The actor Mickey Rourke is a Hollywood myth incarnate, a beautiful man undone by a dependence on his own face, a saddle-soaped Dorian Gray. The smirking eyes, harsh frame and soft voice combined to subvert the eighties lead, a soulful minimalist to Michael Douglas’s greedy kitsch. Chiming with the era’s more quixotic auteurs, he abandoned his screen prime to box. Like Jean-Paul Belmondo (the subject of a previous Rake profile), Rourke was an undefeated amateur fighter, but by the time he wanted to act again, that face was a pulpy caricature of itself. For 15 years, Rourke was the heavyweight bruiser turned industry punchbag until a single film in 2009, one of the most potent life-art blurs in recent cinema history, revived him.
We’re getting ahead of ourselves. Born in Schenectady, New York, in 1952, Mickey was six when his bodybuilder father, Philip, left his mother, Annette, and moved to Florida once his mother married Miami Beach police officer Eugene Addis, a father of five sons. This machista environment instilled resilience, a fondness for the underdog, and a lifelong suspicion of authority. In an interview with Alec Baldwin, Rourke explained how he was regularly abused by his stepdad and tormented by his five stepbrothers; local thugs used to try to steal his bike, and an early job was to ward away pimps from boys handing out flyers. Two means of escape, acting and boxing, presented themselves to the teenaged Rourke, one a celebration of the face, the other a permanent risk to it. In both arenas he followed in distinguished footsteps. He sparred in the same boxing gym as Muhammad Ali and joined the august Actors Studio, where Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Harvey Keitel and Christopher Walken had all trained. For his audition, Rourke roped in his own dad to perform a piece between a father and a son; On the Waterfront director Elia Kazan called it the best audition he’d seen in 30 years.
Rourke is indifferent to compliments and no longer reads reviews, but word-of-mouth and admiration from his peers thrust him to the front of the casting queue, an eighties heir to his illustrious Studio stablemates. Rourke’s favourite of his films, The Pope of Greenwich Village (1984), cast him and Eric Roberts as two thieving restaurant workers, more Mean Streets wide boy than romantic lead. Two years earlier, however, his low-key, high-voltage charisma in Barry Levinson’s Diner (1982), in which a group of Baltimore friends reunite for a wedding, caught the nostalgic lust of the times. Rourke steals the film rather more elegantly than his maître d’ commits the robbery in Greenwich Village. Indeed, the erect cock his character hides in his popcorn box on a cinema date is an apt metaphor for the raw sexual power Rourke smuggled into the Hollywood mainstream.