One of the greatest actors of his generation, Mickey Rourke has nevertheless proven to be as enigmatic in real life as some of the characters he’s portrayed on screen. Here’s 10 of his best…
Mickey Rourke has had both a turbulent professional and personal life to say the least. Alternating between a career in boxing and one in film, his life has had many ups and downs in both. He started out as a boxer but then decided to retire in 1973 and focus on acting. His first role was a tiny appearance in Steven Spielberg’s major flop 1941 and one year later he had another small role in possibly the greatest financial cinematic disaster of all time, Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate. But once he started landing bigger roles, things turned around greatly and at some time during the eighties it seemed like he was one of the greatest acting talents of his generation and on track to become a true icon of the silver screen. During the late eighties however, his career took a turn for the worse and he appeared in turkey after turkey, which led him to return to boxing from 1991 to 1994 although he kept taking on small roles in films as well. But even when he returned to acting full-time, he did not manage to get a decent break until 2005 when Robert Rodriguez had the vision to cast him as Marv in his highly stylised über-noir comic book adaptation of Frank Miller’s Sin City. Whilst only for a brief moment, it appeared as if Rourke might return to his former glory, especially after a bravura performance in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler three years later, but unfortunately he still hasn’t fully be able to deliver on that glimmer of hope. Even so, when Mickey Rourke shines, he does indeed shine and the ten films listed below are testament to it.
10. Body Heat (Kasdan, 1981)
Okay, Rourke only had a minor role as a thug with an expertise in bombs in Body Heat, but it is more than likely that it was this small part that landed him his first major role the following year. Whilst he had already appeared in two major flops by two major directors, Body Heat was a critically acclaimed neo-noir and his portrayal of a dodgy character as a client of the film’s protagonist lawyer (William Hurt) was solid enough to get him noticed. Whilst it’s a stretch to call Body Heat a Mickey Rourke movie, it’s simply a good film that is well worth seeking out anyway and which altered the career path of the up till then unknown actor.
9. Pope of Greenwich Village (Rosenberg, 1984)
A flawed yet strangely intriguing crime drama about two Italian cousins, Charlie (Rourke) and Paulie (Eric Roberts), who are small-time crooks in New York’s Little Italy. Whilst Charlie has a pregnant girlfriend and tries to be the responsible one, Paulie is not too smart and always gets them into trouble, especially when he comes up with a plan for a heist, in which they unknowingly rip off a local mobster and kill a cop in the process to boot. Whilst director Rosenberg doesn’t manage to deliver an all-round good film, he did gather a talented cast who all give solid performances, including Daryl Hannah, Burt Young (who is always worth your price of admission) and Geraldine Chaplin, who received a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her role. Even though Rourke’s portrayal of Charlie in The Pope of Greenwich Village might not be his best performance during the early eighties, it’s a more than adequate one, proving that even on his lesser days he could basically do no wrong during this period.
8. The Year of the Dragon (Cimino, 1985)
Michael Cimino’s first film after he single-handedly bankrupted a studio with his infamous Heaven’s Gate (in which Rourke also made a brief appearance), The Year of the Dragon is another crime drama in which the actor this time plays a racist Polish Vietnam veteran turned New York cop with a vendetta against the triads in Chinatown. A stylish and great looking crime film, the movie lacked a good screenplay and likeable characters to root for, including Rourke’s lead character, who basically is an unsympathetic bastard. Nonetheless Rourke still managed to make his ill-natured racist cop compelling due to a stand-out performance, which managed to convey the humanity underneath the harsh exterior. The screenplay for The year of the Dragon was co-written by Oliver Stone before he would break-through as a director the following year with Salvador and Platoon.
7. Diner (Levinson, 1982)
A fantastic bittersweet coming-of-age comedy set in in the early sixties, Diner was director Barry Levinson’s directorial debut and an autobiographical love letter to his memories of growing up in Baltimore. The film is particularly noteworthy for its remarkable ensemble cast of young talent and features Mickey Rourke is his first significant role, albeit still in an ensemble cast. He played Boogie, the troubled one amongst a group of friends as he deals with a serious gambling problem. The film cemented his reputation as go-to man for bad boy roles and just like all other young cast members, the movie boosted his profile and career significantly. A classic coming-of-age comedy-drama and the clear turning point in Rourke’s career.
6. Nine ½ Weeks (Lyne, 1986)
Possibly the ultimate Reagan-era eighties movie of excess and eroticism, Nine ½ Weeks refers to the duration of a steamy and erotic relationship between a New York art gallery employee (Kim Basinger) and a rich self-absorbed Wall Street broker (Rourke). The movie was received very poorly in the States and would have been a flop it it wasn’t for the fact that it was widely popular around the rest of the world, despite plenty of critical condemnation there too. Due to the film’s controversial nature, both because of its poor critical reception and its overtly sexual content, it remains one of Rourke’s most infamous roles. His portrayal of a self-centred and cruel son of a bitch, however is spot-on and encapsulates the eighties “me-era” zeitgeist perfectly. And if that doesn’t do it for you, there’s always Basinger stripping to Joe Cocker’s You Can Leave Your Hat On.
5. Sin City (Rodriguez, Miller & Tarantino, 2005)
There are many reasons to be enthusiastic about the film version of Frank Miller’s cult comic series. With an extremely faithful visual style to its source material, a truly hard-boiled screenplay and a killer cast, Sin City was a near perfect adaptation. And the casting of Mickey Rourke as Marv in particular was a stroke of sheer genius, especially since Rourke hadn’t had a notable performance for close to 20 years. The original character design bared a striking resemblance to Rourke’s post-boxing and surgically reconstructed features and his bad boy reputation only fuelled Marv’s menacing and on-edge persona. Rourke basically was Marv and Rodriguez knew it. By casting him in the role, the two men created one of the movie’s most memorable characters, and provided Rourke with his much needed come-back part.
4. Rumble Fish (Coppola, 1983)
After the exhaustion that would follow the making of his trouble-ridden and truly epic production of Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola decided to go smaller and make more personal films with two S.E. Hinton adaptations in 1983. Rumble Fish would be the stand-out of the two, a highly stylised black and white fever dream with a killer cast of young talent and some groundbreaking filmmaking techniques. Coppola perfectly cast Rourke as the troubled, detached and brooding Motorcycle Boy. His interpretation captured all the torment, anguish and introspection the character required and solidified his status as a serious young talent with a rebellious streak. A hypnotic film and a mesmerising performance, Rumble Fish is an overlooked Coppola and Rourke gem.
3. The Wrestler (Aronofsky, 2008)
Whilst Sin City marked the return of Mickey Rourke, he only had a small part in a large ensemble cast. All that changed when he took on the lead role in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler. The character of a down on his luck, retired and fallen from grace wrestler was once again a role which seemingly couldn’t have been played with more genuine pathos by anyone else in the business. Reflecting many aspects of Rourke actual life, both in regards to his slumped acting career as well as his boxing one, The Wrestler seemingly resurrected the star and provided him with another perfect come-back role. With a truly daring, soul baring and tour de force performance, Rourke reminded everybody for a brief moment what all the praise surrounding his acting talent in the eighties had been all about. A monumental acting achievement, which won Rourke many awards and a Oscar nomination for Best Actor.
2. Barfly (Schroeder, 1987)
Based on a screenplay by American writer/poet Charles Bukowski, Barfly is a semi-autobiographical account of a short but typical time period of the author drinking, writing and bumming around in Los Angeles. Mickey Rourke played Henry Chinasky (Bukowski’s regular alter-ego in his novels) as he gets drunk, gets in fights, starts a turbulent relationship with fellow drunk Wanda (Faye Dunaway) and writes his poetry. A truly impressive transformation, Rourke went to great lengths capturing Buskowski’s spirit and appearance. He did not bathe or wash his hair for weeks, adopted a limp, perfectly mimicked Buskowski’s speech patterns and played the part with both incredible poignancy and humour. The role earned him an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Actor for his efforts. Just before it all went to hell, 1987 saw Rourke at the top of his game with both this movie and the next entry on this list.
1. Angel Heart (Parker, 1987)
I’m sure putting Angel Heart on the number one spot will be controversial but there is so much to like here and Rourke pulls off the character of a seedy private investigator with a dark past to perfection. Add to that the infamous sex-scene with Lisa Bonet, who just came off her squeaky clean Cosby Show image, a great supporting role by Robert De Niro, moody cinematography, fantastic art direction, a killer screenplay and atmospheric direction by Alan Parker and what you have here is a truly troubling descent into the darkest recesses of the soul. Adrian Lyne, Rourke’s director for Nine ½ Weeks, famously said that if Rourke would have died after having made Angel Heart, he would have become his generation’s James Dean. There is of course no way of knowing but somehow that statement seems to hit the nail right on the head.
Written and compiled by Emilio Santoni
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