An unlikely new type of Hollywood hero

Battered, bruised and more than a little flawed, Hollywood’s current crop of leading men is breaking the mould. It’s a sign of the times, says Rosamund Witcher
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The Independent Culture

It’s the comeback that nobody could have anticipated. After 15 years in Hollywood’s hinterland, Mickey Rourke has been picking up awards left, right and centre for his starring role in The Wrestler. The film scooped the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in September, triggering a torrent of accolades. Rourke went on to win Best Actor at the Golden Globes in January, picked up a Bafta this month and is a shoo-in for an Oscar this weekend.

Not only does The Wrestler provide the most unlikely of returns to the big screen (Rourke’s erratic behaviour in the past two decades left few directors willing to work with him), it also heralds an unlikely new type of Hollywood hero. The Wrestler’s Randy “The Ram” Robinson is devastatingly flawed, and that’s why we love him. He personifies the type of imperfect male lead that a world bombarded with headlines of war and recession can relate to.

This week, the ultimate rough-around-the-edges actor – and Oscar stalwart – Clint Eastwood, is back with Gran Torino, a film he both stars in and directs.

On paper, the plot doesn’t sound like much of a crowd-pleaser: Walt Kowalski, a miserable, racist old Korean War veteran, is forced to confront his prejudices when an Asian family (or “gooks”, as he calls them) moves in next door. Could it be that Walt is exactly the kind of leading man that America, and the world, is crying out for? Like Randy, he has made mistakes and is living with the consequences: a lonely existence, estranged from a family who can’t bear his intolerance and barely controlled rage. He detests his lazy, disrespectful offspring and spoilt grandchildren. And so he might: they symbolise the generation that spent and ate and borrowed and polluted and got the world into the mess it’s in.

It’s an era we’re all keen to put behind us, and Walt represents a generation that had manners, style (illustrated by his much-loved 1972 Ford Gran Torino) and a love of the simple things in life, such as enjoying a beer on the porch. He’s also supremely un-politically correct. But when a local gang starts terrorising the Hmong family next door, he puts aside his bigotry to take them on, Dirty Harry-style. Walt isn’t a bad person. It’s just that, like Randy, he is resistant to change and riddled with self-loathing (we learn that he saw, and was involved in, horrendous acts in Korea as a young man). The film has struck a chord, judging by its success at the US box office. It raked in $29m (£20m) in its opening weekend – the biggest opening of Eastwood’s illustrious career.

“In this era of uncertainty, heroes who have waded through bad times and come out the |other end have an obvious appeal,” explains Ian Freer, assistant editor of the film magazine Empire. “The idea of the flawed protagonist making mistakes but not giving up is incredibly attractive. It fits perfectly with the prevailing fears of economic meltdown.”

And it’s not only in fiction that this development is apparent. One of the biggest hits of last year’s festival circuit – and getting its British release this Friday – is Sacha Gervasi’s documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil. The film follows the obscure Canadian heavy metal act Anvil as they attempt to resurrect the glory days of their music career. When we meet the lead singer, Steve “Lips” Kudlow, he’s working for a catering company in scenes that wouldn’t look out of place in The Wrestler. He’s at his lowest ebb but is determined not to give up on his dream.

“People have said that Anvil and The Wrestler are essentially the same film,” says producer/director Gervasi. “They’re both about battered, bruised heroes whose day has probably passed but who are unable to change their fundamental identity and are struggling to live in the world as it is now. There’s something incredibly tragic about that, but also very brave. To still give it everything you’ve got when the world has told you it’s over is the essence of courage. Or foolishness, depending on your view of the world.”

Freer argues that documentaries about flawed anti-heroes – such as Anvil and the forthcoming Tyson (although, as a convicted rapist, Mike Tyson is certainly more flawed than heroic) – are potentially more powerful than fictional tales.

“The sense of struggle and vulnerability |is heightened in documentaries, because |audiences know that the struggle is real,” he explains. “There is something incredibly |poignant and strangely inspiring in watching Anvil try and try, knowing that they will never hit the big time. Yet this sense of reality also |feeds into the fiction films. Watching The Wrestler, we get the sense that we're watching a dramatised story of Rourke’s life. He had it all, lost it |and is on the comeback trail. The story outside of the film plays into the story on-screen and |gives the film a whole different level of emotion and connection.”

While there may not be many upsides to the worldwide recession, at least it’s providing us with some remarkable and complicated heroes.

“It’s a good thing if the films are as rich and interesting as The Wrestler and Gran Torino,” admits Freer. “But it’s when we start getting pat responses to the current climate that we have to start worrying. Nobody wants to see a Will Ferrell comedy called Credit Crunch.”

‘The Wrestler’ is out now; ‘Gran Torino’ and ‘Anvil! The Story of Anvil’ are released on Friday