Steve Buscemi’s Animal Factory, a screen adaptation of Eddie Bunker’s book about life in prison (Bunker also wrote the screenplay), came out in 2000. Willem Dafoe and Eddie Furlong starred. The rest of the cast is full of New York regulars, people you would recognize from the independent film world, Buscemi’s world.
It’s about a young privileged kid (Decker) who finds himself in prison for dealing marijuana and having to survive, suddenly, a rough institutional life. Willem Dafoe plays Earl, a guy who has been in the prison for a long time, someone who has learned to work the system, bribe the guards, get revenge to keep people in line – and in general bend the rules to get his needs met. Dafoe is bald, which just accentuates his odd face – and his body, in this film, is hard as a pit bull’s. He looks terrifying. But then you realize he’s actually not. Or maybe he is. Who knows. All we know is is that he sees Decker and, for whatever reason (it even seems opaque to him at times) decides to protect him. Maybe it’s a fatherly impulse. Or maybe it’s a remembrance of what it was like to be “outside”. Everyone in the prison has been basically “in the system” since they were juveniles. But the Eddie Furlong character actually lived in the “real world”, and brings with him a whiff of that. Dafoe gives him Demons (Dostoevsky’s book), saying, “Read it. You’ll like it. It’s a new translation.” I admit I rolled my eyes at that one. Okay, okay, he’s educated and weird. I got it.
There’s nothing really new in Animal Factory. We’ve seen it all before. It has elements of Shawshank Redemption (older veteran, younger white-collar guy), although the prison in Animal Factor isn’t as golden-lit with care-bear sentimentality as Shawshank. It’s the real deal, and feels much more authentic. There’s the older jaded man, the younger innocent … there’s the father on the outside (played by John Heard) who is trying to get his son out … Seymour Cassel plays a prison guard who has basically befriended the Dafoe character – they’ve both been at the prison for the same amount of time.
I saw the film when it first came out in very (very) limited release. I saw it at the Angelika Theatre, here in New York, in a 50-seat theatre. About 25 people were there. So I watched the movie, and I found it a little bit boring (although Dafoe is good, always fun to watch) – and I find Eddie Furlong, at times, hard to take. Sometimes he’s good, but sometimes he just seems lost as an actor. Animal Factory revolves around his journey, becoming “institutionalized”, and he, the actor, didn’t seem up to it. There are some horrifying scenes of violence, a prison strike, riot guards, and a various cast of characters to fill up the screen. It’s okay. Willem Dafoe always seems more like someone from commedia dell arte (with apologies to Mitchell) than a realistic world. Even in gritty movies, there is something mannered about him – a lot of it has to do with what he looks like. He has said it himself. I think he said something once like, “I look like a woodcut”, and that’s pretty much the size of it. His face isn’t one thing, it’s a blank slate almost – or a mask – that the audience can project things onto. He looks rather severe. But when he cracks a smile, it’s so mischievous you want to join in the fun. And here, he has a quiet strength – he’s like a coiled spring. Territory is there to be defended. You are never safe. He’s been “in” long enough that he’s at home in prison, but there are always threats to the alpha dog. Dafoe is good. His job in this film is to look at Eddie Furlong and feel a dawning tenderness towards someone for the first time in eons. And that wasn’t really an easy job with Furlong not giving him much to work on. Dafoe is playing that relationship as it should be played.
All in all, it was a pretty typical movie.
But there’s one character named Jan the Actress, a transvestite who is Eddie Furlong’s cellmate in the first half of the film. The entire movie takes off when Jan the Actress enters. You miss her when she’s gone. She only has three short scenes, and you keep waiting for her – it throws the movie off balance. You think she will be more important, mainly because you just want to see her again. At least that was my experience.
She lies on her bottom bunk, in full makeup, smoking, with big hard biceps – she’s wearing a sleeveless vest with a lacy bra underneath – and she calls Eddie Furlong “sugarplum”, and yet there’s more of a big brother-ly (or sisterly) aspect to it. You don’t feel like she’s going to rape Eddie Furlong or insist on anything scary. She just reads magazines, likes to gossip – makes psychological statements about other inmates (“When he first got in here, he was the most dysfunctionary man I have ever seen ..”) – and basically shoots the shit. She is definitely a queen, but more of an East Village circa 1983 queen: tough, brutal, sweet on the outside, hard as nails inside. The role could have been offensive. Roles like this always can be. If it seems as though the filmmakers or the actor is condescending to the part, and using it as a punchline (cue St. Elmo’s Fire with the gay character who just HAS to be drinking a frilly pink drink when we see him – it’s a kind of shorthand which is just another word for bigotry) – then it’s not good. I’m not against cliche. Cliches exist in life. All of the characters in Sopranos were cliches – but they seemed real, too. I’m a cliche, you’re a cliche – we each have our little box that we could be nailed down into with a couple of key phrases. But that’s not what makes up good acting (or good script writing). What makes up good acting is a feeling that what you are looking at is real. Sometimes the reality means so fully embodying the cliche that audience members will gasp to one another, “I know someone just like that!!” It’s accurate, yet it is not just its surface.
Jan the Actress is tough. She talks about wanting to become a butterfly and fly to “Paris France” where she can sit on a “motherfucking cherry blossom tree” and watch all the “pretty people”. “And I can say to the pretty boy waiting on me – ‘Mama, go get me a caffe latte and a jelly donut’ …” But then when Furlong asks him how he should handle a certain situation, Jan gets pissed. “How should you handle it? You get a fucking knife, that’s how you handle it. You won’t survive in here, sugarplum, if you don’t look after yourself. How should you handle it … Jesus Christ.”
Jan the Actress is nobody’s fool, although she puts on a flirty act, just to survive. In prison, identities harden – you have to project a SELF, as hard as you can, as a message that you are someone not to be fucked with. Jan the Actress has done that, with her flamboyant outfits, her long green acrylic nails, her movie magazines, and her language – which has a whiff of Blanche Dubois in it.
The actor playing the part is riveting. He has one moment after his long monologue about Paris, France – when you can suddenly hear the clang of a door shutting, and something happens on his face – something primal … It’s like after years of being incarcerated (you have no idea what this guy has done to get imprisoned, but you know he’s going to be there for a long long time) he suddenly feels the sound of a door clanging shut. And locking. After going off into a rambling monologue (and the actor is great – I have no idea if that was scripted, but the monologue is ridiculous – yet heartfelt – “I’ll see all the pretty places and people will take me to pretty places and they’ll be polite to me and I’ll walk down the fucking Champs Elysee and I’ll be in Paris France …” You know, he’s articulate in a way, but not neat or poetic about it … and the actor plays it perfectly) … so after going off into a rambling monologue, it is as though the sound of a door clanging shut affects him. He doesn’t wince, or cringe … he barely looks sad … It’s like he feels the sound. That’s all. He feels the sound. That sound is in him. He ain’t never getting out.
Jan the Actress disappears halfway through the movie when Eddie Furlong is moved to another cell and I never quite recovered from her absence. It ruined the rest of the movie for me, because every scene then became about (for me): “Will Jan show up?” as opposed to, “I wonder how this whole father-son relationship is going to end …” She tipped the movie over. She couldn’t help it. Her acting was that good.
The credits at the beginning of the movie had been brief and simple – with only Dafoe’s and Furlong’s name of the actors – so I waited at the end of the movie to see who Jan the Actress had been played by.
Was she familiar? Did her voice ring a little bit familiar to me? Haven’t I seen her before?
I was stunned – literally – my jaw dropped – when I saw the credit roll by:
JAN THE ACTRESS …………. Mickey Rourke
THAT was Mickey Rourke? So suddenly it became not just the best part of the movie – but an exciting moment of possibility, of wondering … will he … will he work again?? I haven’t written much about him, mainly because I find it to be a painful topic. His work didn’t just mean a lot to me back in the late 80s – he was really IT, as far as I was concerned. I didn’t sleep after watching Angel Heart. He raised the bar for all of us – anyone who was interested in acting got fired up after watching him. So I did have that strange feeling of personal connection to Mickey Rourke. To watch him back out of the arena, on purpose, was painful for me. I’ve liked other actors since – I was VERY excited when Russell Crowe arrived on the scene (and the response to him, in actor circles anyway – was similar to the response to Rourke) … but Rourke was the one back then, and you never forget those people who show you the way back then. I would watch some of his movies in the 90s and finally I just stopped, because it was too painful.
So to see that Jan the Actress was Mickey Rourke … and how good she had been, how much she made the movie … and that it would turn out to be Rourke, the guy from back then, I just felt strangely exhilarated about it. Moved. Like I wanted to write him a letter or something and tell him how much I had missed him. It was so good to see him. Because he was so in CHARGE of that thing. And now that I know it’s him, he’s completely recognizable – the voice, the phrasing, the eyes, the mouth … totally Rourke, unmistakable. But he was channeling something else as Jan and it is never less than 100% convincing. And not just convincing – because hell, Dafoe is convincing, and I wasn’t waiting with baited breath for HIM to come back onscreen – but exciting. Addictive. Palpable with reality. Riveting – you can’t look away.
Buscemi had taken a risk and called Rourke, offering him the part. Rourke read the script, and was confused. You want me to play HER? He couldn’t see it. Buscemi said yes – he wanted him for Jan. So Rourke said he would do it. It was a low-budget film, of course, and Rourke worked for one or two days only. It had been a long time since Rourke had had a job that excited him. He went shopping for Jan’s clothes, which is so amusing – imagining Rourke trying on bras and such. From what I understand, and what I can glean (because Rourke, like all the greats, doesn’t really talk about HOW he does what he does) … in the time before filming, Rourke started dreaming his way into the part. He saw Jan as someone who was totally institutionalized – had been in juvie as a teenager and just graduated to hard-time incarceration. It was a process of assimilation for Jan – at first you fight against the bars, then you accept them, and finally – life is like you’re just living in a slightly seedy hotel (where the doors are locked at night). You are institutionalized. That’s what Rourke wanted to convey. He also decided (who knows why) to have no front teeth as Jan – so he went to his dentist and had his dentist remove his front bridge. (This makes me want to cry. I love actors. Who knows why Rourke wanted to have no front teeth, but he did – “I thought it would be an interesting aspect to the character” – and had his dentist do this huge procedure so that Rourke ACTUALLY had no teeth during filming). Rourke was nervous. He had never played such a part before. He’s such a macho kind of guy, and he knew he needed to break the ice with playing this type of part. He would have no rehearsal for the film, he’d have to show up and start shooting – so to ease into it, so to speak, he flew across the country to get to New York in character. This wasn’t a stunt, or a game to him … It was a practical solution to the situation of having no rehearsal. He just didn’t want to have to have the first time he put on those clothes out in front of people to be on the set, right before shooting a scene, when his nerves would be up. So, toothless Mickey Rourke, wearing a sleeveless vest, with a bra strap hanging down, and a full face of makeup, boarded the plane at LAX. Hysterical. But it did the trick. By the time he walked on that set, he WAS Jan. He also loved working with Buscemi, who is also an actor, and so Rourke felt good in his hands – safe.
Jan the Actress is a glorified cameo but he dominates that whole movie.
Rourke’s main problem over the years (well, he had many problems) – but the main problem was that no one would insure him for the run of a film. And as long as he kept insisting on boxing – even during shooting – then there was no way that a director or producers would take a risk with someone who could come back with a broken nose and ruin their continuity. So he stopped being insure-able. There were other issues – mainly how bored he had become with acting (the mark of a true genius), how tedious it was, and how he had done a couple of jobs just for the money and it had really damaged him. Because this guy was serious about acting. This wasn’t just a guy who fell into it. He worked, studied, devoted himself to the kind of acting he wanted to do. So to have mercenary concerns really hurt him, and it made him feel like never going back to work again. Not to mention the slow transformation of his face over the 90s – into something barely recognizable. He had been punched in the face so many times that they had to rebuild the cartilage in his nose (a la Michael Jackson) by taking parts of his ear and whatnot. His doctors told him he needed to stop. He also started having short-term memory problems. “I could remember what happened 20 years ago, but couldn’t remember yesterday.” On top of all this, he had major money problems – addiction problems – and a tempestuous relationship with his wife, involving arrests for domestic abuse (charges later dropped) and a messy divorce that he did not recover from (emotionally, I mean). She walked out on him and Rourke lost it. (I’m talking about all of this like I know him. Sorry. I know that can be obnoxious. But whatever, I’ve read a lot. I’ve been following Rourke’s career – on AND off – since 1987 or whenever it was Angel Heart came out). He has said, 10 years later, that he would still get back together if she wanted it. But anyway, in the wake of the divorce began the whole chihuahua obsession – I think he has 8 of them now – and he walked off the set of a movie because his chihuahua was not allowed. All of this stuff hit the news … Rourke, now out of the business for 14, 15 years – still got headlines. For all the wrong things, it seemed … but he was not forgotten. His work still had an impact.
When Sin City came out, suddenly there was a Rourke resurgence, which I found very very exciting. I was almost afraid to hope for it (to quote Cashel, when he prays: “Dare I hope???”) because it would just be too awful if he fell off the rails again. I mean, awful for him, certainly – but awful for me, too, as a giant fan. Rourke started doing interviews again, and I was amazed by his softness, sweetness, and how the scary image he had built up in the 90s was not at all the whole truth. He was honest about his face, and how it had to be rebuilt from getting punched one too many times – he was honest about the boxing, and about how he had alienated so many people in Hollywood with his attitude that he really had to prove it to them that he was worthy of their trust. He said in one interview, “Look. Lots of people treated me like shit – but when you don’t work for 14 years, you have to take responsibility for the fact that you made one or two mistakes.” He was asked once if he regretted any of it, and he said, “I regret all of it.” But, he added, “I’m being given a second chance.” He had wanted to start working again in the mid-90s – but that was around the time when he found that no one would insure him. He turned down some very famous roles (most famous being Bruce Willis’ part in Pulp Fiction). He has kept his peace about the missed opportunities “because I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings anymore”. He’s a Roman Catholic, very devout, and he is what I would call a true eccentric. He’s NUTS. But his energy in interviews, albeit nuts (you know, stroking a chihuahua in his lap as he answers questions, wearing sunglasses, chain-smoking) is utterly sincere. He knows he’s good. He knows he blew it – but it seemed like those were the choices he had to make back then. He and Sylvester Stallone are friends and Stallone would advise him during the rough years, saying – “You have to be able to think of this as a business as well as art … you need to toughen up a bit … It’s okay that it’s a business – you can still do your art …” But Rourke had never found that balance. He, like Meryl Streep’s character in Postcards From the Edge, doesn’t want life to imitate art, he wants life to be art. And so he is the classic case of someone who was chewed up and spit out. As tough as he is, he didn’t have a thick skin. That’s probably why he’s so phenomenal as an actor.
So back in 2000, sitting in the darkened empty theatre in New York, years before this Rourke Renaissance happened (or appears to be on the cusp of happening, anyway, fingers crossed) … I saw his name go rolling by and I found myself thinking, “Oh, God. Please let him come back.”