Why Mickey Rourke Is the Greatest Film Actor of All Time

Published: Feb 24, 2023  |  

Multi-award winning journalist, author and screenplay writer

Illustration by Nikki Muller

Some people claim the best cinematic actor ever must be Marlon Brando or Laurence Olivier. Others believe no one lights up the screen like Meryl Streep or Robert De Niro. James Dean and Katharine Hepburn also have solid claims to the title.

But for me, one man stands way above them all in terms of talent: Mickey Rourke.

Stop laughing, I’m serious.

The intensity of his acting in eighties films like Angel Heart, Barfly, The Pope of Greenwich Village, Diner and even 9 ½ Weeks is unmatched. That was his golden period.

From that launchpad, he could have been the biggest star ever, but then he turned down the lead roles in Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop, Highlander, Rain Man, The Untouchables and Pulp Fiction. Those ill-advised choices were typical of the self-destructive streak that would later derail his career.

But in this era of streaming, it’s easy to go back and look at the roles he did choose and see the utter brilliance of most performances. And so I argue: it’s time for a reassessment of Rourke. That’s a process I started by writing his biography, Mickey Rourke: Wrestling with Demons, and it’s one I carry on now with the appropriately named New Thinking.

Perhaps one reason Mickey brings so much authenticity to the dramas on screen is that he’s lived through so many dramas in real life, especially in a turbulent childhood typical of so many great actors. Bullied and beaten by his stepfather and resentful of his mother for leaving his dad, Mickey looked for the feeling of belonging he failed to find at home and joined a gang of petty criminal pals, soon developing a defiance of authority and inability to conform that would later become hallmarks of his showbiz career.

After too many concussions derailed hopes of a boxing career, Rourke drifted into a string of jobs, ranging from attack dog agitator to pretzel salesman, but watching Montgomery Clift’s performance in the classic film, A Place in the Sun got him interested in acting. After some amateur dramatics in his native Miami, he was soon off to New York to get acting lessons and ultimately try out for The Actors’ Studio, where Clift had studied along with other icons such as Marlon Brando, James Dean, and Al Pacino.

On the panel there, running the rule over the applying actors, was Elia Kazan, director of On The Waterfront and East of Eden, who said Rourke’s audition scene from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was the best audition he had seen in thirty years.

He was immediately offered a place and eventually learned the tools that would make him a fine actor. But the studio never taught him the politics of the industry, and not understanding the business side of acting, he struggled for a long time to get screen jobs after graduating.

Rourke was working as a bouncer at a transvestite club by the time he finally got a film role at his 75th audition attempt. The movie was 1981’s Body Heat with William Hurt and Kathleen Turner, and his twitchy, spellbinding performance as a streetwise arsonist caught the eye of Tinseltown’s top casting directors, putting him on his way as a professional actor.

Cast alongside other new talents like Kevin Bacon, Steve Guttenberg and Ellen Barkin, he excelled in Diner, showing both toughness and vulnerability as a girl-chasing hairdresser. Then Francis Ford Coppola cast him in Rumble Fish as an enigmatic, charismatic, and world-weary young man in a cast that also included Nicolas Cage, Matt Dillon, and Diane Lane. Rourke’s method-acting performance was unpopular in this production— due to frustration over Rourke’s failure to speak up, sound technicians working on set dubbed the movie “Mumble Fish.”

He fared better in his next film, The Pope of Greenwich Village, in which he plays a flashy New Yorker who steals a safe full of mob money and gets in trouble with both the police and the Mafia. Soon after, Rourke was really put on the map by the erotic drama 9 1/2 Weeks, where he mesmerizes as a mysterious and dangerous stockbroker who seduces Kim Basinger’s character into a series of kinky sex games.

As Rourke’s fame grew, so did his bad reputation for not showing up on time and being difficult with directors, but Alan Parker took a chance on him for the supernatural thriller Angel Heart, which I’d argue was Mickey’s best-ever performance—even better than The Wrestler, for which he would be Oscar-nominated two decades later.

Here, Rourke plays a private eye investigating a string of murders with voodoo links, and the trail eventually leads him to a confrontation with the devil, played by Robert De Niro. Rourke has never been better than in their scenes together. Imagining his co-star was the terrifying stepfather he had grown up with and clutching ice cubes in his hand during filming, Rourke delivered incredible tension in their scenes, and the performance put him on the verge of movie greatness.

But with all the top scripts coming his way, the star’s attitude problem and determination not to do what was expected of him meant he rejected all the great parts offered to him and instead sought out vanity projects, like playing an alcoholic in Barfly, an IRA gunman in A Prayer for the Dying and even St. Francis of Assisi in Francesco. He was great in all of these films, but they were hardly crowd-pleasers, and that string of flops derailed his career. He’s struggled to recover ever since.

Rourke’s early films will live on forever, though, and if you seek them out, you just might find merit in my argument that, at least for the first decade of his career, Mickey Rourke was the most compelling actor who ever stood in front of a camera.

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