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There are three types of conflict in drama: conflict with society, conflict with another person, and conflict with oneself. The latter can often be the most compelling for an actor, and can inspire career defining performances. But when it spills over into the actor’s life and conflict becomes his method of operation, it can lead to ruin. Few actors know that better than Mickey Rourke, whose rise, fall, and eventual return to the mountaintop has already become the stuff of Hollywood legend. With a chip on his shoulder, and a swagger in his walk, he emerged in the 1980s as the hottest thing since James Dean. Like that Rebel without a Cause, Rourke crashed and burned, but unlike Dean, he was very much alive at the time. Against all the odds, however, he would climb out of the wreckage he had made of his life and find redemption. His story would make a hell of a movie. In a sense, it already has.     

Born September 16, 1952 in Schenectady, New York, Rourke was six-years-old when his parents divorced and his mother married a police officer from Miami Beach. With his mother and younger brother, he moved to Florida and a home life he would later describe as "terrifying." His stepfather abused the boys, and Rourke's rage would follow him all his life, and destroy his relationship with his mother. “I was angry with her for my whole life for what she did. Because she turned her back to it and she was supposed to be responsible for me and Joe (his brother).  She let it happen, and it happened for a decade.”

He found one outlet for his anger through boxing. He won his first match at the age of 12. After suffering a concussion at the 1971 Florida Golden Gloves, he was advised to take a year off, during which time Rourke would step into another kind of ring: the stage.  

His interest in acting came about by accident when a friend told him about a local play whose director was not happy with the actor cast in the lead. Rourke auditioned and got the part. Smitten with this newly discovered craft, he moved to New York where he studied with an acting coach while working menial jobs. He was finally granted admission to the legendary Actors Studio whose famous alumni included such giants as Marlon Brando and James Dean. Director Elia Kazan, who directed both of those legends in career defining performances, said Rourke's student audition was the best he'd seen in more than thirty years.

His film debut came through a small role in Steven Spielberg's 1941, but it was in Lawrence Kasdan's modernized film noir, Body Heat, that Rourke made his mark. As an arsonist hired by lawyer William Hurt, Rourke stole the movie in his few brief scenes. The arrogance that would mark his career, as well as help end it, was already present, as he acknowledged more than two decades later.

"I remember doing the scenes with William Hurt, who was a pretty big star at the time. And I'm thinking, 'Well, if that's a movie star, I'm not going to have no problem in this town. So, you know, the attitude. It was there from the start."

The year Body Heat reached theaters also found Rourke at the altar. He met Debra Feuer on the set of a film in which he had a bit part and she was the star. Years after their divorce, she would describe him as "the most thin-skinned, over-sensitive person I have ever met. When we met, he was like an abused little dog. He was so vulnerable." But his acting ability impressed her. "He reminded me of my hero, Marlon Brando."

Comparisons with Brando, as well as James Dean, would begin in earnest after 1982's Diner. Critic Pauline Kael said of Rourke, "He has an edge and a magnetism and a pure, sweet smile that surprises you." Rourke was named best supporting actor by the National Society of Film Critics, but several years later, the increasingly cocky and outspoken star would diss the two films that brought him his first critical acclaim.

"Diner wasn't my kind of film," he said, "and Body Heat . . . well, people remember me from it, but my role was very short. It just took one day to shoot most of it, and I've got better things to do than sit on a bed all day and talk to William Hurt."

Rumblefish was more to his liking. Based on an S.E. Hinton novel, the film's director, Francis Coppola, described it as an art film for teenagers. As the Motorcycle Boy, Rourke had what became one of his signature roles, that of a James Dean type rebel who is idolized by his younger brother (Matt Dillon).

"It was the most fun I've ever had on a movie," he said of 1984's The Pope of Greenwich Village. "It was one of the happiest times of my life. I was living in New York, and I really enjoyed acting at the time." But the movie was neglected by its studio and died a quick death at theaters, and Rourke was becoming disillusioned. The craft of acting he learned to respect at the Actors Studio was almost meaningless in a town where box-office receipts were king.

Rourke had a small role in Michael Cimino's legendary disaster, Heaven's Gate, in 1980, and that film's reputation haunted Year of the Dragon, the 1985 thriller that was shunned by most critics who were not willing to welcome the disgraced director back into the fold. This time, Rourke had the lead, that of a doomed cop investigating a drug ring in New York's Chinatown. Rourke later claimed that his outspoken defense of a director who had been ostracized for letting his vision overtake his common sense kept him unemployed for a year. He was outspoken in other ways, too. On the set of Mike Hodges’ A Prayer for the Dying, Rourke clashed with producer Samuel Goldwyn, Jr who wanted to turn the drama about Northern Ireland into "a big shoot-'em-up, and he's lousing up everything."

9 ½ Weeks released in 1986 was already attracting notice before its release as the most erotic major studio film since Last Tango in Paris.  "That film should have been an X," Rourke stated, "but we wound up making a very mediocre movie in order to appease various groups." Some critics agreed that the film had missed its target. In The New York Times, Vincent Canby called it "pricelessly funny without having many laughs," but Roger Ebert "came away surprised by how thoughtful the movie is . . ." One thing the film did achieve is to make Rourke and co-star Kim Basinger sex symbols, a status he did not appreciate. “I don’t know who invented that,” he said of his pinup status, “but it’s nothing I wanted to be associated with.” 

Next, he played Charles Bukowski, the alcoholic poet, in Barbet Schroeder's film Barfly. "I didn't really want to glorify some drunk," he said, explaining that his father drank himself to death at an early age, and that he failed to see anything romantic in such self-destructive behavior. But the director pursued him, and, he said, "I liked Charlie. I was never a Bukowski fanatic or anything. I did enjoy reading a few of his books, but, you know, it wasn't like he was Tennessee Williams to me."

By this time, Rourke was still regarded as one of Hollywood's most gifted actors, but he was gaining an even bigger reputation as an arrogant and difficult jerk.

"My mansion in Beverly Hills was like something from Halloween III," he recalled. "Elvis on acid. The neighbors were moving in and out almost monthly."

His disregard for others was so extreme that he didn't even know his agent's name, referring to him only as "the little bald guy with the white Porsche." He wasn't too particular about the company he kept either, and instead of hanging out with fellow actors, he counted Sonny Barger of the Hell's Angels, controversial rapper Tupac Shakur, and mob boss John Gotti among his friends.

"Some of them were, you know, villains," he admits, "most of them were, but they were my boys, you know?" Some of his menacing biker pals even accompanied him to meetings with film executives who, understandably, found Rourke and his entourage frightening. “I remember walking into a restaurant one time,” he said, “and people looking at me, and it was like Jack the Ripper had walked in. . . I was out of control and did not think the party was going to end. I could stay in any hotel, buy anything I wanted, and take out all my entourage to dinner.”

It was during the production of Angel Heart that the bubble began to burst. "Working with Mickey is a nightmare," Alan Parker, the film's director, said. "He is dangerous on set because you never know what he is going to do." Nonetheless, Angel Heart remains one of his most memorable roles, that of a private detective who becomes a murder suspect while on a mission for a client (Robert DeNiro) who may be Satan himself. Rourke was perfectly at home in such a nourish setting, and was equally so in the underrated Johnny Handsome, which Roger Ebert described as “dark material. . . filmed with real style.”

Unfortunately, the forces of darkness seemed to be guiding Rourke’s career by this point. Not since George Raft blew it by turning down High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon, roles that gave Humphrey Bogart the push he needed to enter the big leagues, has an actor made so many foolish decisions regarding his career. Rourke turned down Beverly Hills Cop which became a huge hit for Eddie Murphy, passed on playing Eliot Ness in Brian DePalma's The Untouchables, a role that made Kevin Costner a star, and never returned a phone call from Dustin Hoffman who wanted him for the role in Rain Man that went to Tom Cruise. Still later, he never even bothered to read the script that a kid named Quentin Tarantino sent him. The role of the boxer that Rourke had been offered in Pulp Fiction was played by Bruce Willis instead. 

Some of his arrogance may have been justified. “When I was at the Actors Studio, I was naïve enough to think that acting was what mattered – not all the politics and the hype,” he said. He found some of his peers less committed to acting than he thought they should be, but well acquainted with the business aspect of the movies. "This town is made up of people who have inherited their positions, who've never really had to go without," he told an interviewer in the late '80s. "The majority of your young successful actors right now have parents in the business or around the business. It was all handed to them. They understand their own. But I've earned my right to be where I am. Look, I've sold chestnuts in Central Park. I'm not afraid to go back there and do it again."

He didn't go back to sell chestnuts in Central Park, but Rourke was about to take a tumble that would derail his career for more than a decade.

The movies he was making were decreasing in quality, with Wild Orchid regarded as little more than soft porn, and only several years after being branded a sex symbol, his appearance was raising concern. In its review of the film, Variety described him as “Looking pudgy and puffy faced, with a little gold earring, he is anything but an appetizing sex object.” After Rourke married his co-star, Carre Otis, the relationship would become notorious for its volatility. He was becoming increasingly wild, and she was addicted to heroin. The marriage was doomed, but so it seems was Rourke. "I lost everything, the wife, the house, my friends, my name in the business."

It took years of therapy for Rourke to realize that his belligerent and rebellious attitude was rooted in his relationship with his abusive stepfather. "I blamed everyone in Hollywood and identified them with this authority figure who had beaten me with a stick." The shame he felt turned to anger "because you don't want to feel shameful all the time. That's not cool. It's better to be angry."

He returned to boxing.

"The boxing, I guess, was just another form of punishment in a way," he said. "I didn't know it was going to go on for five-and-a-half years, like 13 fights. And then all of a sudden that was my life, and the acting was gone."

When he decided to return to acting in 1995, he was no longer a star, and his once handsome face had taken such a beating in the boxing ring that he was becoming difficult to recognize as the star of Diner and 9 ½ Weeks.  "I've had several nose operations to repair damage in my cartilage. I had my cheekbone reconstructed when I shattered that. I had about four or five concussions. There were a lot of injuries."

And the powerful people he had once treated so cavalierly were only too happy to slam the door in his face when he approached them for work.

"One day you find yourself alone in life, in a hole so dark and evil only you can dig yourself out,” he lamented. “You keep praying to God, 'Let me have some daylight and I'll do the rest.'"

Slowly, some daylight began to creep in.

When it was suggested he get a “Mickey Rourke type” for a small role in 1997's The Rainmaker, Francis Coppola remembered that the real Rourke was still around and hired him against the advice of the studio. Terrence Malick also offered him work in his 1998 World War II epic, The Thin Red Line, but the producers, who never wanted him in the first place, insisted Rourke's scenes be cut from the final print.

 By 2000, Rourke was singing a much different tune than he had in the ‘80s. "I put myself in the hands of an agent." The agent told him to accept a part in 2002's Spun. "I couldn't stand making that movie," he said. But his agent told him to do it, "so I did." Sean Penn gave him a day's work playing the father of a murder victim in The Pledge, but there were others in Hollywood who had either washed their hands of him, or were appalled by his reputation and preferred that he just go away. Director Jane Campion requested Rourke for a role in 2003’s In the Cut, but the film’s star and executive producer, Nicole Kidman, exercised her clout to prevent his casting.

The big comeback he was seeking was a long time coming. “I didn’t think it would take fifteen years,” he admits. “I thought maybe I could come in two or three and things would fall into place. But I wasn’t a little bad. I was real bad, and you pay the price for what you do in this life.”

Robert Rodriquez’s magnificent Sin City, based on the graphic novels by Frank Miller,  represented a major step toward his eventual return to glory. "Mickey is nothing short of amazing," Rodriguez said of Rourke’s performance in the 2005 film. As Marv, a hideous, nearly indestructible thug with a heart of gold out to avenge the murder of his lover, Rourke drew on his own pain. "Well, I think the pieces of me that were - are - damaged, messed up, you know, you could feel very much that way inside."

Rourke seemed born to play the title role in The Wrestler, but the film's director, Darren Aronofsky, couldn't get financing with Rourke attached to the project. When a financial backer finally stepped up, the budget was still so miniscule that nobody got paid. "It was purely an artistic endeavor," Aronofsky said. Aware of Rourke's reputation for battling his directors, filming did not proceed until the director elicited a promise from the actor to do exactly as he was told.  

"I knew (Afonofsky) was going to make me go to some dark places and it would be painful emotionally and physically," Rourke said. "But I'm so glad I did it because it is the best work I've done in the best film of my career."

As Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a wrestler struggling to maintain his self-respect amid the ruins of a misspent life, Rourke seemed to be replaying moments from own painful past, and his performance had a profound effect on audiences. After the film won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, The Wrestler collected more awards and raves for Rourke's performance as it was released around the globe. Suddenly, and when no one was expecting it, Rourke was Hollywood's Comeback Kid, and a front runner for the Oscar. Rourke won the Golden Globe and the BAFTA as best dramatic actor, and numerous citations from various critics' groups, but he was not surprised when the Academy Award went to his old pal, Sean Penn, who saluted him in his acceptance speech.

"It's voted for by people from the movie business and in the past I've hacked them all off," he said. "I threatened producers, raged at directors, forgot my agent's name. I really burned my bridges. And a lot of people have long memories."

But those memories now include a shattering performance that brings Rourke's talent back into focus. The brass ring slipped from his hand, but The Wrestler reminded everyone why it was his to lose in the first place. He's hot again, and he's once more earning invitations to work in major studio productions. The entourage is long gone, replaced by his beloved dogs. "My dogs have always been there for me,” he repeatedly tells interviewers, and he even thanked them in his Golden Globe acceptance speech.

He also has God. "I have a strong belief," he said, though his faith isn't always as strong as he'd like, especially after the death of his brother, Joey, following a long, painful battle with cancer. "I get angry with God because he makes us grow old and die, and death is a lonesome, nasty and stinking business." Whereas he once might have described the film industry as a "stinking business." he's at least learned to hold his nose while still sniffing out the opportunities that satisfy his needs as an artist.

"As long as I can work with people I'm excited about working with," he says now, "it will be okay."


--by Brian W. Fairbanks

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