Would "Casablanca" be cherished if it had starred Ronald Reagan, as originally intended, and not Humphrey Bogart? Is it possible to conceive of "There Will Be Blood" without Daniel Day-Lewis in the leading role? The miracle and mystery of perfect casting came to mind at the Toronto film festival as I sat alongside 580 enthralled viewers witnessing the resurrection of Mickey Rourke in Darren Aronofsky's gritty, deeply affecting "The Wrestler." To say this is a great comeback for an actor whose talent was exceeded only by his self-destructiveness is obvious. But this was a kind of harmonic convergence of player and part that happens once in a blue moon—the actor vanishing so completely inside a role that our sense of his "real" identity is permanently altered.
Rourke plays Randy (the Ram) Robinson, a Gorgeous George-type pro wrestler still mixing it up decades past his prime. He looks half human, half Frankenstein monster, his scarred, steroid-pumped body roasted a golden brown in tanning booths and his mottled face swollen by years of abuse. The crowds in the third-rate arenas have thinned, but he still lives for their roar of approval. He lives in terror of being a has-been, and when he suffers a heart attack and collapses after a brutal bout, his doctors tell him he must hang up his tights or die.
Another actor could have played this wreck for easy pathos—a sad-sack giant in decline. We've seen that act before. But Rourke, underplaying beautifully, gives him a tough, tender humor that skirts the usual clichés of aging gladiators that go back beyond "Requiem for a Heavyweight" all the way to Wallace Beery. There's none of the actorish self-indulgence, that taint of narcissism, that sometimes marred Rourke's earlier performances. It's hard at times to even imagine this is the same guy who was the Hot New Thing in "Diner" and "Rumble Fish," his brooding intensity evoking the usual James Dean references, or the lounge lizard who specialized in soft-core erotica ("9 ½ Weeks" and "Wild Orchid"). Rourke, macho man extraordinaire, disparaged the acting life for its suggestion of "femininity" and took up a boxing career to shore up his self-esteem. He seems to have poured all those demons into this part and emerged with a new sense of himself as an actor. When screen acting is this pure and simple, it doesn't look like acting at all.
I saw "The Wrestler" the day after seeing another electrifying acting moment in Toronto—in a documentary that was about performance and the casting process. "Every Little Step" is a movie about the creation of Michael Bennett's musical "A Chorus Line," and it follows several aspiring actor/dancers as they audition for the 2006 Broadway revival of the show. A young Asian-American actor named Jason Tam walks into the rehearsal room to read for the part of Paul, the gay chorus boy. And suddenly the movie we're watching is transformed by a performance of such raw emotional honesty that it reduced the seasoned director of the revival to tears—and produced goose bumps throughout the audience in Toronto. He got the part on the spot. Here was the magic of perfect casting unfolding before our eyes: when it's right, no thinking is involved—it hits you in the gut. Kind of like a Randy the Ram body blow.