x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Grappling with demons

A Golden Globe award for playing a washed-up wrestler has completed the triumphant reincarnation of Mickey Rourke.

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The War Memorial Auditorium, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, May 23, 1991. To a chorus of cheers and boos, Mickey Rourke, Hollywood pretty boy and the hell-raising star of box-office hits such as Diner, Rumble Fish, 9½ Weeks and Angel Heart, climbs into the ring to begin his professional boxing career, in his late thirties, with a four-round bout against Steve Powell. It's not a great fight, with too much clinching, according to the report in the next day's Seattle Times, but Rourke lands "several solid rights" and wins it on points.

Afterwards, a reporter asks him to describe his style. "Animalistic," he says, pumped with victory and smiling broadly. At this stage, his matinée looks are still intact. "It's a fight? I'll do anything I can to win." As Rourke stepped out of the limelight and into the shadows of his lost decade, swinging at the demons only he could see, to the rest of the world he appeared to be doing anything he could to lose.

Rourke's catalogue is littered with poignancy. In the 1989 film Johnny Handsome, he played a deformed criminal who is given a new face in the hope it will transform his fortunes. In real life, Rourke set about bloodily reversing that fictional process. To the world, he had gone mad. To Rourke himself, he had gone sane. As a young man it had always been about the boxing. "I was actually planning on a career in boxing and I got hurt at a very young age and had to take a year off and kind of segued accidentally into the acting thing," he said in an interview last year.

In 1991, aged 39, he realised "I had some demons ? it was unfinished business that I felt bad about." His sabbatical lasted four years - and was surprisingly successful. In all, he fought 24 rounds over eight professional fights, in the US, Germany, Japan and Spain. He won six - including two knockouts and two technicals - lost none, drew two. Like all pro boxers, he dreamt of a shot at a title, but the same susceptibility to concussion that had stopped him as a young amateur - and, perhaps, his inability to keep up his guard - floored his comeback.

His managers told him that if he fought three more fights he could move up a rank from light heavyweight for a title shot. "That's all I thought about," he told an interviewer last year. "I told the doctor and he said 'How much are they going to pay you?' I mentioned the figure and he says, 'You won't be able to count that if you have three more fights'." He wanted it more than he wanted an Oscar but, after five facial operations, two concussions, a shattered cheekbone, two failed neurological exams and with a face he freely conceded was a "train wreck", he had no choice but to walk away from his dream.

Rourke's precise age remains unclear, but according to his police and boxing record he was born on Sept 16, 1952, in Schenectady, New York. The family moved to Miami and Rourke began boxing at the age of 12 at a boys' club before joining Angelo Dundee's 5th Street Gym, home to more than a dozen champions, including the man destined to become Muhammad Ali. Between 1968 and 1971 the young Rourke, a Catholic of Irish descent, fought his way through 26 amateur bouts, winning 20 and losing only two, before injury drove him out of the ring and into acting.

His first outing, in 1979, was a blink-and-miss-it part in 1941, a mercifully forgotten Steven Spielberg "comedy spectacular", starring John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, but two years later be became a hot property overnight, playing an arsonist in Lawrence Kasdan's Body Heat. A series of lead roles in big films followed, culminating in 1987 in the career highlight that was Angel Heart, in which an egg-peeling Robert de Niro, badly in need of a manicure, takes his soul and consigns him to hell in an Otis elevator.

Homeboy, the 1988 story of an aging boxer edging inexorably towards self-destruction -written by Rourke, as "Sir Eddie Cook" - was prescient. In 1990, Wild Orchid, Rourke's second erotic outing, was widely seen as an attempt to climb back on the steamy 9½ Weeks bandwagon, though for Rourke it at least led to love and marriage to his co-star, Carré Otis. The happiness did not last; married in 1992, by 1994 Rourke had been accused of spousal abuse - Otis later withdrew the charge - and by 1998 the couple were divorced. Today, Rourke lives alone with his seven beloved dogs - five chihuahuas and two pugs, a choice of breeds that somehow only emphasises his overt masculinity. By 1991, Rourke, clearly losing his sense of professional direction, stumbled into the action turkey Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man. That same year, he finally put his acting career out of its misery. It wasn't that his star was waning - behaving badly and rejecting good roles for bad, he had been pulling it down singlehanded. According to legend, he passed on key parts in films including The Untouchables, The Silence of the Lambs and Platoon.

Even important allies such as Alan Parker, who had once said indulgently that Rourke "wasn't difficult, he was naughty", had had enough. "Working with Mickey is a nightmare," he said after directing him in Angel Heart. "He is very dangerous on the set because you never know what he is going to do." Today's Rourke - Hollywood's penitent, prodigal son - confronts his past unflinchingly. "When I was in a position of power, I chose my roles poorly," he said recently. "Instead of doing studio movies, I went off and did all this arty-farty ****. I thought my talent would rise above the mediocrity, but it didn't."

For 10 years, he said, "I stayed on my motorcycle and I didn't even know my agents' names. I didn't pay enough attention to anything." He tried his hand twice more at writing, with unremarkable results, and a few awful films went straight to video. Finished - for the second time - as a boxer, in 1997 Rourke began therapy. It may have had something to do with that year's disastrous Another 9½ Weeks, a poor-choice comeback in which "the only returning cast member is a pudgy, lethargic Mickey Rourke", noted one review, "whose Brando-with-brain-damage routine has not aged well".

He also embraced his faith. "I'm no Holy Joe, but I have a strong belief," he said in an interview last year, recalling his lost decade. "If I wasn't Catholic I would have blown my brains out. I would pray to God. I would say, 'Please can you send me just a little bit of daylight'." Today, he concedes that he simply wasn't ready to deal with all that fame sent him. As a result, "I put myself and a lot of other people through a lot of hell that I regret." On the way down, "I lost the house, the wife, the credibility, the entourage. I lost my soul. I was alone." Then, just when it seemed that Rourke had successfully self-destructed, Hollywood did what it does best: it delivered last-reel redemption.

At the turn of the new millennium Rourke, the fallen angel, rose again, having traded his troubled, narcissistic beauty for inner peace, though at the price of the grotesquely ravaged face he now wore as the mask of his torment. It was as De Niro's Louis Cyphre had told him in Angel Heart: "The flesh is weak, Johnny. Only the soul is immortal." Slowly but surely, Rourke fell back in love with acting. More importantly, Hollywood's new wave of directors fell in love with him and he found his feet again in a number of strong character roles - a transvestite prisoner in Animal Factory; a drugs merchant in Spun, the evil lawyer in Man on Fire.

In 2004, under the headline "Mickey Rourke finds his long-lost peace", The Miami Herald, his local paper, hailed the local boy made good, made bad and now made good again: a "moody, misunderstood method actor" who was re-embracing the skills with which he had last danced in Barfly in 1987. Then, in 2005, came Sin City. Inexplicably - or perhaps not - he had turned down the role of the washed-up boxer in Pulp Fiction that went to Bruce Willis. Now, in Robert Rodriguez's tribute to the Frank Miller graphic novel, Rourke finally found himself perfectly cast as Marv - "a moody, disfigured, persecuted, misunderstood thug who loses the love of his life" - and was rewarded with acclaim and a shower of awards.

Now, with The Wrestler - a "harmonic convergence of player and part that happens once in a blue moon", as Newsweek put it - Rourke's reincarnation is complete. As Randy "The Ram" Robinson, sporting long, bottle-blond locks, wearing a hearing aid but packing more muscle than he ever did in his youth, Rourke's gravel-voiced battered loser of a washed-up professional wrestler tells his estranged daughter: "I'm an old broken down piece of meat, and I deserve to be all alone ? I just don't want you to hate me."

And how could we? Rourke reportedly wrote all his own dialogue in the film. Why pay a writer to script what is written all over his face? Without what one reviewer called Rourke's "dogged grandeur", The Wrestler would not be a great film. With it, it is an epic that exposes other ring classics, such as Rocky and Raging Bull, as mere play-acting. As a handsome, arrogant young actor, Rourke won no major awards.Now, he has his Golden Globe - as does Bruce Springsteen, whom he schmoozed into writing the theme tune for The Wrestler - and is in the running for an Oscar.

"I've been to hell, I'm not going back there," he said in November. "It's such a nice feeling to feel proud again, not to be living in shame and disgrace and failure." Mickey Rourke, former light heavyweight, now without doubt Hollywood heavyweight; he could have been someone. And now he is. jgornall@thenational.ae