By awarding Mickey Rourke the Best Actor award, the Golden Globes made a bold choice, and an unorthodox one for Hollywood. It is common knowledge that films about wrestling have always been classified as B or C movies, at best, until Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler.
By opting to give the film a Best Actor award, Hollywood has broken the trend of ignoring this popular entertainment genre and, more importantly, the performers who give their blood and soul to it.
While wrestling shows have been rightly criticized as being lowbrow and appealing to the lowest common denominator of humanity, the wrestlers themselves have nothing to do with this. Just as in Hollywood, wrestlers are actors who must sometimes suffer through scripts written by primadonas who have inherited their positions, rather than earned them.
Of course, wrestlers are more than actors: they are athletes of the highest caliber, as well. As such, one would think they should have been recognized for their merits by mainstream society, for combining both professions. Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton are hailed as masters of acting and athleticism: Keaton, for example, would perform dangerous stunts, including what the wrestling world would call “highspots” on ladders. Roger Ebert, for example, praises Keaton by saying he “falls and falls and falls in his movies: From second-story windows, cliffs, trees, trains, motorcycles, balconies. The falls are usually not faked: He lands, gets up, keep going.” But wrestlers are not afforded the same praise. Some can act just as well as Keaton, and perform equally daring stunts, yet are still condemned to the status of circus sideshow attractions. Would New Jack ever be given the same words of praise by Hollywood?
There is no other form of acting/athleticism which has the power to convince children that what they are watching is real. Children today know that Brandon Routh’s Superman in Superman Returns wasn’t real, just as children of the past felt about Christopher Reeve’s Superman. Both generations knew that they were watching a film.
But if as children we saw Rowdy Roddy Piper being beaten and crippled by Adrian Adonis, Bob Orton Jr., and Don Muraco, many of us thought that was real, and we were upset and offended. When we saw Piper a few weeks later on crutches, with tears in his eyes, smashing the Flower Shop, we felt commiseration for him more than any fictional character from our assigned readings in class ever could. Even today, this writer has seen children who have cried when they saw Gail Kim being beaten by Awesome Kong on TNA Impact! broadcasts. Gail’s tremendous athleticism speaks for itself, but her facial expressions and performance are what caused the children to feel for her, and cheer for her in future matches against her dreaded opponent.
But Hollywood has never recognized the acting brilliance of their athletically gifted brethren from the world of professional wrestling. Due to the nature of the wrestling industry, most “legitimate” actors have looked down upon wrestlers. Yet snobbish attitudes by Hollywood are just a small part of the reason why wrestlers have been ignored. It is the wrestling companies themselves which are most to blame for this. While the big wrestling companies like to say that they produce “sports entertainment,” they do not allow their “entertainers” the basic human rights afforded to unionized entertainers of Hollywood, as Rourke himself pointed out furiously to SLAM! Wrestling when we met him and Aronofsky in Toronto, back in September. [Aronofsky and Rourke passionate about The Wrestler — and wrestling]
Wrestlers have been condemned to a netherworld of being recognized as neither actors nor athletes, since they are afforded none of the rights and protections of either profession. Rourke’s performance and Aronofsky’s film reveal just how much wrestlers are performers. And Hollywood accepted the fact that wrestlers are performers. It took one of their own to become a wrestler before they were able to accept that fact, but accept it they did. Rourke’s win wasn’t so much for his acting — he has always been a talented actor. Rourke’s award was for him becoming a WRESTLER for the film. While many wrestlers are athletes who learn to become actors, Rourke was one who did it in reverse, being an actor who became an athlete for this film. In the end, he became a “sports entertainer.”
The Golden Globe Rourke received was one not just for him, but an award for every wrestler over the years who has made us believe what we saw was real. Rourke’s win was for the Roddy Pipers, the Terry Funks, and the Gail Kims, among others, who have done for years what Rourke did just for a few months. With this win, Hollywood has finally been able to separate their righteous scorn for wrestling promoters from the largely innocent wrestlers who suffer for them. This is not an award for the big wrestling companies; it is for the wrestlers themselves.
Historically, the Golden Globes Awards have sometimes taken chances on risque performances or films; the Oscars, on the other hand, tend to award more mainstream performances and films. Rourke held back the challenge of the politically correct favourite, Sean Penn, in this match; it remains to be seen if the snobs who run the Oscars will be equally favorable in their rematch. No matter how that turns out, it can be said, for one night only, wrestlers were given their due by the most esteemed film critics in North America. It may not last, as media reporting the night after the awards have mainly focused on the Golden Globes won by a film that stereotypically portrays India as a land of slumdogs — something that mainstream North American film critics have applauded for years from the time of the Indian actor Sabu — but they will have to eventually accept that a film about a wrestler shattered a Hollywood stereotype, and that it has indirectly legitimized the performance of another Sabu, who would happily slice their faces in barbed wire with great vengeance and furious anger if they ever called him a slumdog.