Life In Parts: Mickey Rourke

Everyone knows that The Wrestler is Mickey Rourke's most biographical film.

But did you realise that Rourke's career has been littered with flicks that could've been written specifically for him?

Here’s our walk through the wild side of Rourke and how the camera reflected more than his face…

Blazing To Attention

Body Heat (1981)

Despite making his screen debut in Steven Spielberg’s 1941, it was Lawrence Kasdan’s taught thriller that first saw Rourke truly come to attention.

He was working as a bouncer at a transvestite club in LA when he auditioned for the role of arsonist Teddy Lewis.

''I was looking for a young De Niro,'' remembers Kasdan. ''Every young actor says they want to be the heir to Brando or De Niro, but when Mickey read for the part, he genuinely had that quality.''

While Teddy is a small link in the film's plot, the man who played him effortlessly stole scenes from stars William Hurt and Kathleen Turner and soon caught the attention of the likes of Barry Levinson and Francis Ford Coppola… He was on the way.

But despite his burgeoning screen presence, he was still an outsider…

Next: Mysterious Upstart


Mysterious Upstart

Rumble Fish (1983)

Francis Ford Coppola once said that he made Rumble Fish as “an art film for teenagersâ€.

Though it garnered mixed reviews – and continues to divide audiences between those who think it’s a masterpiece, and those who consider it a cluttered, clichéd mess – it’s still one of the director’s more fascinating early films.

And what of Rourke? He’s the Motorcycle Boy, weary but iconic rebel, patterned after Albert Camus and Napoleon (the two men Coppola ordered him to study) and played by Rourke as "an actor who no longer finds his work interesting".

Scrapping teens, motorcycle gangs and the fantasies the characters wrap around themselves are all punctured by the gang leader.

“The legend they all created was a bunch of bulls**t,†he said during an on-set interview. “He sees everything like that now.â€

Which is how Rourke himself was beginning to view Hollywood…

Next: Sex Symbol


Sex symbol

Nine ½ Weeks (1986)

It might seem unlikely now, but back in the ‘80s, Rourke was considered to be a serious sex icon – masculine, yet sensitive, charming yet dangerous.

All that came to a head with Adrian Lyne’s erotic thriller, which despite its essential cheesiness is still remembered, if only for its creative scenes of Rourke and Kim Basinger getting it on.

Rourke plays John, who wraps Basinger’s arty Elizabeth in a passionate affair, only for things to crumble once complications set in. For the actor, it was a bad time – he hated the attention.

'That was when that whole pretty, sexy thing came about,'' Rourke recalls.

''Which I resented. I never saw myself that way, and I ran from it like wildfire. I don't know why.”

The film itself was panned, but for a short while, Rourke was one of the most lusted after men in the world.

It couldn’t last – and despite solid turns in the likes of Angel Heart, things began to go wrong…

Next: Troubled Talent


Troubled Talent

Barfly (1987)

"It's cliché," Rourke has said about the labels people pinned on him during his wilder, partying days. "People go, 'Oh, he has a drug problem, a drinking problem.' It was never my issue."

The labels, however, have stuck, ("When we met, Mickey smoked but he didn't drink. As his fame grew he started to become the big star, drinking and doing coke,†first ex-wife Debra Feuer once told The Mirror) and few of his roles seem as close to the bone as Henry Chinaski in Barfly, the boozy poet of his generation.

Based on drunkard scribe Charles Bukowski, Chinaski is a Shakespeare of spirits, and the type of lyrical troublemaker that fit Rourke to a tee. Barbet Schroeder found the actor’s dark heart.

Though they worked together well on Barfly, Rourke’s slide into arrogance, anger and dismay about Hollywood poisoned their relationship.

''I remember I put a note on his front door saying that I would never speak to him again,'' says Schroeder, ''and I haven't.''

Soon, Mickey would ditch Hollywood altogether…

Next: Hangin’ Tough


Hangin’ Tough

Harley Davidson And The Marlboro Man (1991)

In 1991, Rourke decided that he was self-destructing and had lost all respect for himself as an actor His solution? He “had to go back to boxing.”

Though he had some success, the sport destroyed his face. ''Somebody said to me, “ Rourke later told EW. “‘You don't look like you used to.’ But who does?

“I mean, when I was boxing I had six nose operations, I had cartilage taken from behind my ear, I had short-term memory loss, I've got an equilibrium problem, I don't have as many teeth in my head as I used to.''

Harley Davidson was one of the last roles he took before he ditched the actor’s life.

He’s a brawling urban cowboy, sort of a bizarro world, older take on Motorcycle Boy from Rumble Fish.

It seemed to sum up his driving force before the desire to box took hold. But even he wasn’t pleased with the result: ''I'd do some piece of s***t for the money and then show up late and f**k everything up.

''More than half the movies I've made I didn't want to do. I bought a house that was way too expensive, cars, entourage, women and jewellery. If you ain't ever had it, once you get it, you spend it as quick as you can.”

Next: Mentally Lost


Mentally Lost

Double Team (1997)

Surely a cautionary tale for How The Mighty Can Fall. Rourke, post-boxing, goes from starring with the likes of Robert De Niro to playing second fiddle against… Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dennis Rodman.

Still, Rourke sucked it up and even tried to praise the film during the Making Of. "I used to look down on this type of movie but you have to use a tremendous amount of concentration to do this work, the same as if you were doing Shakespeare,” he says.

“I haven't had a chance to get bored on this movie, because they're working me out like a horse.”

As Stavros, the international terrorist who goes on after our “heroes”, he puts his head down and gets on with it.

The unbalanced Stavros is definitely indicative of Mickey’s mental state at the time – OTT, unfocused and willing to do anything to keep his life as is - or, in the thesp's case, as was.

He'd have to wait a while before decent work came calling...

Next: Comeback Kid


Comeback Kid

Sin City (2005)

''If I knew it would take me 15 years to come back, I would have done things differently,†says Rourke.

“People say, 'Hey, this is your comeback.' But comeback from where? Fifteen years of holding on to hope. Because living in hopelessness, you'd rather be dead.''

After seeming years in the wilderness, with small roles offered as favours from friends (The Rainmaker and Stallone’s Get Carter remake), Rourke came roaring back in Robert Rodriguez’s ambitious adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel noir tales.

Marv in the film is a cartoon take on the man himself – battered, bruised, but with a good heart beating away beneath the scars.

Though he’s always been seen as an actor who needs people to react against, he seemed to enjoy the experience. “It was different. You're on this treadmill walking through this city, except there's no city. I had most of my scenes in a room by myself. Which was fine with me.â€

And even as Marv goes off on his mission, the role proved Rourke could buckle down and work for decent directors.

“I couldn't go off on my ''I'm gonna wear this, wear that. . .'' No, we were shooting the comic: If the coat was blowing a certain way, a wind machine was blowing that coat in that direction. But I respected Robert's vision.â€

Next: Return To Glory


The Real Return To Glory

The Wrestler (2008)

“I don’t watch my films. I hate watching myself,” says the bruised former boxer. “I haven’t seen The Wrestler, and I don’t plan to, either.”

It’s understandable why Rourke might not watch Darren Aronofsky’s painful – literally, in his star’s case – and harrowing stare into the world of a man whose career has long since hit its peak and is in a long, slow death slide.

There are many uncomfortable parallels to Rourke’s life in the story of Randy “The Ram” Robinson, with his ruined body and shattered relationships.

But there’s a happy ending – while it didn’t lead to an Oscar, the kudos he gained in the role has ensured his career will keep kicking. Provided he can keep it on track…

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Freelance Journalist

James White is a freelance journalist who has been covering film and TV for over two decades. In that time, James has written for a wide variety of publications including Total Film and SFX. He has also worked for BAFTA and on ODEON's in-cinema magazine.