Since first watching Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler back in 2008, I’ve always wondered if he’d seen the 1999 documentary Beyond the Mat in his preparations, as there’s more than a little commonality. Following on from our sports film episode, this seems as appropriate a time to explore it as any other.
I’d not exactly call myself anything more than an extraordinary casual wrestling fan – I might watch a couple of events a year if I hear good things about it, and that’s not happened very often so far this decade, and from previous discussions I think it’s fair to say that Drew has a healthy disregard for the no-longer-pretending-to-be-a -sport. In common with I suspect a great many people, I’d seen it occasionally as a nipper, but as growing up I didn’t have access to cable or satellite telly, the premium Hulk Hogan centred WWF product was not available to me, and the homegrown promotions soon shuffled off World of Sport, so with only the very exceptional exception, I’d not seen much of it until the late nineties, early zeros Attitude era that Beyond the Mat covers, which has proven to be by quite some distance the high water mark for the WWF. I suppose we’ll keep calling it WWF as that’s what it was at the time of Beyond the Mat, but of course since then they lost that fight with a panda and now go by the name WWE. Bear with us.
Beyond the Mat opens with the standard defence of an adult wrestling fan, although I’ve always thought said defence should be “Go fisherman’s suplex yourself, I like it”. I suppose it’s worth repeating for those looking down their noses at wrestling – there’s plenty of reasons to do so, but a lot of the common ones are stupid – but, yes, everyone knows it’s fake unless they’re very young kids or of equivalent mental age.
The best comparator I can think of is of a magic show – just as that audience does not truly believe that the assistant has been sawn in half, this audience does not believe this is a real fight. A willing suspension of disbelief was key to the historical success of the business, although that rather changed when Vincent Kennedy McMahon’s WWF expanded rapidly, made an outright push for the young kids demographic, and went from state to state in the 80’s declaring that it’s all a work because he could pay less tax that way.
That aside, you may still think it’s silly, and indeed it is, particularly if your mental image of rasslin’ is still in the first heyday of the 80’s Hulk Hogan era, which showed that even then, income inequality was a concern, with many wrestlers having to work two jobs just to get by, featuring wrestlers such as Issac Yankem, the wrestling dentist, or Sparky Plugg, the wrestling NASCAR driver, or Doink, the wrestling clown, or Repo Man, the wrestling, well, repo man. However, some people considering it silly does not stop other people enjoying something, as videogame fans will attest.
At any rate, Beyond the Mat is screenwriter Barry W. Blaustein’s attempt to find out what drives the wrestlers to put their lives on the line throwing each other around the place for our entertainment. What’s made this documentary interesting to wrestling fans is that Blaustein somehow achieved a level of access into the normally closed shop of the WWF that has, with the exception of Wrestling with Shadows, never been seen, with any subsequent documentaries being a rather more sanitised, WWE-friendly affair than this more honest, if not exactly comprehensive look, which is probably the reason it’s never been repeated.
There’s a few main strands to the piece, but most roads lead back to the Federation. We’re introduced to small-time wrestling promoter and training school owner Roland Alexander, trying to secure a try-out for the WWF for his two top talents Tony Jones and Michael Modest, and their hopes of making it into the big leagues.
While there, we run into another lead in the piece, Mick Foley, or Cactus Jack / Mankind / Dude Love / Mama Foley’s Baby Boy. After a career of taking the most ludicrous bumps of them all, he’s WWF Champion and about to main event a concussion-tastic “I Quit” match with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnston, who may be familiar to filmgoers.
Also employed by the WWF, but looking to move up the pecking order is Darren “Droz” Drozdov, a former NFL player who McMahon sees as a future star based on being able to market his ability to vomit on command, which if nothing else proves that he’s not infallible.
The remaining two threads concern former WWF stars. Well, sort of, Terry Funk appeared in the Fed but was never a mainstay. Jake “The Snake” Roberts, however was, and his then current state of drug addiction while still wrestling for small promotions is a sorry sight to see.
Meanwhile Terry Funk’s long career of taking damage almost as severe and often much more bloody than his friend Mick Foley is coming to an end, sort of, after his appearance at young upstart promotion and haven for garbage hardcore wrestling Extreme Championship Wrestling’s first PPV. Which was impressive for someone who’s knees were in much worse condition than Bruce Wayne’s in The Dark Knight Rises.
Now, I think this is pretty obviously an interesting bunch of things for any wrestling fan, lapsed or otherwise to watch, so I’ll probably not talk to you lot any further, if that’s alright. You’ve either already seen it or you should do so forthwith.
How does it fare for people who don’t care about wrestling, is the more pressing question. Perhaps we can answer that between us, but let me first say that if this is interesting to anyone outside wrestling fans, how much credit should go to Barry Blaustein is up for question, as in the main what he’s done is turned up and filmed things. And perhaps that’s enough, but of his stated aim of digging deep into the motivations of the wrestlers, there’s not a great deal of progress made more than some superficialities.
Jake Roberts seemed content to share some dark history that might explain how he wound up where he did, but there’s none of the investigation shown to give us a narrative on it. No examination of the pressures he’s under, or the drive to perform, or the WWF steroid scandals, or the life on the road, or the painkiller addictions, etc, etc.
The closest we get to questioning anything is showing Foley the footage of his family’s reactions the brutal “I Quit” match, but even then there is very little follow up to it. As a documentarian, comedy scriptwriter Barry Blaustein perhaps isn’t the most rigorous.
He has, however, got lucky, inasmusch as the bulk of the wrestlers featured are great characters, and at interesting times in their careers and lives, so it’s interesting almost by default.
As to how things turned out, neither Tony Jones and Michael Modest made it to the big leagues, and Droz was rendered quadriplegic after a botched powerbomb shortly after this film’s release. Jake Roberts went even further off the straight and narrow than this film shows, before latterly getting himself sober. Foley stopped wrestling full time in 2001, albeit regularly coming back for some featured feuds and latterly various non-active on-screen roles basically to this day.
As for Terry Funk, the film notes that his first retirement lasted all of three months. His most recent retirement match was on October 24, 2015 at the age of 71. He is insane.
There’s probably a checklist you could run through against the craft of documentary film-making that Beyond the Mat would fail against very hard indeed, but almost in spite of itself, it’s wound up being quite interesting. I’d recommend this to general audiences with little hesitation.
As the camera pans across press clippings, flyers and photographs of a career in professional wrestling, we hear audio describing an epic ‘fight’ between Randy “The Ram” Robinson and The Ayatollah, a ‘contest’ for the ages that was sure to confer legendary status upon its participants. But, popular as the event may have been at the time, it was in the 1980s, before the likes of WWE had the reach and, more importantly, the monetary success that it enjoys nowadays.
As the audio finishes, we see The Ram (Mickey Rourke) 20 years later, in the present, recovering after taking part in a low-rent event in a crappy venue, seemingly being stiffed over his fee. This is the reality for The Ram now – taking part in third-tier contests in provincial locations, the has-beens versus the wannabes, and trying to scrape together enough money to pay for his trailer park home and for the steroids and painkillers he needs to push his broken and battered body through another fight, so that he can pay for the steroids to get through another fight, and so on.
He makes up some of the shortfall with shifts in a supermarket, but it’s clear that wrestling is all that Randy knows, or cares to know. It was, and is, his life, and he can see nothing else for himself. But wrestling, like most intense physical activity, is a young man’s game. And after repeatedly pushing his body, punishing it, and damaging it with growth hormone, steroids and other, more recreational, substances, his body shows Randy it has had enough by giving him a heart attack.
The Ram is a tortured soul (much of which is his own doing), and he is a complicated person, and a combination of superb performance and excellent writing both portray this complexity and make our relationship with The Ram equally complex. It’s very easy to feel sorry for Rourke’s character – he’s lonely, sad, unable to let go of the one thing in his life at which he excelled, but whose time has come and gone. He seems generous of time and spirit with the other members of the wrestling circuit, giving genuine praise and advice to the younger men beginning their careers, and with no hint of rancour or ego.
The closest thing that he has to a friend is a lap dancer at a local club, Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), who seems to have some affection for him but, while Randy clearly wants something more, is still a ‘friend’ who Randy pays $60 a time to spend time with him. And then there is his daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood). Or, rather, there isn’t his daughter, as she’s not been a big feature of The Ram’s life, something he tries to remedy after his heart attack, and his enforced decision to retire from wrestling.
But… But… He’s a bad person. Not an evil person, not by any stretch, but he’s not a good guy.
It’s all too easy to forget that, when you see his camaraderie with the other wrestlers, or his first shift at the deli counter, when you understand that he’s a born showman, and who is capable of putting a smile on a stranger’s face just by how he interacts with them in that fleeting moment in which their lives coincide. But he wasn’t there for his daughter. He abandoned his child. So fuck that guy. And then there’s the unacceptable way in which he responds to Cassidy declining to take the spark of a relationship between them any further.
Despite this, though, it’s difficult not to be shocked by his outburst in the supermarket, or to not wish fervently that he not go through with his return to the ring. Robert Siegel’s script, director Darren Aronofsky’s intimate, but not intrusive, camera, and Rourke’s nuanced and raw performance all engender sympathy for, and interest in, this flawed and believably, painfully, human character.
While The Wrestler has no impact on my regard, or total lack thereof, for professional wrestling, it paints a compelling portrait of a damaged individual unable to let go of the past and his former glories, but doesn’t necessarily condemn him for it (though the scene in which The Ram hawks his autographs for a few bucks in an empty community centre, surrounded by ex-wrestlers who look more like war veterans than people who lived their life in latex and the spotlight, does at least raise the question that some of his, and their, choices have been dubious at best).
With the caveat that my experience of his work is relatively limited, and while I’ve never rated him highly in most of what I have seen, this is Mickey Rourke’s career-defining performance, and, frankly, a performance that would define the careers of most actors. Evan Rachel Wood gives a solid turn as Stephanie, but the other acting standout is Marisa Tomei as Pam/Cassidy who, like Randy, is struggling with the enforced end of a career in which her body was the focus and which now, for different reasons, is unable to provide what was asked of it in the past.
Darren Aronofsky is not known for his upbeat films but, while not bleak in the way that, say, the super-duper-happy-clappy Requiem for a Dream is, it may actually be his most downbeat film because of just how well-realised and authentic The Ram is as a character. Yet, by the same token, it is also uplifting in some ways: like its main character, The Wrestler is complicated. It’s arguably his best film, and almost certainly his most accessible and rewarding, and even if, like me, you’re put off by wrestling, I heartily encourage you to check out The Wrestler if you haven’t seen it before.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
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