Shades of Brando

Baby-faced Rourke in "Diner," 1982, and as the battle-scarred star of "The Wrestler."Photo: (From left) MGM/The Kobal Collection; Courtesy of Wild Bunch

To look at Mickey Rourke is to see a man who has consistently failed to destroy himself, despite repeated, determined attempts. Through all the spousal batteries, the Vespa DUI, the mob ties, the soft-core porn, the Chihuahua obsession, and, of course, the repeated blows to the face (and subsequent horrifying facial reconstruction), Mickey Rourke has, against all logic and notions of common decency, remained a riveting screen presence. He’s survived because, no matter how awful his career choices and chaotic his personal life, onscreen, he’s hypnotic, a wounded animal you’re forced to eye … warily. Even when he’s sleepwalking through a role, Rourke has an authenticity he can’t shake off. As damaged as he has been, he’s always been a prime candidate for a Travolta-esque Career Resurgence, one that might have happened years ago had he not turned down, among other roles, Butch in Pulp Fiction.

With Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler (which closes the New York Film Festival), the comeback is finally here. As broken professional wrestler Randy “The Ram” Robinson, Rourke’s already an Oscar favorite. Variety said Rourke gives a “deeply moving portrait that instantly takes its place among the great, iconic screen performances.” It’s the type of praise that puts him in league with Marlon Brando. But if you take a look at Rourke’s career arc—if such a rapidly vacillating beast could possibly be classified as an “arc”—it’s clear he’s been Brando all along, as we attempt to prove (with apologies to chronology).

Phase 1
Marlon Brando of On the Waterfront (1980–1985)
Rourke, in just his third film, steals Body Heat as a professional arsonist, but the Brando comparisons first arise in Barry Levinson’s Diner, where his sweet-faced dirtbag-gambler persona hides an oddly sentimental soul. (To be fair, it’s easy to look tough next to Steve Guttenberg and Paul Reiser.) After Diner, Rourke consistently nails the tough-but-soft-rebel Brando parts, specifically in Coppola’s Rumble Fish and the tragically forgotten The Pope of Greenwich Village. The sky’s the limit; clearly he’s a contendah.

Phase 2
Marlon Brando of Last Tango in Paris (1986–1990)
For an actor as raw, daring, and masculine as Rourke, it’s inevitable that he starts doing arty soft porn. He is feral ravaging Kim Basinger in 9½ Weeks—even if some sex scenes seem to defy the physical laws of space and time—then follows it up by having sex with Lisa Bonet in a pool of blood (Angel Heart) and with then-wife Carré Otis in a scene rumored to have not been simulated (Wild Orchid). In between all the fornication, he sneaks in a brilliant portrayal of Charles Bukowski in Barfly. Warning sign: He writes and stars in Homeboy, in which he plays a boxer.

Phase 3
Marlon Brando of The Island of Dr. Moreau (1991–2001)
The lost decade. Rourke quits acting in 1991 to become a professional boxer; he wins a few fights but breaks his nose and his ribs and severely compresses his cheekbone, leading to the surgeries that will haunt him forever. When he returns to acting in 1995, he stars in Double Team with Dennis Rodman, Fall Time with Stephen Baldwin, and Out in Fifty with someone named Scott Leet. He also makes Another 9½ Weeks with Angie Everhart. He walks off the set of one movie because the director refuses to allow his Chihuahua in the film.

Phase 4
Marlon Brando of Apocalypse Now (2001–2007)
Now that he’s deformed and broken, directors realize casting Rourke will give their movies a glint of authenticity and world-weariness. Tony Scott uses him twice, to good effect, in Man on Fire and Domino, but it’s Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City that captures Rourke’s late-blooming, defeated anger—romantic, elusive, deadly. And he does it by somehow deforming Rourke’s face even more.

Phase 5
Marlon Brando of The Godfather (2008–present)
In the same way that Coppola saved Brando after ten years of vanity projects, Aronofsky wangles a classic performance by tapping into what made Rourke so hypnotic in the first place: his peculiarly tender toughness and buried sadness. (Watch for The Wrestler’s crushing scene where he plays Nintendo with a 12-year-old.) For the first time in years, the movie is as good as he is. Moreover, though he’s equally eccentric, Rourke proves that Method-y machismo doesn’t have to lead to kissing Larry King. In that one way, he’s trumped Old Man Brando.

Shades of Brando