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Rourke seems to live inside his ailing, struggling character in 'The Wrestler'

Rourke seems to live inside his ailing, struggling character in 'The Wrestler'

Without Schenectady native Mickey Rourke, “The Wrestler” might easily have descended into cliché.

The first and only time I talked with Mickey Rourke was in Hollywood.

Producers were tearing their hair out. While about 20 reporters from around the country were waiting for individual interviews, he was in an adjacent room hours behind schedule.

Already, most of us knew we would depart without a Rourke interview. On a lark, I pulled a publicist aside, asking her to relay a message. Minutes later, she emerged somewhat stunned.

“He says he’ll talk with you. Stay around.”

‘The Wrestler’

DIRECTED BY Darren Aronofsky

SCREENPLAY BY Robert D. Siegel

STARRING Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood

RATED R

RUNNING TIME: 109 minutes

Presently, there I was sitting across from an international celebrity, who did not look to be in shape for too much talk about anything. The actor, who had delighted us in “Diner,” as well as “Body Heat” and “91⁄2 Weeks,” was, it seemed to me, a mess. He was willing but barely able to hold a conversation with a reporter who represented a newspaper in Schenectady, where Rourke was born and lived until he was 8.

I felt Rourke was putting me on when he said, “I wish I never left Schenectady,” and I told him so. That’s when Rourke, whose mother ended up in Florida married to another man, lifted his head, stared straight into my eyes, and once more declared: “I wish I never left Schenectady.”

I feel sure anyone sitting in my place would, at that moment, have perceived the deep anguish and world of pain in the mind and body of Mickey Rourke, arguably Schenectady’s only native of international stature.

I mention this biographical anecdote because it seems plausible that Rourke grasps onto this pain with his portrayal of Randy “Ram” Robinson in Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler,” an often brutal but affecting tale of an athlete in his decline.

Aronofsky, who gave us “Pi” and “Requiem for a Dream,” is just the right director and Rourke the perfect performer for a movie I feel sure would lose its pungent, candid intensity with anyone else besides Rourke in the title role.

Truth be told, a synopsis of “The Wrestler” would reveal that it’s a story we’ve seen before, in this case, one of a big-time pro wrestler reduced to playing small arenas; he is a sort of golden oldie letting it all out with other living bygones. (Let me mention here that even those who ridicule the rehearsed antics of pro wrestling must acknowledge that the combatants have to be exceptional athletes. The movie depicts this aspect with naturalistic accuracy.)

But living in a trailer in northern Jersey, where he can barely pay his rent, Ram Robinson needs a pacemaker more than he does another match. If he is to make a living, fans want a hero who will execute the leaps, slams and flamboyant pins of yesteryear. Meanwhile, he is futilely trying to rekindle the relationship with his angry daughter, played by Evan Rachel Wood.

On a parallel path is a stripper portrayed by Marisa Tomei. She, too, delivers a searingly credible performance as an “artist” who has nowhere to go but down. Will she and Ram connect? Will Daddy and his daughter reunite?

Natural artistry

As I mentioned, with another director, and most tellingly, with hundreds of other actors, “The Wrestler” might easily have descended into cliché.

But not here. Rourke’s work, which earned him the Golden Globes’ best actor award on Sunday, is so intelligent, so naturally perceptive that you feel him working from within; it is almost inaccurate to say he is acting.

Watch him hunch along a Jersey street, cut meat behind a deli counter. Peer into his eyes when he returns to his trailer. Observe his tenacious artistry as he prepares for a match, and you can feel that this is one proud fellow laboring in a world of physical and emotional pain.

And you might wonder how much of this portrayal is Mickey Rourke, the kid who says he wishes he never left Schenectady.

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