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Good Letters

Upon seeing Mickey Rourke as has-been mat star Randy “The Ram” Robinson in The Wrestler, I became nostalgic. When I was a boy, you could get the TV wrestling matches from Memphis on Saturdays, wherein Jerry “The King” Lawler took on the likes of Tojo Yamamoto (managed by the dastardly Saul Wiengeroff). Me and my buddy next door would enjoy the heck out of this, then proceed to body slam and dropkick the sofa pillows. Yeah, it was fake, but the bravado was fantastic. We couldn’t have said so then, but it was the age-old morality play that delighted us—a trial by fire—and God be with the right.

Years later, when I was at Ole Miss, a bunch of us piled into the car to attend a match for fun (don’t ask). All was the same—bone-jarring and knee-lifting—but afterwards, through the smoke, you could see the men up close, as they made their way through a tough crowd (we were out of place frat boys). Never has a hard life been carved into a face like what I saw then. It should have been no surprise; nightly, like circus performers, these men appeared at civic centers to do what they did: throw themselves about like feed sacks hitting truck beds, brutal and unmitigated in their acts of conquest.

Now, before you get too sniffy, remember what Roland Barthes’ said: that the wrestling match is the great archetype. It “portray[s]…a purely moral concept: that of justice…. In the ring, and even in the depths of their voluntary ignominy, wrestlers remain gods because they are, for a few moments, the key which opens Nature, the pure gesture which separates Good from Evil, and unveils the form of a Justice which is at last intelligible.”

Darren Aronofsky’s film is a tribute to those who sacrifice all in the performance, like Randy the Ram. In his laud-worthy (and spookily self-reflexive) portrayal, Rourke’s ravaged face and body betray a life pushed past its limits. Living in a trailer park, the once legendary champion now wears a cheap hearing aid, tans his sagging skin with spray, and tapes his pulverized body more to cover the badges of pain than to stop it.

But though he takes drugs for his miseries, he’s much respected among his peers, who call him “sir”; no one puts on a show like Randy. As they plot the staging of their falls, the brotherhood of “heels” (bad guys) and “babyfaces” (good guys) plan to thrill the crowd. Randy is never unkind, always generous: a lonely man who can’t quite figure out how things got this way. Life is all the harder since the “sport” became extreme; in place of fake blood and break-away props (obvious in the old days) are “cage death matches.” The men must grapple through zones of barbed-wire, glass, and razor blades. Doctors come in afterwards to perform salvage.

Then, in the midst of this sordidness, appears a chance: a comeback match between Randy and one of his foes, to be staged on the anniversary of their big pay-per-view event, years ago. The question is whether Randy’s health can take it; this is all he knows, but it is costing all he has.

Then again, as Randy admits, life is tougher for him outside the ring. His estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) can’t stand him, and he has to make ends meet by working as a stockman. His only refuge is a strip club, where he watches his counterpart—Cassidy (Marisa Tomei)—a middle-aged woman who can no longer secure the private dances that earn the real money. They’re an uneasy pair, crossing the line between performance and reality, more comfortable on one side than the other.

At one point, Randy rehearses his pains—the scars and injuries he’s received—as Cassidy listens, rapt. Then she quotes from Isaiah (“he has borne our griefs”) and explains The Passion of the Christ: “You should see it; they all wail on him and he just takes it.” In the fight against the bad guy, she says, laughing, “You’re the Ram of God.” But the comparison is just. Reduced as he is, Randy’s entrances to the ring are preceded with a prayer and a sign of the cross.

I read not long ago that one of the old TV wrestlers had killed himself; his little business had failed, and he was in chronic pain from his ring days. He was alone in an apartment outside Nashville. Always one to give a great performance, I suspect in the end he gave too much.

God bless him, though, and those like him out there, living hard in lonely corners, preparing to do great battle, crossing themselves with broken fingers. God bless them all. As Eliot asked:

Pray for Guiterriez, avid of speed and power
For Boudin, blown to pieces,
For this one, who made a great fortune
And that one who went his own way.
Pray for Floret by the boarhound slain between the yew trees,
Pray for us now and at the hour of our birth.

The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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