Most of the buzz about the new movie The Wrestler has focused on Mickey Rourke’s comeback. There’s already talk about Rourke being nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of washed-up professional wrestler Randy “The Ram” Robinson. But what I hope is that The Wrestler does for professional wrestling what Raging Bull did for boxing: give it dignity.
It may sound strange to use the words “dignity” and “professional wrestling” in the same sentence. After all, we’re talking about grown men in spandex tights and bad dye jobs beating each other with steel chairs and razor wire, aren’t we? But professional wrestlers are actually highly trained and dedicated performance artists, practicing a demanding art form that goes back generations. And they’re willing to risk serious injury, even death, in pursuit of their art.
I started watching professional wrestling years ago. I remember Bob Backlund losing the WWF heavyweight championship to the Iron Sheik one week, only to have the Sheik lose the title to Hulk Hogan the next, thus ushering in the modern age of professional wrestling. Back in the day, two “faces” (good guys) couldn’t fight each other, hence the need for a “heel” (bad guy) like the Sheik to act as a intermediary. Today’s wrestling characters are more morally ambiguous, with fewer pure heels and faces.
Everyone knows professional wrestling isn’t real. Kayfabe, the secret language professional wrestlers speak when they’re in the ring, literally means “fake.” But that doesn’t mean professional wrestling can’t address a higher reality. Professional wrestling is like kabuki: an extremely stylized form of ritual theater. The two “jabronis” (wrestlers) you see openin’ up a can of whupass on each other in the ring are actually business partners, and sometimes close friends, who have carefully choreographed the match between them. (Respected modern dance company STREB has incorporated professional wrestling moves into its routines.) Professional wrestling most resembles commedia dell’arte: the end of the match is predetermined, but the rest is semi-improvised from a well-known repertoire of maneuvers.
Like the best actors, the best wrestlers can make you temporarily suspend your disbelief and forget you are watching a play—albeit one staged in and around a ring. (Stealing a page from avant-garde theater, matches frequently break the fourth wall by spilling into the stands and even out onto the street). The worst insult you can shout at a wrestler is “boring!” meaning his act isn’t getting over. (I wish this innovation was copied into so-called legitimate theater; it might raise the quality of drama in this country.) I once saw a sixty-minute steel cage match between “Nature Boy” Rick Flair and Rick “the Dragon” Steamboat that had all the drama of any Shakespearean play. After a fifty-five minute seesaw battle that left both combatants bruised and bleeding (real bruises, real blood), Flair and Steamboat simultaneously climbed to the top of the fifteen foot tall cage and jumped off. Video tape showed Steamboat’s feet touched the ground outside the cage a split second before Flair—thereby winning the match and the WCW heavyweight championship.
Let’s see Sir Laurence Olivier do that.
Unlike real theater, however, profession wrestling is dangerous. An actor may “die” in a Broadway bomb, but he’ll live to act again. Professional wrestlers get injured all the time, and occasionally die in the ring. Take a match between Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin in the 1990s. Johnson gave Austin a piledriver. In the piledriver, the offense appears to slam his opponent headfirst into the mat; in reality, the offense absorbs most of the impact with his knees. But Johnson, a relatively inexperienced wrestler at the time, executed the maneuver poorly, really driving Austin’s head into the ring and snapping his neck. Austin whispered to Johnson that he couldn’t move his arms or legs; he was paralyzed. This was especially problematic because Austin was scripted to jump up, give Johnson the “Stone Cold Stunner,” his signature finishing move, and win the match. Thinking fast, Johnson rolled the limp Austen on top of him and allowed Austen to “pin” him. (Wrestling, like legitimate theater, has a strict the-show-must-go-on ethic.) Austen eventually recovered, but he was troubled by neck problems for the rest of his career, resulting in his early retirement.
But the biggest threat to wrestlers occurs offstage—from drugs. Wrestlers take steroids to promote muscle growth, pain killers and amphetamines to keep going, and recreational drugs to deal with the loneliness and boredom of being on the road most of the year. (Because wrestling is classified as an “exhibition,” it is not as closely regulated as real sports.) Randy “the Ram” Robinson is loosely based on Jake “The Snake” Roberts. Roberts was a big-time heel in the 1980s; his “angle” (gimmick) was to bring a giant boa constrictor into the ring with him and wrap it around his opponents. But in Barry Blaustein’s 1999 documentary, Beyond the Mat, which The Wrestler owes more than a little to, it was revealed that Roberts had become a broken down drug addict, wrestling in third-rate leagues to pay for his habit. Like the Ram, the Snake is depicted as struggling to kick his addictions and rebuild his relationship with his daughter; unlike the Ram, he is not consoled by the attentions of a stripper.
In 2007, Roberts went into rehab, but as recently as September of this year he was drunk and unable to perform at a match, causing his opponent to step out of character and berate Roberts in front of the audience. In professional wrestling, there’s always the suspicion that everything is an angle; but insiders report this was no angle.
The Wrestler ends, of course, with Mickey Rourke’s character getting one last shot at redemption: a main event match against his old nemesis. If Randy “the Ram” Robinson can put the match over—get the audience to suspend its disbelief— he can prove he’s not just a has-been. Jake “the Snake” Roberts and many other wrestlers like him are still waiting for their shot at redemption.