How Many Superstars Wind Up like “The Wrestler?”

Imagine my surprise a few weeks ago when I turned on Last Week Tonight, my favorite news satire program, and the topic of his show was WWE, which I’ve been a fan of since I was a little kid. Oliver’s role as a force of chaotic good always makes for a hysterical 30 minutes, and as he says, “Wrestling is better than the things you like,” so at first you’d think this would be the best of both worlds.

But then the main story for his topic turned to a subject that is nowhere near as fun: the welfare of pro wrestlers who work for WWE. Oliver’s goal was to raise awareness for the good of the wrestlers, not for the multi-million dollar corporation for which they perform, because stop me if you’ve heard this before: the corporation takes advantage of its employees for its own financial gain.

It’s a subject that is probably news to people who don’t watch wrestling, one that I and all other diehard wrestling fans have been aware of for quite some time and something that isn’t going to get any better if it doesn’t receive mainstream attention. I thought it was a quality segment and if you’re so inclined, you can watch it here:

Whenever I start to think of all the wrestlers who end their careers broken, alone and too often dead at an early age, my mind always shifts to The Wrestler, Darren Aronofsky’s brutally mesmerizing 2008 film starring Mickey Rourke.

You don’t get a good look at Rourke’s face when the movie begins. All the shots are either tracking ones from behind or him sitting in his dimly lit van. Aronofsky is clearly going for a documentary feel here, as if Rourke’s “Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson was an actual wrestling superstar from the 80’s who has fallen on hard times. This level of authenticity is bolstered by Rourke’s physical appearance, and you really buy that “The Ram” could be another one of our childhood heroes trying desperately to hold on to the glory days of old.

That desperation leads him to wrestling at indie shows in high school gyms or hardcore death matches with staple guns and barbed wire. None of it is ideal, but it’s the only way for Randy to stay visible in the eyes of wrestling fans and hope that one more break is on the way. Ironic as it may be, you can’t fake having a wrestling match, so that’s really Rourke running the ropes, taking bumps and pulling staples out of his torso. I can’t think of too many actors who could pull this off believably, safely and who wouldn’t be looking to tag out to the stunt man after the first time they got dropped on the mat.

And of course Randy’s personal life is a complete mess. He doesn’t earn enough through wrestling to make ends meet (often because the shows at which he performs don’t sell enough tickets), so he is forced to work a second job at a grocery store. His boss is the embodiment of all the demeaning critiques that people have against Randy’s profession: “All I have left are weekends. Isn’t that when you sit on other dude’s faces?” Randy’s daughter wants nothing to do with him and his best friend is a stripper named Pam (the always reliable Marisa Tomei), who despite their obvious chemistry is wary of getting too close to one of her customers.

While certainly not a feel good story, there is a poignant question being asked and explored beneath the wrestling backdrop: is it ever too late to atone for your mistakes and make amends with the people in your life? When you’ve been one person in the public eye for so long, I think you tend to forget who you are when there’s no match to be had or any eager fans watching. Randy’s journey of self-discovery and effort to try and make things right is the best damn performance I’ve ever seen from Rourke. I maintain that he was robbed when he didn’t win the Oscar for Best Actor.

You don’t have to be a wrestling fan to appreciate what Aronofsky and his team accomplished here, but you probably won’t realize just how closely the film mirrors lives of real pro wrestlers if you aren’t. Whenever I come back to The Wrestler, I always have the knowledge in my back pocket that many of the stars that I enjoyed watching as a kid have passed away, and it’s gut-wrenching to imagine them in the same place as Randy. That’s why Oliver’s piece was such a breath of fresh air and why we need more stories like that for people to see. The history of WWE is littered with men and women who have performed for that company and have been taken from us far too soon.

Despite the risks, Randy muses that he’s safer putting his body on the line in the ring than putting his soul on the line outside of it: “The only place I get hurt is out there. The world don’t give a shit about me.”

I’m reminded of a quote by Scott Hall, who avoided his own grisly end by getting his life back on track, as he stood in a ring chatting with his fellow wrestlers: “I never had any problems in here.”

If only WWE displayed as much respect and appreciation for these people as The Wrestler did.

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