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The Wrestler: gritty reality earns praise from everybody but Oscar

March 5, 2009

by keito

Awards shows are always a mixed bag.  There are always films-and actors-that make moviegoers say “that won?  She won?!”  Every now and then, though, a film pops up that draws some real attention to it, and even a little controversy.  Just look at Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler.

Awards and Nominations for
The Wrestler
* indicates wins
The Spirit Awards
*Best Cinematography
Maryse Alberti
*Best Male Lead
Mickey Rourke
*Best Feature
The Wrestler
Golden Globes
*Best Performance by an Actor
Mickey Rourke
Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role
Marisa Tomei
*Best Original Song in a Motion Picture
The Wrestler, Bruce Springsteen
Academy Awards
Actor in a Leading Role
Mickey Rourke
Actress in a Leading Role
Marisa Tomei
Venice Film Festival
*The Golden Lion
Darren Aronofsky
For a complete list, visit

The Wrestler cleaned up at the IFC’s Spirit Awards, snagging two of the biggest categories.  Mickey Rourke’s raw, sweaty and spectacular performance earned him the Best Male Lead Award from Spirit, Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture-Drama Award from the Golden Globes, and a slew of other less discussed awards by local critics’ circles and the like.  By IMDb‘s count, The Wrestler has won 29 awards and had 15 additional nominations.  Which leads me to ask, what did Darren Aronofsky and The Wrestler ever do to the Academy?

“Why would you deny a film that has not only rightly resurrected the career of a great American actor, but has resonated with audiences all over the world? Why would you deny The Wrestler not only a Best Picture nomination but also a Best Director nomination for Darren Aronfsky [sic]?” writes Dominic Patten of Examiner.comThe Wrestler, apparently not to Academy tastes, got only 2 nominations, for Actor in a Leading Role (Mickey Rourke) and Actress in a Supporting Role (Marissa Tomei).  Nothing for best picture and, to the well-vocalized dismay of many, nothing for Bruce Springsteen’s song The Wrestler.

Springsteen’s song is a good example of Oscar’s oversights with The Wrestler the film, especially because it’s raised such a fuss among the public.  The song won the Golden Globe for Best Original Song in a Motion Picture, and Rolling Stone described the lack of an Oscar nod as both “shocking news” from the Academy and a snub.  It really shows that, in case you didn’t sense it before, Oscar nominations and Academy votes are not always in tune with public opinion.

Robert Fure, of the popular movie site Film School Rejects, has an interesting take on this:

“The Biz has always been fairly predictable – the term “Oscar Bait” is applied to a movie easily because you can get a sense from the subject matter and the tone whether or not the movie is going to make a run for it…I fear that many of the times, this year especially, that Academy voters are voting for the films they liked overall or what is the flavor of the moment.”

So what is it about the flavor of The Wrestler that’s decidedly off?  I thought The Wrestler really brought something new to the theater experience, and I don’t use that term liberally (just about never, in fact).  I was moved by the film, and also impressed by its smart editing and gritty handheld camera-style scenes that made me feel more like a voyeur than a moviegoer; watching The Wrestler is like spying on what feels like actual people’s lives, their lowpoints and humiliations and all, thanks to the no-frills style and honest acting performances.

This type of cinematography, for which Maryse Alberti won the Best Cinematography Spirit Award, isn’t new, but something about it was different in this context.  The style may not have been “fresh,” nor was the effect that it had, but it was, most definitely, raw; and that, coupled with this type of story, is way better than fresh.

Of course, there was no Oscar nod for Alberti, either.

Maybe, for the Academy, The Wrestler was too much “life imitating art.”  One of the women on The View, when discussing the Oscars the day after the ceremony, suggested that Sean Penn’s award win over Mickey Rourke was because Penn’s role was the opposite of who he really is, whereas Rourke’s role was so like him, and so seemingly parallel to his own life story.

Who should or shouldn’t have won aside, I thought that this was one of the best things about The Wrestler.  The role was personal to Rourke, and he clearly dug down for it, embodying his character in a way that only firsthand experience will allow.

And yet Randy the Ram is not Mickey Rourke.  Sure, Rourke was once a boxer, who had to quit before making it big under the threat of short-term memory loss and other brain damage.  But what The Wrestler is really about is a man who’s built his life on one thing and is forced to give it up-only to realize that he’d built his life on it because it was the one thing he’d never screwed up.  And he’d even been successful, beloved for it.

Too much reality for Oscar?  When, as Robert Fure wrote, Academy Award nominations go to films on topics like war (or, I’d like to add, period pieces), one thing stands out: these movies mostly contain people who have never experienced a life like the character they are playing.  Slumdog Millionaire may be this year’s exception to the rule, but look at Keira Knightley as the lead in The Duchess; her only previous experience with life in a corset came from the sets of other movies.  Or Robert Downey, Jr., nominated for playing an Australian who is playing a black man.  Does this detract from the movie or the performance?  No.  But it doesn’t really add to it, either.

Movies aren’t just about imagination.  Sure, imagination is the vehicle that carries the story out, but it’s the humanity behind it, the real emotions and the heart of the stories themselves that make for a good movie.  Insisting otherwise puts a little tarnish on that gold statue, and especially on Oscar’s use of the word “best.”


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