There’s no ring, no Rocky Balboa chant, no championship belt, but this year’s Oscar race for Best Actor features two heavyweights duking it out for the coveted naked little man statuette. I say two, because although Richard Jenkins and Frank Langella offer Oscar worthy performances, and frankly, in another year it may have been Frank Langella’s turn for his uncanny romp as Nixon, I really think it boils down to Sean Penn and Mickey Rourke. (Yes, I am ignoring Brad Pitt – I’m ignoring everything about Benjamin Button – I really wish Button had been born at 60 as opposed to 80 so that the movie could have been 2 hours shorter).
Milk is a standard Hollywood biopic. That it is about the first openly gay politican is of no moment when you talk about originality as it relates to genre. The story is told in flashbacks, as Harvey tells of his political rise and personal failures into a tape recorder – Harvey is closeted, Harvey moves to San Fran, Harvey becomes the mayor of Castro Street, Harvey is elected to office, Harvey fights Prop 6 and Anita Bryant, Harvey is assassinated. The story is illuminated and made moving, interesting, and inspirational by an outstanding supporting cast; Milk is a sum of its parts, and while Sean Penn’s performance is fantastic, it cannot stand alone from this truly ensemble piece.
That’s not to say that the moments when Penn is alone, in his room, talking into a microphone, to an impersonal audience because he has lost those truly closest to him, fall flat. Sean Penn has told his story into a tape recorder before – in the Assassination of Richard Nixon, Penn plays an man suffering from a pyschotic break, who rants and raves into a tape recorder. I didn’t really get that movie, and was ambivalent about his character. But in Milk, Sean Penn, having practiced this narrative technique, gets it right – some of the finest acting in this film comes during the quiet moments in Harvey’s apartment, listening to Penn’s voice, and watching his face, regrets, failures, triumphs, and fear, all there, in every breath he takes, and with every line on his face. By the time Penn has a bullhorn in his hand, and he gleeful announces, “My name is Harvey Milk, and I am here to recruit you,” the audience is already in his pocket.
And, following the passage of Proposition 8, this performance has terrific Oscar appeal. A win for Penn would be a resounding rejection on the part of the Hollywood commnity against Prop. 8, and in the arts/theater community a proactive vote for change (and an apology for passing on Brokeback Mountain). But, a vote for Penn is really a vote for Milk and what he stood for and the need for a new voice for the disenfranchised, and those who require equal civil rights for all now. And, the bottom line is Harvey Milk is not nominated, Sean Penn is, and Sean Penn, well, is kind of an asshole.
A speech can’t win you an Oscar or lose you one, I would like to think. That Kate Winslet gushed and cried, and looked fairly ridiculous coaching herself to “steady steady” or whatever it was she gasped will hopefully not be her undoing. Likewise, you would like to think that the ill conceived things that come of Sean Penn’s mouth will not keep him from the podium – but they just might – his speech at the SAG awards was really a slap in the face to all t.v. actors, and guess what – most of them vote.
No, this Hollywood, I think, is somewhat postmodern, in that the story about making the movie is the final factor in vote casting, the movie in the end, is about the movie making. Perhaps this is not only postmodern, it’s also a bit narcissitic – an actor who votes perhaps believes that actors transcend the actual acting. And, in this case, where the performances were so close, so good – I think Mickey Rourke’s personal story, a story that makes you see the Wrestler through an entirely different prism, will land Rourke the naked little man.
The Wrestler is an unpleasant, hard film to watch. Rourke’s character, a wrestler who can no longer wrestler, is not a tragic figure because he is not capable of redemption, he is a tragic figure because he is completely capable, but rejects it. Although his wrestling career is over, he has every opportunity to make a new life for himself, repair the relationship with his daughter, start a new relationship with a single mother, a naked Marissa Tomei, working the hard life as a stripper. This is a movie about aging, but it’s also a movie about opportunities and second chances. Rourke’s Randy the Ram can’t embrace life outside the ring, squanders his second chance, and is left with no option, in his own mind, but to seek suicide by wrestle, and just end it all instead of finalling giving in to adulthood and middle age. Middle age and responsibility is more ravaging to him than the steroid infested, cocaine enahanced life of pro wrestling, that’s only highlights seem to be muted cheers from an equally aging crowd and the occasional fan adoration over an autograph or photo op. And, it’s is really hard to watch this loser make the same mistakes over and over again. When he misses a crucial dinner date with his daughter, you find yourself saying, no no no you jackass, and you find yourself more involved in his life than he is.
And, when I say that Mickey Rourke playing this character makes you view the movie through a different prism, I’m not saying it’s Rourke’s personal story – but it’s similar -his strange attempt at a boxing career, his crazy promise as an actor potentially wasted and ruined by bad choices fueled by drugs and the need for money, and his winning the Oscar would give the movie a whole new meaning – Randy the Ram, broken loser, Mickey Roure – Oscar winner! In this day and age, we all would like to think that redemption is not only possible, but that we are each worthy of it.
And Mickey Rourke has been all over the media circuit just being so darn nice, humble, thankful, gracious – the kind of guy you want to give an award to. To me, Mickey Rourke is like a client at a VOP – a violation of probation hearing. As a new public defender, you”re assigned to do these violation hearings every other day. You stand there next to your client, and struggle to think of something, anything to say that will move the judge to give your guy a second chance, or a tenth chance, sometimes. And Mickey is that guy – that guy you really really want to have another chance, and this movie is it for him. It is a brave performance. Sean Penn may be labeled as brave for taking on an openly gay character requiring him to indeed portray the sexual lifestyle that goes with it. But, to me, eh, not so brave. Here, Rourke opens himself up, exposes himself in so many ways – playing an unlikable guy, a raw guy – Rourke breaks himself into a million pieces, for all to pick up, examine and judge.
And, I think, the Academy is going to reward this comeback story, it needs this comeback story – we need this comeback story. And for gosh sakes, the man’s dog died over the weekend – he needs an Oscar, and he’s my pick.