I don't really think the Academy Awards are anything more than a big Hollywood commercial -- and could this year's show have been any more obvious about that? -- so I don't give the results much thought usually, but Sean Penn has NEVER given a performance as good as Mickey Rourke's in "The Wrestler."
And Sean Penn has given some very good performances.
Whatever it is that makes an actor great, that makes a performance become something more than playing pretend, Mickey Rourke has it, and he's never had it more than in "The Wrestler," which I finally got a chance to see this week. It's not just that he becomes Randy "The Ram," it's that Randy Robinson exists and this is his story. As aware as I was of Rourke's virtuoso performance, it never felt like an acting job. It always felt like a window into this character's life. It felt as real as cinema can get.
"The Wrestler" is not my favorite Darren Aronofsky film. It's too much like a minimalist short story to compete with my fondness for other Aronofky movies. Too simplistic in getting from point A to point B. I prefer the formal experimentation of "The Fountain" or the manic stylishness of "Requiem for a Dream" -- more of the latter than the former. But "The Wrestler" is still a very good film, full of brilliant small moments and an attention to detail that makes almost every other movie seem like a work of pure artifice. When the Ram is working the deli counter, the movie gains a lively, passionate rhythm, and when he's in the ring, "The Wrestler" shows the pleasure and pain of the Ram living the only way he knows how. The whole movie shows that, actually. It's a story about struggle and regret, love and loss, and sadness. But it never wallows in its own pity, and Mickey Rourke never lets the Ram's spirit break totally, even when he's at his most outwardly vulnerable.
"The Wrestler" shows as much of any actor's back as I've ever seen in a full-length motion picture. We are constantly behind the Ram, following him as he prepares for battle, a few steps behind him, but never too far away. It's an angle and a camera move Aronofsky repeats throughout the movie -- our "hero" is always walking away from us, even as he's applauded by thousands -- and Aronofsky echoes it to great ironic effect in the march toward the indignity of working at the deli counter.
It's a good movie, but Rourke's performance makes it something special. And even Sean Penn knows who really deserved to win on Sunday night.
What are YOU watching?