up There Likes Me. Now that is a weird one. Newman was nothing like the cartoonish Rocky Graziano (a part initially meant for James Dean). But it looked like Paul Newman and that was enough because people instantly knew they liked how Paul Newman looked. He followed that shortly after with a few other films, one of which was Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Now, I’d say Newman’s résumé was that of a character actor more than a star but again, he, and therefore we, couldn’t escape his looks and so when you went to a Paul Newman movie, no matter the part he was playing, you went to a Paul Newman movie. McQueen showed up a bit more slowly with a lead role as the cool bounty hunter in the TV series Wanted: Dead Or Alive after having done some stage, TV and smaller film work. But then he got a few pictures that were ensemble pieces, starting with The Magnificent Seven. And Steve made damn sure to shine in that part, constantly trying to upstage his co-stars Yul Brynner and Charles Bronson. McQueen was the guy to watch after that. He was more of an action star than his predecessors, but he was an action star who could truly act and that was a rarity back in the early-to-mid-sixties. But McQueen had a look, a haircut that people would ask for at the barber, and if that doesn’t say “star” then what the hell does?
What happened with Mickey? Yes, he did seem a bit like a young Brando transplanted to the 80s, but Rourke didn’t have that one role that defined him. He didn’t have that one role that people looked at and went “I wanna be like that guy!” He blew up, as they say, not in a lead role but in a small bit part in Body Heat. Yes, the man was electric and stole the show as a criminal arsonist who helps our lead, played by William Hurt, get into even deeper water. And that was great. Rourke, in Body Heat, was trouble. He signified, with utter coolness, the beginning of the path downwards for Hurt. He was the dark side, but with a boyish playfulness, like a happy, mischievous devil. Watch Mickey’s intro scene in Body Heat and you will see the makings of a real movie star in a 1950s kinda way. But this role wasn’t the lead. And it wasn’t the 50s, it was the beginning of the 80s. A different time. Often it seemed that if you didn’t build up your résumé in a very obtuse way before getting a lead, you just got a lead anyway. You were handpicked to take over the screen. Now, a part like the one Rourke had in Body Heat was a part that wasn’t supposed to get noticed. His character simply helped our main actor get further into the story. But Mickey did get noticed. This was sort of unprecedented. What does he do next? He’s got to use this moment. He wasn’t prepared for it. He thought he was still paying his dues. Thing is, the vehicle wasn’t right. All the other guys had the right vehicle. It all seemed well mapped-out. Mickey’s burst of stardom was unexpected precisely because he hadn’t been handpicked for the lead role. Rourke just did too well and outshone his co-star. Either way, the timing was weird. This wasn’t supposed to be his moment. He didn’t know what to do. Maybe that was because he didn’t have a manager who knew what to do with their boy, like the Colonel with Elvis. Maybe Mickey was doing it all by himself.
He followed Body Heat up with Rumble Fish. Nice call. Not the lead but the third lead and a part that was star-making. Rourke here plays a sort of impression of James Dean and Marlon Brando as painted by a sensitive, world-weary French poet. He was hypnotic, but not easy to pin down. The role wasn’t the archetype found in films prior. He was just a bit off from centre. And the thing is, the movie, Rumble Fish, was weird and off-centre and never really found an audience until home video. But neither the film nor its third lead, Mickey Rourke, found that popping kind of celebrity. So here he’s followed up one odd character who shined with another odd character, albeit bigger this time, who also shined. But it didn’t cement him into a bracket we could all identify with because, well, we had never seen it before. And so Mickey ended up sort of idling as far as leading men go. Uh-oh, now Mickey’s momentum is fading. He’s had two big roles in two major films, but they haven’t notified the world of him. Diner. A great ensemble piece where Rourke gets to be the bad boy of the bunch. He’s cool, he’s funny, but he’s not our focus. And Diner got some notice. But Rourke doesn’t really shine perhaps because he does, for once, slide into an identifiable bracket. “Ah, yes, Rourke’s fulfilling this type of character in this kind of film”. But the film isn’t huge. It comes and goes and the whole cast gets some attention. That attention leads Rourke to now, finally, be a lead in a film. Offers started to come in for big roles in potential blockbusters, but Rourke was a serious actor, dammit, and ended up taking The Pope of Greenwich Village which co-starred Geraldine Page. Hell, she was in Sweet Bird of Youth with Newman, both on stage and film. That’s good. And it was directed by Stuart Rosenberg. He had directed Cool Hand Luke, one of Newman’s most iconic movies. So that’s also good. Right? Well, Page hadn’t done anything in a while and Rosenberg was just off, not Cool Hand Luke but The Amityville Horror, a good film for what it is, but the wrong type of film for Rourke to capitalise on his success.
Now, Mickey Rourke in The Pope of Greenwich Village should’ve led to him becoming a star, whether he wanted that or not. This coulda, shoulda been the one. He’s electrifying. His hair is cool, his wardrobe is cool and, most importantly, his talent is cool. He’s amazing as a sort of small-time hood who almost postures at being a tough guy, but is really just a nice, sensitive guy who gets in over his head. He’s subtle, especially when compared to co-star Eric Roberts, and totally believable. And you do root for him, which is a rare thing to have happen in a Mickey Rourke film. He’s our hero. And he’s utterly watchable. Here’s a star who’s also an actor. And The Pope of Greenwich Village is a fine film but, again, failed to find an audience while still in theaters and so Mickey was kinda becoming this obscure type of famous, not really seen in Hollywood yet. Because the movie wasn’t a blockbuster or an awards sweeper, Rourke got left behind while a younger set was breaking in and taking over. You look at actors now and there is a sort of rulebook they play by. The non-“star” types, the “actor’s actor” types, get in the system with independent fare – films not totally unlike The Pope of Greenwich Village – but then they’re “handled” the right way, put into a bigger studio film, in a smaller role of course, to see how they do and then are usually handed a franchise or at least a lead in a blockbuster. If they float, they float, if they sink, it’s back to indie films. Rourke may have started this, inadvertently. He didn’t create the playbook, but he opened up the eyes of some of the gatekeepers as to what potential they had with such talented types. But in Mickey’s case, there was no map yet. Clearly.
Films like Rumble Fish and The Pope of Greenwich Village would’ve flourished, I’m sure, a decade earlier, in the 70s, and I think that’s where Rourke belonged, but here he was in the 80s. Wrong generation and bad timing, baby. He was born too early. The 80s, after all, were for younger stars in their early 20s, not guys in their mid-30s. The 80s were for the “Brat Pack” kids and films that were flashy and feel good and had modern pop soundtracks that were ultimately uplifting. Imagine Mickey Rourke in a John Hughes movie. Who could he have been in any of those? Uncle Buck? Maybe. Rourke was in the wrong decade. I think that was a major issue in the non-popping or non-arriving of the star who should’ve been.
It wasn’t just the films though that Mickey didn’t fit into. Not the major films anyway. It was the films that couldn’t handle Mickey. Technically, he could’ve done them, but he was too intense for the style of acting required in a lot of 80s cinema. He didn’t take broad strokes. He didn’t fit into the obvious heroic or villainous archetypes. He was the stuff that lay between. He was the human stuff. Now, this is not to take away from 1980s performances. The big hits of that decade just had a different style from, say, the 70s or the 90s. Great actors know how to change tone depending on the medium or genre. Matthew McConaughey does this brilliantly. He can bring in the bass with parts in True Detective, Mud or Killer Joe or he can also lighten up but still be sincere in How to Lose a Guy on 10 Days or Fool’s Gold. That’s a gift. In general, the 80s needed that treble and unfortunately for some actors, like Rourke, he didn’t know how not to be sincere. He didn’t know how to change tones. He was too into the characters he was portraying and not the overall vibe of a film. Look at Top Gun for a moment. What do people talk about when they refer to it? The whole picture. Yes, Tom Cruise was great but at doing what? No one says “hey, did you see Tom Cruise in Top Gun?” And that’s not because he wasn’t excellent in that role but because the movie is seen as a whole. It’s a great action, romance, music video that came out just as MTV was breaking. It was perfect. But when someone talks about a Mickey Rourke movie, it’s “he was amazing!” He. You see, he the performer was singled out and that alone doesn’t put asses into seats. No asses, no return. No return, no follow-up for the poor fool whose face was on the poster. Rourke was doing his job. And well. He was searching for truth in a character. But he wasn’t putting asses in seats, and once you’ve begun to enter that Hollywood system, you’re usually in it for keeps. It was a hard road for someone not so obvious and it doesn’t help when you’re not making obvious choices.
Mickey had to, just had to, play it for real. And I don’t know that that type of weight sat well in the shoulder-padded 80s where the wardrobes did the heavy lifting and protection for you just as Keaton’s Batman was built around him and two decades later, Bale’s was built within him. And that’s not to take anything away from Michael Keaton. He’s brilliant. But once the 80s, and the slickness associated with that decade, disappeared, we found a new type of film hero. Here come Christian Bale and Heath Ledger and company. The character actor with movie star looks was finally allowed to shine as something other than that of a star. Character actors used to be character actors because Hollywood didn’t buy that anyone would want to see that actor as just that actor. If you had looks and charm, you were a star, whether you wanted to be that kind of star or not and you were a star because you put asses in seats. People wanted to look at you. If Hollywood decided you didn’t have the right looks, you were in the background. End of story. That did start to turn around by the late 60s with character actors like Dustin Hoffman coming to the forefront but, generally, none of how the machine worked ever changed. By the time things were a little less cut and dry, and actors, not just stars, could be trusted to carry a big movie, Mickey found himself aged out. This isn’t to say he wasn’t afforded great opportunities to be a leading man in the 80s, I’m sure he was. He just wasn’t the kind of leading man the 80s wanted. He was ahead of his time.
Back in the 80s, Rourke got to have 9½ Weeks. A great film. A potential star-making film, right? I mean, he seemed to treat the role as someone who gave a shit. His character, John, was a mysterious man, but a mysterious man who was to be believed. When he first meets Kim Basinger’s Elizabeth, it’s like he’s hiding a secret. There’s so much going on in his face. There is nothing plain and simple, nothing one-note. And as beautiful as Basinger was, and is, it’s Mickey that your eyes are drawn to and it’s not just because he looked great. It’s because you wanted to know what secret he was smirking at, what he was hiding. You want to know why he is the way he is, but even the way he is is a mystery. Mickey doesn’t do anything typical. He doesn’t fit the good guy or bad guy mould. In this case, he’s not even painted as the typical romantic lead. He’s a human being full of quirks and darkness and humor and anger. You know, like actual human beings. But for all his talent, all Rourke’s charisma and believability, 9½ Weeks was dismissed as softcore cable porno. It’s not that at all. Again, he wasn’t given a fair shot. He should’ve been recognized as a force to be reckoned with and you can’t help but wonder if he himself felt the same way. Whether he was as big as Harrison Ford or not, by this point, he knew he was literally, by the very definition of the word, a movie star. He starred in movies. But with 9½ Weeks he just became the hottie in that cable porno. He wasn’t given his due. And I have no idea why Barfly or Angel Heart weren’t massive successes. Those are the films he did next. Well, yes, I do. They weren’t Beverly Hills Cop or Top Gun. They were too damned 70s for the 80s.
In Barfly, Mickey does indeed disappear into Bukowski’s somewhat autobiographical version of himself, Henry. He moves different, looks different, certainly talks different. Again, he steals the show. He’s a down-and-out drinker and I can never believe that the guy I watched in that movie isn’t actually that guy. It’s amazing to watch 9½ Weeks and then Barfly and know that you’re watching the same man. And you’re not even watching the same man 10 or 15 years apart. That’s the same man, a single film apart from one another. Rourke as Henry should’ve been given an Oscar. But no. No one really saw Barfly at the time and critics weren’t nuts about it either. I think it wasn’t movie enough for them. People felt they needed a bath after watching Barfly. Rourke’s job was done correctly. He pulled off being another human. And it was fascinating. But people all wanted the star. Where’s the pretty boy from Rumble Fish or Pope? Who’s this pre-grunge, beer-gutted alley fighter? Exactly. Who is this? Well, your job as an audience member is to sit back and watch and find out. But that’s not the Hollywood way. Rourke should’ve been capitalizing on his looks and he should’ve just been playing a type we could all get used to. Then, once we’ve pigeonholed him, he can hold him up and celebrate him as a great movie star. But Rourke kept acting. That’s a very different thing. And that was his job, don’t forget. In Angel Heart, a surreal neo-noir detective story, Mickey’s an edgier Columbo. He’s rumpled, awkward and full of nuance, but isn’t quite as charming as Columbo and even if he were, that’s not the Mickey Rourke anyone cared about, if they cared about the actor at all. Watch the scene in Angel Heart where Rourke shows up at Lisa Bonet’s farm in Louisiana and does his best to ask her some questions while trying to steer clear of the free-range chickens she’s got roaming about. He’s “got a thing about birds”, which is just wonderful, as is the sun blocker on his nose. This guy is the best. He should, by this point in career, be hailed as the biggest and brightest star this side of the sun. But nope. Angel Heart wasn’t Wall Street. It sure as hell wasn’t slick. It wasn’t 1987 enough for 1987.
Rourke flounders here.
Imagine: here you are as this guy who’s come pretty damned far. The bar, even if only for yourself, has been raised. Your expectations get raised. As far as performance goes, you’re still the best, but do you believe it? The industry is saying different. The audiences are saying different. They’re not saying you’re no good, they’re just not championing you. Maybe it’s that kind of frustration that built in Rourke and that’s what put that massive chip on his shoulder. Maybe that’s why he started not giving a shit and showing up late and picking movies that suited his inner feelings. Films like Johnny Handsome, a throwback 1940s-type gangster picture where, while still interesting to watch, Mickey did something different. In Johnny Handsome you can almost tell, really for the first time, that Rourke isn’t just showing us the character but, rather, showing us his feelings about doing this film. I’m not saying he had to do Johnny Handsome. I’m sure he wanted to, but that very want seems to have come from a “fuck you” place. He’s showing us something that will become the regular in his future films. While cool and all, he’s left behind that inner artist. Now, rather than delve into a part, Rourke’s playing the swagger on the surface of the role, but also showing us that “yeah, this is the real me”. And in that moment, it probably was the real him. It’s as if he were embarrassed by his vulnerability in the past. In Homeboy, Mickey gave maybe his last shot at being the beautiful artist he was, all the while alluding to where he was going to go if he wasn’t accepted. His performance as a punch-drunk (and drunk-drunk) fighter was fascinating and original. He seemed like a boy in a man’s world. He seemed like an alien from another planet, but it worked. He was a cowboy who walked like he’d just gotten off his horse, or like he’d been hit one, or nine, too many times. His speech a whispery southern drawl. Again, here was this actor who disappeared into his work, it seemed. The life behind the eyes said so much. He brought us in, wanting to get to know this troubled boxer on his last legs. Whether you understood him and his motivations or not, you felt for him. It was a film he co-wrote and it was even about boxing. He was showing us where things may head. “This is me.” But no one cared.
And so, as the 80s came to a close, was Rourke, one of the stars of the decade? He kinda was. But he really wasn’t. When we look back at that decade, Rourke’s face doesn’t immediately pop up. His ever-changing face doesn’t immediately pop up in any decade actually. Always on the fringes when he should’ve blown the big guys out of the water. Trust me, it’s not hard to find interviews with Rourke from the early 90s, his dark years, saying a version of the above. But it’s that tough bad boy that Rourke now wanted to be. He embraced the fact that he couldn’t be a “popcorn” hero, perhaps begrudgingly. And he’ll behave as though he wants to do these low-rent films that show off just how tough he can be, and of course, this all helped label Mickey as difficult, just like Marlon before him. He didn’t like the Brando and Dean comparisons. He made that clear. It was then no longer enough for Mickey to play the tough guy. He had to show the world how angry he was by actually being the tough guy. And the guy actually became a boxer. Newman and McQueen had car racing, Brando had fudge and Mickey, well, he had legalized violence. After a weird stint in the ring, Rourke tried to get back into Hollywood. But if we thought we’d see the thoughtful artist of Rumble Fish or even Year of the Dragon, you could forget it. Rourke was now doing his impression of Charles Bronson. A man’s man who happened to be caught in Hollywood.
Look at Bullet. Not McQueen’s Bullit, but Rourke and Tupac’s ‘96 action thriller, Bullet. Here’s something Rourke wrote for himself and guess what kind of character he wrote himself as? He wrote the toughest badass this side of Harry Callahan. The guy in Bullet – whose name is literally Butch, by the way – was a rough, violent smackhead just out of jail and Rourke got jacked for it. And not just his body. You can see the beginning of his infamous facial transformation in this film. The cheeks are wildly accentuated. The teeth are all weird. Maybe his nose too. His eyes somehow look tougher. This film shows us the bridge between the Mickey Rourke of yesteryear and the Mickey Rourke of today. If Johnny Handsome and Homeboy were the drafted blueprints, Bullet was the day they broke ground on construction. It was like he was showing us, as an angry teen would, that he was gonna do things his way. No one listened to him before so screw it. “I’ll be the angry man I’ve been trying to shy away from.” He embraced the bitterness in himself. No one let him take off the way he should have. No one let him “pop” when he thought he was supposed to. Not in the way the legends before him had. No one embraced him. And so now he’s going to put his inner anger and rage on display in more ways than one. He’ll play the part, on-screen and off-, we’d all already accused him of being. Gone was the artist. Here’s the real-deal tough guy.
The 90s played on. His films got worse. His films had less of a release. His face continued to change. It was as if he’d try on a new look, like a new outfit, find that it didn’t quite cut it, and then go back to the shop and try on another one. Then the next generation rediscovered his work from the 80s and he was reborn. But he wasn’t that guy anymore. He’d lost that fellow who didn’t get to “arrive” the way Tom Cruise or Patrick Swayze did. The Mickey Rourke of the late 90s until now is not the same guy he was in the 80s. Really. This isn’t just an age thing. This isn’t just a “people change and evolve thing”. This isn’t even a surgical enhancement thing. Watch a more recent interview with the guy and you see that he could not possibly be the guy from the 80s. Watch an interview with an older Paul Newman and you can still see he was once the guy from thirty or fifty years earlier. But you cannot watch an interview with Mickey Rourke from the past twenty years and see the guy who was in Diner. It’s as if someone borrowed a Mickey suit and had it retooled.
Now, look, Sean Penn made it in a big way in the 80s. And he was tough, kinda macho, not a John Hughes guy. Not a blockbuster guy either, but a guy who Hollywood took seriously. Penn arrived. Maybe it’s just because he was younger. Maybe it’s because he was willing to play the game a bit more. Who knows why Penn was allowed to shine and Rourke wasn’t? Maybe it was all Rourke’s doing. Either way, by 2009 they were both up for an Oscar. Mickey should’ve got it. It was a great comeback story and Rourke was fantastic in his nominated part as Randy in The Wrestler. He looked intimidating but was very boyish, charming, unsure of himself, much like the man who portrayed him. He was kinetic. Here was a guy who knew what the hell he was doing. He never forgot. It was as if, after he’d been out of the limelight for so long, he wanted to be back in, or, at least, he wanted to be respected again. And he was. Rourke had finally arrived with The Wrestler. He was the talk of the town. He became identified with that role. But Sean won that night. Mickey should’ve got it, not necessarily because he was better (how do you even measure anything other than a race to a finish line anyway?), but because he was never going to be given another role like that. He was never going to be given another shot at the title. Sean will have tons of roles thrown his way. Mickey had The Wrestler. That one time. That was it. What else is a guy like that going to do? It was a role of a sensitive man in a tough man’s body. That was Mickey Rourke. But he took the “L” on his record and didn’t use any positive notoriety to move ahead. Maybe the anger resurfaced. “See? They never give me a fair shake.” And maybe he’s not wrong.
And so, Mickey Rourke just never did show up in the spotlight like Brando, Dean, Newman, whoever. He also didn’t have a quieter career. He was just somewhere in the middle. Here was a man that seems like he was supposed to have been a movie star, but didn’t know what to do with it. Here was a guy who was supposed to pop and didn’t. Sure, a lot of guys never break big like some other guys do, but Mickey was supposed to. A lot of it may be the fact that many actors and stars get better as they gain experience whereas Rourke was amazing right off the bat. Find an old TV movie of his called City in Fear and you can see that the guy was ready by the time he arrived in Hollywood. In City in Fear, Mickey’s a serial killer. Not in the slasher movie way, but not in the Silence of the Lambs way either. He was somewhere in between. He was genuinely distressed by his actions. The actor gave the character some purpose for such a terribly purposeless act. He was so alive. Watch a scene where Rourke, as a grocery store clerk, is casually interviewed by a cop, played by Perry King. You go back and see that and realise he’d already arrived before anyone even knew who the hell he was. His talent had already arrived and maybe that’s it. He was so good that we didn’t get to watch him get better. We didn’t get to watch him grow. We didn’t get to grow up with him. We never really got to identify and mature with him and so maybe we felt he was already past us, not needing us to be his audience. He was shining long before the spotlight ever shined on him.
And perhaps it’s all because no one ever knew what to do with Mickey Rourke that he never had his moment. Maybe that’s because Mickey Rourke never knew what to do with Mickey Rourke. He didn’t glide in through the gates, but skidded sideways into and through the wall, and it’s just too bad that only now, all these years later, people are really checking out 9½ Weeks, Angel Heart, Barfly and Rumble Fish. That only now people are seeing this man was supposed to be a legend. This man was supposed to be the next big thing, but his fame slowly curdled into infamy. The man that never was living a career that should’ve been.
23 thoughts on “Mickey Rourke: The Star That Should’ve Been”
Wow, that means the world to me. I’m writing a few more articles on some of my other favourite actors and topics regarding my favourite films so please, be on the lookout. But thank you, thank you.
I recently found Mickey after seeing Angel Heart. You’re right though, his performance even down to his mannerisms captivates people. I was drawn in to him and his character, i immediately went “who is that guy??” And went to google. He almost reminded me of Gary Oldman before people began to notice how awesome he was! I was always a fan of the underdogs in the 80s. Gary back then was one of the underdogs. I remember chatting about his films as a teen in the 90s even and no one knew who I was talking about. I feel like Mickey would have been the same. It is a shame because even the short clip of City of Fear, showed that spark he had. I feel his pain though, you see the cover of Diner and every one of the other actors hit a status at some point, then there is Mickey. Well as I begin to discover more of his films, I’m sure he will be the new underdog I can root for. Sadly, like you said the Mickey now is scarred, physically and emotionally of the star that never was.
Mickey wasn’t disciplined that’s it. He didn’t respect the business and Hollywood is a business. He didn’t respect the men in power and that really rubbed people in power the wrong way. He passed on roles that would’ve made him a big movie star and the greatest sin in Hollywood an actor can do is pass on a hit. he had personal demons that he didn’t handled had he died after angel heart he would’ve been the James dean of his era instead of the Marlon Brando of his era. Hell even Marlon played the game. Mickey just didn’t respect the business and had zero discipline.
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Curious why you didn’t give Year of the Dragon a few paragraphs. Year is the film that won me over-Rourke’s fearless drive to play a sensitive sonuvabitch who cannot restrain himself (how can you care too much?). While The Pope of Greenwich Village showcased his charm, Year of the Dragon revealed the fluid, sensitive, aggressive, and tortured Rourke, a star who was too on, too alive and aware of the street and his own sweat and ADHD to be a mere 80s star. Even in his defensive post-boxer/plastic surgery phase Rourke is still a glorious masochist who can startle us with his duality-sensitive yet savage, genuine yet guarded with tattoos, muscles, and attitude, in films like Spun and Ashby. In Iron Man 2 Rourke dominates the glib Robert Downey Jr by just flexing his shoulders and mumbling a few monosyllabic words. In The Expendables Rourke is the only real man of the bunch-while Sylvester Stallone has to flail in front of a dozen explosions all Rourke has to do is burn a few lines on Stallone’s back and hurl a knife at the end of the film to claim his masculine privilege. Mickey won’t be happy until he’s crucified playing someone.
Long live Mickey Motherfucking Rourke.
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Damn. Bravo!!! I wish I could have said that!!
PS. Wonderfully written article
Good article that nails it.
Though you mention Tom Cruise a few times… Allegedly Rourke turned down the roles in “Rain man” and “Top gun”.
Also allegedly turned down “48 hours” (which would have had him work with one of the biggest 1980s stars Eddie Murphy)… Allegedly turned down “Platoon”, “The Untouchables”, “Highlander”, and “Dead Poets Society” as well.
I don’t know how true that is, but if only half of it is in fact true, then its obviously Rourke’s own undoing and not so much that he wasn’t made for the 1980s, because those movies were commercially highly succesful.
I actually believe that Rourke fit into the 80s much better than he would have been in the 70s.
Pacino and De Niro (both older than Rourke) found success in the 80s (Scarface).
In the 1990s he could have continued to pick good movies and be one of the most serious actors – I mean why not Rourke and Sean Penn in “Heat” instead of De Niro and Pacino? Or how about Rourke in “Three Kings” instead of George Clooney?
I guess in a way he didn’t want it really.
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Glad you enjoyed it! And all very good points, actually. Much appreciated!
Glad you enjoyed it! And all very good points actually. Much appreciated!
You nailed it! You completely figured out the enigma that was Rourke. Unfortunately he lost himself in the process of finding his place in Hollywood. You have to wonder now at his age if he could ever find that truly sensitive gifted artist he was once? Good job.
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That is a deep fucking dive into Mickey Rourke’s career. It’s brilliant, really. Phenomenal writing. Having watched “Body Heat” tonight and thinking again how odd and tragic his career has been, I googled him and came across this article. I appreciate it because I think it’s truly a mesmerizing story – what is that gossamer thin wire that separates the near greats from the greats.
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Thank you! Glad you liked it.
Nice article. But, one point is missing: Rourke threw his career away, not just due to bad film choices or boredom, but by his behavior. Without box office clout, actors can’t just go around pissing off producers, executives and directors and expect to get away with it. Too many public “I do what I want, and if anyone has a problem with that, they can fuck off.” It’s not that he didn’t know how to play the game (or refused). He tried to change the game to fit his own misguided needs. He made the mistake in believing that only the work mattered. The comparison to Gere is interesting, but Gere has had a much more sustainable career as a major leading man. He never fell as far down the ladder as Rourke.
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Thank you for this article. So sad that so few of us realized what a treasure he was. I just watched 91/2 wks again and saw love and kindness in his eyes, not just lust. I so wish we had celebrated his acting as it deserved, at the time.
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A well written appraisal of the enigma that is mickey Rourke.
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Thanks so much. Just watched 9 &1/2 Weeks again. The guy is fascinating.
As near perfect a piece as I’ve read…and I’ve read everything on Mickey Rourke. He fascinates me for many reasons, not the least of which is that Mickey in the 80’s bears a striking resemblance in all things ( talk, walk,intensity, the hesitant grin) to my late, other half.
Your article was superb in every way, so well written. Amazingly, you summed up what every Mickey Rourke fan has felt for decades but didn’t know how to articulate.
Regardless, of his reminding me of my other half or was it the other way around? I do believe Mickey to be one of the few, really great actors. Glad you recognized that. Wish he could read your article.
Really insightful. Well done.
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Very interesting article. I was first drawn to Rourke during his “dark” period in the late ’90s. Edgiest actor I’ve ever seen.
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Oh, that era, his hard to find films truly drew me in even more. I think I first got interested in him because he suddenly turned to boxing. What star does that?!
(OP here) For sure. The first film I saw him in was Point Blank… to be fair, I only made it half way through. Then it was Bullet. To this day my brother and I crack up at the dinner scene with Ted Levine. But, Rourke was legit one of my favorite actors even though I had only seen him in 1.5 (relatively low quality) films. Not certain why I’m so fascinated by him, but I know I’m equally as fascinated by Errol Flynn, and Mickey once posted on Insta that he’d read Errol’s autobiography a couple of times and that he liked him. There’s something connecting those two. Charisma?
Some people can discuss Star Wars endlessly (What went wrong? What if…? Why were the prequels how they were? etc.). I’ve found Mickey to be a topic like that.
Read your article again. Well done. Perhaps close to the “final word,” on Mr. Rourke.
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Great summary. Mickey is one of the few top actors in Hollywood and was robbed of Oscar not only once.
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Decent article – year of the dragon was a decent stab too. Rourke ultimately made v poor choices too.
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