I can’t think of many things with as many lofty highs and rock-bottom lows as Mickey Rourke's career. Sure, a lot of stars shine brightly at first and then, like their celestial counterparts, either slowly fade away or go out with a proverbial bang.
In his surprisingly long and resilient career, Rourke has instead ping-ponged between the extremes of leading-man status and slumming it—and I’m not even referring to his personal life marred with violence, drugs, allegations of spousal abuse and disfiguring plastic surgery that made his once-handsome mug look like mottled clay. In the wild, natural selection might have weeded Rourke out years ago. We put down horses for less. But in Hollywood everyone loves a comeback story, and Mickey Rourke's career is the broken stallion that fought back with an Oscar nomination. How the hell did this happen?RISE
Raised in the tough Liberty City district of Miami, Rourke took up self-defense training and boxing at an early age. He won his first boxing match at age 12 and embarked on a short-lived amateur boxing career before segueying into acting with a small role in Steven Spielberg’s 1941. It was his breakout role as an arsonist in Body Heat that really put him on the radar. He won two awards for his supporting role in the 1982 cult classic Diner and got acclaim for Rumble Fish, The Pope of Greenwich Village and the Oliver Stone-penned Year of the Dragon.
In 1986’s kinky Nine ½ Weeks, Rourke played a variety of twisted sexual games with Kim Basinger. The libidinous tale was largely panned but became a box-office hit and elevated Rourke to sex-symbol status. He followed it up with the controversial Angel Heart, a dark thriller starring Robert De Niro and Lisa Bonet, which featured an explicit sex scene between Rourke and the Cosby Show darling. More critical praise came for his role in 1987’s Barfly as Henry Chinaski, the literary alter ego of Charles Bukowski. Rourke nailed the role—perhaps too well—of a booze-soaked bar fighter who pairs up with a “distressed goddess” (Faye Dunaway) and hangs around with lowlifes in L.A. dive bars instead of striving to reach his full potential as a creative force. Was it life imitating art, or art imitating life?FALL
It didn’t take long for Hollywood’s romance with Rourke to sour and his fall to begin. The actor’s political views came under fire when it was reported that he donated part of his salary from the 1989 film Francesco to the Provisional Irish Republican Army. Rourke shied away from that controversy even though he has an IRA symbol tattoo on his arm.
Teaming up with Miami Vice star Don Johnson for the biker borefest Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man proved disastrous when it tanked at the box office, as did Desperate Hours, for which Rourke earned his first Razzie nomination for Worst Actor. Rourke, a devout Roman Catholic, must have also made a few angels cry with the sleazy soft-core pornfest Wild Orchid in which stories abounded that he had actual sex on-screen with then-girlfriend Carré Otis (Otis denies such claims, telling me in a June 2000 Playboy interview, “I’d like to dispel [that rumor]. We were totally making out. But did anything more severe happen? No.”).
Rourke married Otis in 1992, after which she got addicted to heroin and ballooned to 170 pounds. The twosome made tabloid headlines that suggested allegations of violence and, in 1994, Rourke was arrested for spousal abuse by the LAPD. The charges were dropped after he and Otis reconciled, but the two still divorced in 1998 after starring together in one last stinker, Exit in Red. From 1991 to 1995 Rourke retreated from leading roles to become a professional boxer, sparring with world champions like James Toney and Tommy Morrison.
He retired after seven bouts because he endured severe face injuries that required a number of operations to “fix” his mangled face (you be the judge if it worked). During the ‘90s, he turned down the Bruce Willis role in Pulp Fiction, starred opposite Jean-Claude Van Damme in the abysmal Double Team, and seemingly killed off his future leading-man chances with Another 9 ½ Weeks. In the embarrassing sequel to his previous hit, Rourke is seen mostly in shadows like some kind of shuffling Phantom of the Opera figure who mutters the name of Kim Basinger’s character from the first one and little else. Angie Everhart came onboard in the film for Rourke’s bedroom games, but the result was more scary than sexy. The only thing more frightening than Rourke’s physical appearance at this point was this career nadir.
Like a mauled canine licking his wounds after a disastrous dogfight, Rourke steered clear of major parts and crept back into movies with supporting roles in The Rainmaker, Buffalo ’66 and Once Upon a Time in Mexico. His tragically funny role of The Cook in the meth opus Spun showed a glimmer of what the actor might bring to future roles that required damaged goods. Robert Rodriguez must have seen this when he cast Rourke as Marv in the adaptation of Frank Miller’s Sin City.
The role of the tough guy with the disfigured face and longing heart won Rourke five best supporting actor awards and surprised even his harshest critics. Total Film magazine even named them their “Man of Year.” Rourke followed up Sin City with a memorable role as a bounty hunter opposite Keira Knightley in Tony Scott’s Domino. Rourke earned more praise than ever for his role as washed-up wrester Randy “The Ram” Robinson in The Wrestler. The film won the Golden Lion Award for Best Film at the Venice Film Festival and Rourke was nominated for Best Actor at the Independent Spirit Awards.
After nearly three turbulent decades in movies, Rourke got his first Oscar nomination for The Wrestler. “All that I have been through has made me a better, more interesting actor,” Mickey has said, even though he didn't win the Oscar. “My best work is still ahead of me.”