This piece is dedicated to “Rowdy” Roddy Piper. Whether taunting fans as the kilt-wearing heel of the W.W.F./E. or blasting away aliens as the plaid-shirted hero of John Carpenter’s They Live (1988), his ability to fire up an audience was inarguable. Mr. Piper…you came, you saw, you “kicked ass and chewed bubble gum”. You will be missed.

On July 31st, the entertainment world lost a great talent. Wrestler, actor, and icon of the 1980’s, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper died from a heart attack in his sleep. Shortly after a friend broke the news to me about the 61-year-old superstar, I began to reflect on the lives of wrestlers and the risks they take in the name of entertainment. Piper was one of the lucky few whose talent on the mic and in the ring was undeniable to all.

The hard truth about professional wrestling is that most of these passionate athletes are never rewarded with a legitimate contract for their sacrifices. Like finding work in Hollywood, the endeavor is often Sisyphean. Even if someone reaches the pinnacle of success, there is no guarantee of stardom for long. Pain – emotional and physical – can lead to substance abuse, and tragic figures such as Jake “The Snake” Roberts become yesterday’s news.

Consider Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, which I’d seen at the cinema back in 2009 but gave short shrift to due to some personal problems I was going through at the time. The lead character, Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke) is a “broken down piece of meat” working in a supermarket to supplement his meager wrestling income from high school gymnasiums and smaller indie venues. Randy has bled for the fans over the years, but now, his big heart is not strong enough for the lifestyle of his glory days. Full of fighting spirit, he still clings to the sport that makes him feel like a complete person.

The year of its release, The Wrestler was Rourke’s comeback film as a lead actor. Critics praised it as his best performance in years: Sin City’s (2005) Marv was a fun duster-wearing bad-ass, but the role still lacked the depth of what Rourke was capable of. In The Wrestler, he dug into a vulnerable well to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Leading Actor.

The strength of Mickey Rourke’s performance is in its layering. Like Robinson, Mickey had been off the entertainment A-list for a long time, surviving on bit parts in smaller films. Physically, Rourke was believable as “The Ram” – he had been a boxer for several years in between acting, and his face had the leathery texture to show for it. His body language spoke volumes about his character: Rourke could puff out his chest and flex “Ram”’s muscles for the fans, but in the dressing room, he could transform into an arthritic old man with a weak heart.

Outside the squared circle, Randy needed something his fans could never provide: unconditional love. An estranged daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood) is too hurt to see her dad’s genuine attempt to connect with her. Scenes with equally lonely people – single-mom stripper Pam (Oscar-winner Marisa Tomei) – are gut-wrenching because wounds in life always leave bigger scars than hardcore matches.

Fans of good movies with fantastic acting will love The Wrestler. Anyone who has ever said, “I don’t like (professional)  wrestling because it’s fake” needs to watch this film. Aronofsky’s directing style makes you feel every punch, every torn bit of flesh, every broken bone. The sound of bodies hitting the mat remind us that under the canvas is a hard piece of wood, not a soft mattress.

Sports entertainers are modern-day gladiators. Forget football and hockey players – they get to wear pads. Professional wrestlers step into the arena to lift up the fans and be lifted up by them.

Curtis Parvin 8/10/2015

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