It is a fight that many Hollywood has-beens have picked but few have won; to launch a comeback from the wilderness long after their celluloid star has faded. This week, Mickey Rourke clambered onto the stage at the Baftas and acknowledged the joy, and the pain, of coming back in from the cold as he collected his best actor award for his role in The Wrestler.
"Oh, it's such a pleasure to be back out of the darkness," he said.
It was a sweet moment for the former boxer, turned Hollywood superstar, turned failing, ageing boxer, turned triumphant Hollywood elder statesman. And Rourke could have chosen no better vehicle through which to rise from the ashes than the lead character in The Wrestler: Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a great wrestler in the 1980s whose prowess in the wrestling ring has long since declined.
The film opens with a montage of posters and newspaper clippings from his glory days when he was the personificastion of machismo, undefeated and apparently undefeatable in the ring. It then cuts to the present day when we discover fortune has not been kind to The Ram. His star has faded, his body is bloated and his face disfigured from years of heavy medication and a growing inability to dodge the slings, arrows and punches of life. Yet he is soldiering on.
It could be a film about Rourke's own career trajectory.
Like Randy, Rourke's life began in the ring. He was born in New York but when his father left the family home, his mother moved to Miami and the six-year-old Rourke was forced to fend for himself on the streets of a tough inner city. To defend himself he took up boxing and enrolled in the Boys Club of Miami where before him Muhammad Ali had sparred.
He won his first fight at the age of 12, by the age of 17, been concussed a number of times – once with the former world welterweight champion, Luis Rodriguez, and doctors advised him to rest. Casting around for a new career, he found it when a friend at the University of Miami mentioned he was looking for an actor to fill the role of "Green Eyes" in the Jean Genet play, Deathwatch, which he was directing. With nothing better to do, Rourke tried it out – and fell in love with the profession. Borrowing $400 from his sister, he took off to New York and landed private acting lessons with one of the city's finest teachers, Sandra Seacat.
It was not until he was 27 that he secured his first film role in Steven Spielberg's film 1941 but the real breakthrough for Rourke came two years later when he played an arsonist in Body Heat, with Kathleen Turner and William Hurt. He followed up the success with highly acclaimed performances in the cult classic, Diner, Francis Ford Coppola's film, Rumble Fish, and the modern noir, Angel Heart, which became some of the biggest films of the 1980s.
He was at the peak of his powers when he starred in the erotic 9 1/2 Weeks alongside Kim Basinger; the world compared his on-screen charisma to the savage sexiness of Marlon Brando, he courted the most beautiful women, he dominated the film industry. But despite the veneer of sucess, under the surface things were going wrong. Decades later, he admitted he began to feel "short-circuited". "I had a lot of turmoil going on within myself, within relationships that I had. And I sort of lost a passion for it that I had when I studied really hard at the actor's studio back when I was a student when Lee Strasberg was there, and I walked in.
"Back then it was very hard to get into the studio. And, you know, I walked in, and I saw Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Chris Walken, Harvey Keitel, Ellen Burstyn there, and it was just –I went, wow, and I really wanted to be the best actor I could and then some years went by and I just –I short-circuited."
If he was feeling the strain – so were the directors he worked with. Alan Parker said that working with Rourke was a "nightmare".
"He is very dangerous on the set because you never know what he is going to do", he added.
It is a moot point whether he stopped paying attention to Hollywood, or whether Hollywood stopped paying attention to him but Rourke suddenly declared he was turning away from acting, that he had "no respect for myself being as an actor any more", and returning to his first love of boxing.
Now aged 34, he was no longer as young or as robust as he had been. Reflecting on the decision to return to the ring for a second time, he has said: "It was a profession I had before I was an actor and I should have left it there. Going back at 34 was hard."
It proved too hard a career to resume. Defeated in eight fights, he was told that if he entered the ring for a ninth time, he might not be able to count the money he could make from it. The comeback to boxing hadn't worked, so in 1995, he went back to Hollywood. It was a black period. "I could remember something from 200 years ago but not five minutes ago ... I knew I'd have to go back to acting. Boy, when I had to go into acting again ... easy the first time, fucking nightmare the second," he said.
His return wasn't helped by some ill-judged decisions to turn down roles that would have been perfect launching pads back into the industry. He didn't take a call from Dustin Hoffman when he contacted Rourke about a role in the film Rain Man, he chose not to play Jack Crawford in The Silence of the Lambs and when Quentin Tarantino sent him a script for Pulp Fiction, he didn't bother to read it.
Rash decisions were followed by back luck: his part in Terence Malik's acclaimed drama, The Thin Red Line, ended up on the cutting-room floor.
In the late 1990s, he starred in a sequel to Nine 1/2 Weeks, the film that had cemented his reputation as a sex symbol in the 1980s. Except the second film, Another Nine 1/2 Weeks, was a critical flop and only received limited distribution. A straight-to-video film about the race horse, Shergar, followed.
His fate as a declining profile in Hollywood, appeared to be sealed and the best he could get was bit parts in feature films and music videos.
His salvation – as so often in Hollywood – came via a twist of fortune. Nicholas Cage, was originally cast to play the lead character in The Wrestler until Rourke expressed an interest in the role. The film's director Darren Aronofsky was so desperate to cast Rourke that he dropped Cage from the film.
And Rourke is grateful for every moment of the restored glory – and all those involved in engineering it. In his wonderfully frank Bafta acceptance speech, he thanked Aronofsky, who "gave me a second chance after I fucked up my career for 15 years" as well as "my publicist Paula (Woods) for having the hardest job in showbusiness, telling me where to go, what to do, when to do it. What to eat, what to dress, what to fuck ..."
Yesterday, Ms Woods appeared to be working industriously to underplay the difficulties she may have had in relaunching his ravaged profile. The worst in showbusiness? "I would say it's the most rewarding job in showbusiness," she said, adding: "To see such results from my and especially Mickey's hard work is fantastic. When Mickey made The Wrestler and felt instinctively it was going to be a special journey for him, he asked me to come on board to handle his worldwide publicity.
"Mickey has embraced his comeback with genuine passion. Our working relationship is based on trust. I am very honest with Mickey and ensure he is well briefed and therefore fully prepared and happy with everything he does to promote the movie."
Sounds like Rourke? Even the reformed version? Not entirely.
*It was made with the use of a hand-held camera at a cost of $5.5m.
*The film is based on the fictional character Randy "The Ram" Robinson who, like Rourke, is a fighter who was advised to leave the profession after serious health concerns.
*Rourke has won a Golden Globe and a Bafta for the role. He is also nominated for the best actor Oscar.
*Darren Aronofsky said "every financier on the planet said 'no' to this movie, and the reason was Mickey".Reuse content