Sunday, February 22, 2009


There comes a time in every life when you recognize where the bar has been set. "You Must Be This Tall To Ride" does not just apply to kids yearning to test the roller coaster for the first time. We're all told what the acceptable standard for our craft or behavior is at some point -- and then we have to decide whether or not we're going to meet or exceed it.

For some that's paying the mortgage, keeping the kids out of trouble and hoping the world's a little better because of our contribution when we go to sleep at night. Athletes can refer to the records in their sport for direction. Actors see what the rest of the tribe is putting out there and come to terms with it.

As a young actor, I saw my bar raised to a new level by Mickey Rourke and Eric Roberts in "The Pope of Greenwich Village". Roberts came to that film as one of the hottest stars in Hollywood with "King of the Gypsies", "Raggedy Man" and "Star 80" already on his resume. Rourke had stumbled out of the gate with forgettable roles in "1941" and "Body Heat" but shot to luminescence in "Diner" and "Rumble Fish" the year before.

Walking into the theatre to see "The Pope of Greenwich Village" you were accompanied by the same expectations as those who looked forward to finally seeing Pacino and DeNiro duke it out in Michael Mann's "Heat".

What you witnessed on that screen was two young men with more talent than anyone could imagine possessing at the time, working together, building off one another to create an emotional experience unlike any you'd experienced before. You walked out of the theatre knowing where the bar had been set. You needed to be that good.

Oh, you'd always be able to find work as an actor. There's no end of opportunities in guest star roles, dinner theatres and soap commercials for folks who can be create a character, remember their lines and not offend anybody too much. But the road is rougher and the bar set much higher if you want to do anything memorable.

Neither Rourke nor Roberts ever regained the pinnacle they reached in "The Pope of Greenwich Village". Roberts came close in Andrei Konchalovsky's "Runaway Train" and Rourke took a couple of decades to reignite in Frank (Robert Rodriguez) Miller's "Sin City". But the greater part of their careers has been spent doing junk.

What happened to them? Life, mostly. Somebody drank too much, did too much coke or fucked the wrong guy's girlfriend. They acquired reputations that sold supermarket tabloids and inspired late night comics. And people came out of the woodwork to make money building their own careers on that rep.

I once watched a guy on a pay phone in the Santa Monica Mall, reeling to stay on his feet because he was so drunk, reading potential Enquirer style headlines from a notebook, clearly hoping to sell one of them to whoever was on the other end of the line.

A week later, I noticed one of his headlines gracing my local check out line. I figured he'd succeeded in securing his liquor budget as well as ensuring the employment of several publicists, "journalists" and magazine show hosts as the subject of his imagined scandal regrouped or attempted to gain from the spin.

That aspect of the business has led to a current world where the most innocent of asides are chastised and brainless "interns" on TMZ come to believe they're also stars by snarking on celebs going through airport security. The caustic comments of critics are now more valued than their actual thoughts. In this world, dreams die and great art goes unmade while Harvey Levin sucks his sippy straw and watches his bank account climb. That man's a wealthy genius in our world, while the rest of us have fewer films with courageous actors in them to enrich our lives.

And that's what a lot of Mickey Rourke's bad-boy image is really about. I have no doubt he "crossed the line" on occasion. Actually, I'm pretty sure he hurled himself headlong beyond the established parameters. You don't create characters like he and Eric Roberts created without raising some ugly issues with thirsts that need to be slaked while you're purging them from your system.

I've worked with a number of "Difficult" actors. My belief has always been that if what's on screen is worth the pain off screen it's more than a fair trade. I can't tell you how much pain that has left me to swallow from time to time -- and how much I'd swallow again for the same level of craft.

Once or twice, I've fielded that call from an insurance company letting me know they won't cover somebody who's fucked up somewhere else. Networks get nervous. Studios have some upwardly mobile minion, who's fully with the program, call late at night to ask if you really want to roll this poison pill around in your mouth.

"It's your candy store, Jim. If you want to make Cyanide candy, that's up to you. But..."

Like the PR people and that lost soul in Santa Monica, they're all part of the same pre-judgmental machine. They're, as Bill Hicks once remarked, "Demons dispatched by Satan to lower the standards".

Mickey Rourke never lowered his standards and, unfortunately, never met enough people with the courage to place themselves between he and the machine to buy him the room he needed for his art. I can't imagine the pain he endured going home after a hard day on the set of "Harley Davidson & the Marlboro Man" but I'm pretty sure I can see it in his eyes in those speeches to his daughter in "The Wrestler".

Frankly, I don't care if Mickey Rourke wins the Oscar tonight. Winning or losing won't change my opinion of the man. But I know for certain that the machine will not allow him the latitude he received at last night's Independent Spirit Awards to speak from his heart.

It's a voice we were denied too long and need to hear more often in the future.

Mr. Mickey Rourke. Enjoy your Sunday.


Trevor B. Cunningham said...

Wow! We must be drinking the same water because you've listed so many of my favourites here. 'Runaway Train', 'Pope' and I still listen to the 'Rumble Fish' soundtrack. Rourke is probably one of the few reasons why I'm watching the Oscars this year. I would include 'Barfly' as another one of his great performances. I'd also tip my hat to filmmaker Robert Rodriquez who cast Rourke in 'Once Upon a Time in Mexico' and 'Sin city' when everyone was telling him not to cast the man.

It's interesting what you state about past reputations and those who are 'bondable'. In the past couple of years I've 1stAd some shows with actors who had troubled pasts (sometimes rumour, sometimes fact). Michael Madsen, Ironside, Kidder etc. Though not as noticed as Rourke and Roberts...I found them to be professional, no-bullshit, good-natured folks and a breath of fresh air. When they came on set, everyone's game went up a notch...cast and crew.

Great post.

wcdixon said...

"My thumb, Charlie! They took my fuckin' thumb!!"

Pope blew me away. As did Rourke in Diner and Roberts in Star 80. Then, what happened?

I met Roberts once about 8 years after a party at TIFF. Quiet, unassuming...he asked me for a cigarette. My hands were shaking as I lit it for him. It's once of the few times in my life I was 'starstruck', even though he was clearly a shell of his former self and already on the downward career spiral.

And it became one of my biggest regrets when I wasn't able to respond when he tried to engage me. Asked why I was at festival, did I have a film, had I seen film he was there with. I stammered out one word responses and kept looking around for someone to save me but must have looked like I was annoyed and wanted to be left alone. Because that's what Eric Roberts said to me: "Well, you seem to be waiting for someone...sorry to bother you. And thanks for the smoke."

And then he ambled over and leaned against a wall by himself...while I tried to slow down my heartrate.

That's one time I wish I could have a I'm sure there've been times Roberts and Rourke wish they could have a do-over as well. But that's life.