Mickey Rourke: The Vagaries of Genius

Yeah: I always thought Mickey Rourke was a genius – in the truest purest sense of the word – from the first time I saw Angel Heart. Or – let’s say: I’m not into the whole “next Brando” thing because I believe actors are originals … Brando was Brando, Rourke is Rourke … but in terms of the level of the gift – so far and beyond what his peers are bringing to the table … Yes. I have always put Rourke in that pantheon. His backing out of the scene left the way clear for Russell Crowe to take over … and yet Rourke, by his very absence, continues to dominate. Isn’t that always the way.

In Diner, he is a delight to watch. Brando-ish in his inventive-ness, his freedom, his specificity. That over-the-top yet totally-connected Method-y performance (“Kid,” he says, with a wry already tired smile, when he discovers his best friend is still a virgin, “you gotta lot to learn …”) is still startling and juicy to watch today. Rourke had an internal mechanism that kept him from pushing too much … and he also had a fearless non-literal approach to things which make certain moments POP off the screen (like pouring the sugar down his throat). I am still excited watching him work.


He’s the genuine article – and even his straying from the path of his own talent is essential to understanding him, it was a true impulse (although frustrating for those of us who love him), it came from the depths of his soul. He’s not a careerist. Brando never was either. They get lost. They get distracted. They do other things. Life is long. Life is messy. Not a straight line. These men are so gifted that they are careless with that gift … the genius is so innate that they don’t treasure it – why should they? It’s like having blue eyes, why congratulate yourself for it? Or, more on point, the acting talent of those two men can be seen as being akin to having perfect pitch or a photographic memory or being a prodigy of some kind. Being that good at something is not always accompanied by an overflowing feeling of gratitude and humility. No. That is the provenance of the more mediocre folks, who KNOW how lucky they are, who maybe are not as good at whatever it is… they have to work harder for lesser results – so they hover over what they have and are thankful (or bitter, depending on the person). Whatever it is: they are CAREFUL with whatever small gift they have been given. Geniuses are notoriously clumsy and careless with their own brilliance because it comes so easily to them (we’re moving into Salieri/Mozart territory here) … At times it seems like the gift (for whatever it is) comes from outside of themselves – it’s almost like an accident – and so while it may be irritating to see someone throw a career out the window – it is part and parcel of the journey of these types of people (throughout history, I might add).

Rourke’s 5 minute cameo in The Pledge is one of the most powerful pieces of acting I have ever seen – hands down – it was almost unwatchable in its intensity, I looked away at one point to give that character his privacy with his own grief … the camera seemed too invasive, the pain he was experiencing too acute (more like agony) to be witnessed – and while I thought that movie was quite good – it is only his scene that I really remember.

I don’t think too many people are “geniuses” at acting. I think people sometimes hit a genius moment by being cast in a perfect part at the perfect time. I think there is a kind of on-again off-again relationship with genius (which is typical in other disciplines as well). I also think there is skill, and perhaps a gift of imagination, and craftsmanship (all wonderful things) – but only a few people (Duse, Rowlands, Brando, Judy Garland at times) are maestros. Untouchable in their authenticity. Rourke is one of them. I saw it from the start.

Can’t wait to see The Wrestler.

Go read the whole thing – pretty wonderful analysis, I think.

I just had to put in my two cents about The Pledge which is not mentioned in the piece.


I’ve been a fan for over 20 years now! It hasn’t always been easy – I’ve had to watch a lot of crap, not to mention soft-core p0rn (some of it rather enjoyable – but still, a bit sad because it was HIM doing it)…. but that’s okay. Once I love you, I love you for good. I rarely “turn” on someone – especially not because of private or personal behavior which spills out into tabloid fodder. I don’t care about any of that. I care about Pope of Greenwich Village and Diner and Angel Heart and The Pledge and Sin City. It’s the GIFT I cherish. Regardless.

It’s about time you got the props you deserve.

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24 Responses to Mickey Rourke: The Vagaries of Genius

  1. David says:

    I can NOT wait!! I absolutely adore this man’s acting. Remember our fevered responses to Angel Heart?! “I know who I am. I know who I am.” And I couldn’t agree with you more about The Pledge, stunning. So many brilliant cameos. He was some banished lawyer expert in the Rainmaker. It’s all I remeber from that movie, him and Roy Schieder.

    This post reminds me of that great scene in Good Will Hunting when Matt Damon’s character give that math professor the business. It’s easy for him, he knows he’s revered for it but like you said, it’s like being praised for having blue eyes.

    Great post on acting genius, as usual.

  2. red says:

    David – yes, your mention of Good Will Hunting is exactly what I was trying to get at in the part of my post where I talked about genius.

    Salieri is a tragic figure – he can never ever ever be a genius like Mozart. No amount of hard work will EVER help him catch up. He will have to settle for being mediocre – and “absolve” himself for it.

    I love the memory of our Angel Heart freakout – didn’t we all go out to Bickford’s and talk about it until 2 in the morning?? Ah, college!

  3. brendan says:

    i remember going to see ‘johnny handsome’ in the theater…rourke was the one actor that people went to see to watch his ACTING. he was not a commodity he was a talent. the first half of that movie i thought he was going to win an oscar. then the movie failed him.

  4. red says:

    rourke was the one actor that people went to see to watch his ACTING. he was not a commodity he was a talent.

    Yes yes yes. That’s the difference – not just in who he is but in the audience response to him.

  5. just1beth says:

    Plus I have always loved tough guys with a cool name like “Mickey”. Why aren’t any of our friends named Mickey? I demand we get a friend named Mickey.

  6. red says:

    Dibs on Mickey when he finally shows up!

  7. Jeff says:

    His cameo in “Body Heat” was pretty amazing, as well.

  8. brendan says:

    In ‘Johnny Handsome’ (another John today!), he plays a thug who was born with serious facial deformity. This leaves him cut off from the world and emotionally stunted. A team of doctors perform miracle surgery which leaves him looking like Mickey Rourke.

    The scene where he takes off the bandages and first sees his new face? Oh lord. Amazing.

    He begins to date a girl. Here is where the movie tanks…

    He’s never been with a girl. Instead of SHOWING his awkwardness, etc., they cut to a MONTAGE of them riding ferriss wheels, eating ice cream. I mean, it is laughable! Then they wake up in bed! I couldn’t believe they skimmed over the whole process.

    Anyway, he was amazing.

  9. red says:

    Oh my God, it sounds like Ponch’s love-montage from the “Don’t even TRY, CHiPs” episode.

    I don’t think I’ve seen Johnny Handsome – must rectify that. Sounds like A Woman’s Face – great picture with Joan Crawford who plays a woman horribly scarred from a fire and used to being rejected and scorned by the world – so she turns to a life of crime and a sex affair with a conniving terrible man (played the guy who ended up playing Colonel Strasser in Casablanca – wonderful actor) … she meets a plastic surgeon who does surgery on her – turning her into, well, Crawford – but it becomes a very interesting examination of beauty … because Crawford, even without the scar, is still behaving as THOUGH she has the scar … It’s so so good. Like she isn’t immediately beautiful and unscarred within … the years of rejection and loneliness have taken their toll on her personality.

    Putting Johnny Handsome on the queue now. Thanks, Bren!

  10. red says:

    (Also – it’s touchingly ironic and prescient that Johnny Handsome would be about his ruined face … because that’s so much of what I see now when I look at him … Yet, like in the Pledge, his genius just burns through that ruined face. Amazing!!)

  11. brendan says:

    directed by walter hill, i somehow remember elizabeth mcgovern being in it. ellen barkin? who knows.

  12. David says:

    The Pledge was on yesterday and I watched that scene 15 times. I watched it in slow motion. It’s phenomenal. He has this facial twitch that marks an internal transition. I was beside myself wondering if it was planned or spontaneous. I don’t know which answer makes it more genius.

  13. red says:

    David – wow wow wow – you are making me want to see it again. It’s been years. And I love your comment about “I don’t know which answer makes it more genius” … It really could go either way. I actually dom’t know much about his process – if he’s a big planner or if he’s into improvisation … It’d be interesting to read his thoughts on it.

  14. DB says:

    …and don’t forget Year of The Dragon
    ..totally pushing everyone around him to their brink

  15. nightfly says:

    Geez, you scared me… I thought Mickey Rourke had died too!

  16. Pearl says:

    My first sight of him was in BODY HEAT–and I thought he stole the film. “Who was that guy?” I thought, and “I want to see more of him.” I can’t say when I stopped watching for his new movies, but I did. It got painful, which is an excuse. I too can’t wait to see THE WRESTLER.

  17. red says:

    He did almost steal Body Heat – he is so so memorable!

  18. Johnny Handsome

    I watched Johnny Handsome last night, a movie I had not seen – spurred on by my brother’s comments about the film in the comments-section to this post about Mickey Rourke. What is extraordinary about this film (besides its dark…

  19. Seamus says:

    His performance as Henry Chinaski in Bukoski’s “Barfly” still ranks as one of my favorites of all the films I’ve seen. I can’t imagine anyone else playing that role.

  20. Bill Robinson says:

    I stumbled upon these wonderfully crafted accolades for the finest and fiercest actor I know . New at this and not sure if its the appropiate arena to seek out much desired information on Mick but as an obligation to my obsession I must try. I Dont care to try to meet him or shake his hand or any other stalker like activity but I would like to obtain a piece or two of genuine memorabilia specifically from Pope
    and Barfly for my home theatre. Anyone out there who knows of a reputable resource for all facts Rourke.

    Tried to Google Press Kit for ‘Pope’ and cant even learn the original press kit content.

  21. Marlon Penna says:

    Mickey was a beauty in the wrestler, absolute poetry.

  22. Daiana Gómez says:

    hello,well i have been reading all what you wrote(i think) about mickey rourke.now let me tell you that i dont know who has more talent ..mickey acting or you writting! .you have been describing so many things i know that i feel watching him,and you made me a favor putting into words many other feelings and thoughts he makes me experience.. and i agree with EVERYTHING you have said so far.. exept when you called 9 1/2 weeks a silly movie.. while i think it has so many layers of meaning and it doesnt really show a one-sided story.. (i hope you get what im trying to say here.. because not only im bad at expressing myself but im also from Argentina and my english is not the best! ;P) ; plus some more few exeptions like that.oh and i have to say you even made me teary-eyed more than once.you sound really passionate about him. i would love to know he has read you too. :D .well,i will keep sight of your blog,to feel indentify with what you say and maybe make another comment .. because you know,i have to get rid of my feelings and im not an aspiring actor or anything.. im studying law .. hahah.so i dont have anyone to talk about mickey ..lol .cheers!

    • sheila says:

      Daiana – thank you for your comment! Your English is just fine and I totally understand what you mean about wanting to talk about this phenomenal actor. He was just so huge for me in the 80s, and I could not be happier to see that he has climbed himself out of the rut. He’s unique!

  23. Daiana Gómez says:

    oh,and i think he is the best actor ever.. i mean,ever! .i agree with this http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/656471 (i guess you have read that,since you are even listed as a source ) ,in the part that says why he is better than brando :P .i like the whole article but she really made a point for me there.. just talking about things i feel but i need someone else to explain me why! haha..

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