Johnny Handsome (1989): The Meaning Of the Face

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 pessimistic noir atmosphere) is the fact that it focuses on Rourke’s face. Rourke plays a guy who was born with a genetic cranial defect, with a huge bump on his forehead, and a cleft palate … He looks like a monster. From the get-go, this guy had three strikes against him. The world turned away from him in disgust, and so he responded in kind. In this way, it reminds me so much of George Cukor’s A Woman’s Face, starring Joan Crawford in one of her best performances (my review of it here). Crawford plays a woman who was badly disfigured with scars across her face. She is used to seeing people recoil when they look at her. It’s not as easy as: “If you’re beautiful, you’re good, if you’re ugly, you’re bad” … what happens when the world itself judges you, based on your appearance, and you internalize that reaction? These films are about psychology, more than their plot-points. Crawford’s character gets a chance at some plastic surgery, to fix her face … but it is only after her face is flawless and beautiful that things start to get REALLY interesting in Cukor’s film. Because … the scar was not just skin-deep. It went all the way to the heart of her psyche. So even though she is beautiful now, her expectations of the world (it will reject me, find me disgusting) still linger.

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I wrote in my review:

Watch how she always, even after the operation, protects the right side of her face. She still seems to feel that the scar is there. And Crawford plays it so well that there were times when I could still see the scar, even though her skin was smooth and clear. The scar was inside. She still felt it, and therefore, so did I.

In Johnny Handsome, Rourke’s character spent his childhood in foster care and orphanages. He naturally graduated to a life of crime. He lives in the shadows, in the underbelly, he is the kind of person you would look at and cringe away from. He is not just disfigured on the outside – he carries around with him (in his posture, his attitude) an expectation of disgust.

So when he gets a second chance at life – through the compassion of an ambitious doctor (played by Forest Whittaker) who thinks he can “fix” his face … things are not so simple. He goes through a series of operations … he works with a speech pathologist … and eventually … the work is complete. He now emerges looking like Mickey Rourke, circa 1989.

But what is truly haunting, in watching this film now, with its focus on Rourke’s beautiful tough-guy face, pale and open, is to know what would eventually happen to Rourke’s face, in the following decade. It would be ruined – from boxing matches, and horrible corrective surgery. His face now almost looks like the face of Rourke’s at the start of Johnny Handsome, battered, brutal, put-together-with-tape … it is a MASK. The first shot of Johnny Handsome is a dark noir-inspired shot – a busy rain-drenched street in New Orleans, blurry neon, crowded sidewalks … with Johnny Handsome strolling through the middle of it, midshapen, sullen, smoking a cigarette, head hunched down, Rourke brilliantly showing how his character desperately tries to be invisible, to protect innocent onlookers from having to deal with his ugliness. He strolls towards the camera, shadows, neon … and we know it’s Rourke, we know it because he’s the star of the film, but we cannot tell it is him. The couple of shots I have already seen of The Wrestler, Rourke’s new movie, with him walking down the street – have eerie echoes with that earlier work – except now it is not a makeup job, with prosthetics on his forehead and nose … It’s real. It’s one of those amazing art-imitating-life-imitating-art moments … something that Rourke, with his uncanny brilliance, is naturally tapping into. Katrina Longworth, reviewing the film, writes:

Darren Aronofky’s handheld camera follows Mickey Rourke from behind for the first several scenes of The Wrestler. It’s apparently impossible for contemporary directors to use this technique without someone suggesting that they ripped it from a Dardenne film, but its use in The Wrestler feels very different from its use in, say, L’Enfant: it doesn’t produce the same sense of a tension that could break if the camera ever allowed its subject to get too far away. In fact, several times, the camera just stops while Rourke keeps moving, allowing us to appreciate the full physicality of the actor’s performance long before we ever see his face. There must be a cerebral component to the way Rourke approached becoming aging wrestler Randy “The Ram” Robinson, because otherwise I doubt he’d have been able to so deftly navigate the character’s expansive emotional arc while still nailing all the jokes. But this performance goes way beyond the brain, or the precision with which Rourke transformed his appearance, or even the naturalism with which he performs the wrestling choreography. This is a performance that seems to start and end in the cardiovascular system, making everything Rourke actually does seem effortless. As if he’s just breathing it.

His physicality is one of the things that has always been so striking about him (we’re back in the realm of Kazan’s “acting is psychology turned into behavior” lesson) … and while there is an odd grace about him, he seems uncomfortable with that grace, and determined to stuff it down and hide it. It makes him riveting to watch. He is uncomfortable with certain aspects of himself (aren’t we all?) and so he walks that line in his films, his own emotions surprising him, angering him, ambushing him. He’s the real deal. He’s not “acting” tough. He fucking IS tough. But his hands have a strangely feminine quality to them – watch how he touches things that don’t require roughness or forcing … watch how he touches a coffee cup handle, or puts his hand on a woman’s face … these things that allow him to be gentle, and his hands look like the softest things in the world. Such a strange and beautiful contrast … Mickey Rourke’s body IS his canvas. Actors are in the business of transformation, of course … we’ve got the accents, the funny noses, the costumes … but with Rourke none of that is material. Whatever shift goes on in this actor, whatever transformation happens, goes on at the cellular level. To say that this is rare is to misstate what the word “rare” even means.

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Mickey Rourke is an important actor, one of the most important of his generation, and his deliberate dovetailing of his personal story with his work (perhaps that is why he turned down the Bruce Willis part in Pulp Fiction – too close?) … is one of the things that sets him apart, puts him on a Brando-level, a Garland-level. What is Rourke and what is not? That is a question that ceases to matter when we see him in his best roles.

There’s a goosebump-inducing scene in Johnny Handsome when the bandages are finally taken off, and Rourke is allowed to go look at his new face.

Words cannot describe the transformation of emotions that goes over him as he stares at his reflection (yet another entry in my “Man in the Mirror” post-to-come). He is astonished, he can’t believe it, he touches his face, he looks serious, bludgeoned … but then light starts to dawn, and with that light, comes tears … Tears that are not comfortable for him, he’s not a “crier” … but the pain that he has gone through having been 100% rejected by the world starts to come out … and yet he is smiling, too … but the smile looks like a wince … It’s almost like a tiny bruise on the skin of an apple, and when you cut the apple open you see that the bruise goes all the way to the core. That’s what that smile-slash-wince reminds me of. It makes you ache to look at. At one point, he looks back at himself, and breaks out into laughter, touching his face delicately with his fingers, saying, amazed, ‘I feel like I still have a mask on …”

It’s an unbelievable moment of truth, captured on screen.

Mickey Rourke is back. And his work in Johnny Handsome takes on even more resonance now, it is almost as though his own life has become the movie in reverse. He the actor may still “feel like he has a mask on”. His face is no longer the face it was, and we can’t help but be haunted by that memory, looking at him now … and yet … it is what it is within that truly matters. It is what it is inside that now may have a chance to express itself, regardless of the battered remains of his face.

Johnny Handsome is not so handsome anymore, but that could not be less relevant.


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3 Responses to Johnny Handsome (1989): The Meaning Of the Face

  1. brendan says:

    so glad you saw it! can’t wait for ‘the wrestler’.

    anyhoo, love you!

  2. Dan says:

    Awesome flick. Wish I could find a copy on DVD.

  3. In which Michael, an ex-boyfriend, remembers more than I do

    Mitchell has always referred to me as “the Homer in our group of friends”, due to my propensity to write everything down and to retain EVERYTHING. I have a tendency to shock my friends with my memory about THEIR lives….