The Star Market: Is Mickey Rourke His Own Worst Enemy?

Mickey Rourke. Photo: Jason Merritt/Getty Images

Immortals is the sort of action tentpole that you can’t imagine changed much on its way off of the storyboards and onto the screen: Under the exacting (if wackadoo) hand of director Tarsem Singh, each frame is perfectly composed, each vista immaculately rendered in a computer, and each actor hits his mark in front of a green screen with face, hair, and six-pack abs in perfect shape.

But then there’s Mickey Rourke. As King Hyperion, Rourke isn’t just fearsome as a hulking villain, he’s vitally unpredictable as a presence and as an actor, and when characters in Immortals cower in anticipation of what he might do or say next, you can imagine a phalanx of producers behind the scenes doing the same thing. In a Hollywood full of perfectly media-trained movie stars, Rourke is a self-made anomaly, a veteran who’s not afraid to shoot his mouth off and a star whose malformed-but-compelling look is one of a kind — but is he sometimes more trouble than he’s worth? To find out, we asked industry insiders one simple question: If Mickey Rourke were a stock, would you buy, sell, or hold?

Stock History: Rourke made his mark as an actor in the early eighties, when he appeared in films like Body Heat, Diner, and The Pope of Greenwich Village, then put his once-handsome face to use as the sex symbol lead of 9 1/2 Weeks. At the end of the decade, though, roles were falling off, and after making 1990’s Wild Orchid and 1991’s Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man, Rourke was ready to retire from acting and try his hand at boxing instead.

For years after that, he was a tabloid curio famous for fudging with his face and getting into trouble, but he eventually worked his way back into the business with small parts in movies like Francis Ford Coppola’s The Rainmaker and Robert Rodriguez’s One Upon a Time in Mexico. The latter then gave Rourke a meaty (if unrecognizable) role in 2005’s Sin City, and Darren Aronofsky completed Rourke’s comeback when he eschewed the willing Nicolas Cage to cast Rourke in The Wrestler, for which he’d receive an Oscar nomination.

Peers: You’d be hard-pressed to find another actor in Hollywood who’s had as bizarre a run as Mickey Rourke, which makes it challenging (if not almost pointless) to try to name his peers. In terms of sheer acting talent, agents say he’s equal to Sean Penn (51) and Woody Harrelson (50) but lags behind both because neither required a comeback. Val Kilmer (51) had a similarly intense but brief hot streak, followed by years in the wilderness owing to his hot temper, but unlike Rourke, he’s still more or less wandering there. Rourke is an eccentric like Nicolas Cage (47), but insiders say Rourke has lacked the strict professionalism of Cage on the set.

Market Value: Is Rourke a marquee draw on his own? Hard to say, but at the very least, he’s been a part of some big films over the past several years of his comeback. Iron Man 2 was obviously the biggest, a $312 million monster, but The Expendables, Sin City, and Man on Fire were all solid hits, too. His last two indies, Passion Play and The Informers, were both notorious bombs, but the success of The Wrestler will keep him in contention for years to come.

What Hollywood Thinks: To a man, the half-dozen top agents surveyed by Vulture all say the same thing: Rourke’s biggest problem has been, and continues to be, Rourke.

“He is like the Phil Spector of actors,” says one top rep, “in that he has no sense of his appearance, or how he comes off. And so now, he’s become almost a fetish, rather than someone who transforms once he’s in your film.”

“He’s almost like Woody Harrelson, if you crossed Woody Harrelson with Gary Busey,” explained another agent and agency partner. “This guy was totally, totally out of the game. And worse, he’d kind of assholed himself out of the business, to boot.”

“If only he hadn’t ruined his looks!” laments the agent. “God, in The Rainmaker? Wasn’t he gorgeous? But he’s ruined his looks the way that Melanie Griffith ruined her looks.” One has to wonder if this is why Rourke’s face is so often obscured in Immortals, a film insiders say also made extensive use of a body double for Rourke (when he’s not wearing one of costumer Eiko Ishioka’s elaborate masks).

Another problem confronting Rourke, agents say, is that having been away so long, he now seems to be making decisions based on money, rather than material. Indeed, when Vulture caught up with Rourke at a recent after-party and asked why he’d starred in the unreleased horror movie 13 with 50 Cent, he answered bluntly: “For the money,” calling the picture “terrible.” Signing on to a new Kellan Lutz action vehicle entitled Java Heat, as Rourke did this month, also indicates an interest in money over material.

“That’s the surest way to find your way towards lower and lower quality stuff,” says one agent, “But at the same time, can you blame him? He has to be thinking about what he’s going to live on for the rest of his life. It reminds me of where Brando was, towards the end of his career. Remember when Brando did that total rip-off of The Godfather, that Matthew Broderick movie [The Freshman]? It feels like that, except that Rourke was never quite as big a deal as Brando.”

“I feel like he’s been away for such a long time, there is almost no profile out there anymore,” says one publicist. “So unless there’s interesting material being made, it’s very hard to put him back on the map. There was a moment there with The Wrestler, but it’s kind of passed now.”

“I’m not saying he’s quite as bad as that zombie at the bottom of the well on The Walking Dead,” sighs one of the agents, “but it’s like he’s become like The Picture of Dorian Gray — in reverse. It’s only a problem inasmuch as people remember him from roles like Body Heat, where he was so, so beautiful. But he’s a wonderful actor, and while he’s not the first guy they think of for these actor-ly parts that go to Sean [Penn] and Tim Robbins and the like, he’s still on the list, even if it’s at the bottom.”

The Analysis: Like Busey, who suffered brain damage in a 1988 motorcycle accident, Rourke’s career has suffered from head trauma: After leaving the business to pursue boxing, Rourke has had his nose, toe, and ribs broken; his tongue split; and his cheekbone compressed. Such injuries might have affected his judgment as much as his looks: Strangely, Rourke turned down what would have been a career-saving role in 1994’s Pulp Fiction, and so the part of Butch Coolidge went to Bruce Willis instead, while Rourke would languish until 2008’s The Wrestler.

The issue of Rourke’s judgment comes up as often as his botched plastic surgery. Years ago, Alan Parker referred to his experience directing Rourke as “a nightmare,” adding that the actor was “very dangerous on the set because you never know what he is going to do.” Little seems to have changed: Rourke was in negotiations this month for Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths, a black comedy where he’d star alongside Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, and Christopher Walken, but after falling out of talks, Rourke called the Oscar-winning director “a jerkoff” who “can go play with himself.” In fairness, though, the new 2011 Rourke is equally quick to apologize after shooting off his mouth, and after bashing Passion Play to Vulture a few months ago, he issued a mea culpa: “I don’t know why I said that stupid shit.” (Of course, it didn’t stop him from once again slagging on Passion Play a month later … )

Can Rourke curb those eccentricities, and more important, would we want him to? While many directors seem almost intimidated by him — Jon Favreau has basically admitted that he let Rourke do whatever he wanted for Iron Man 2, while Darren Aronofsky used his Black Swan press tour to tweak Rourke’s professionalism in comparison to Natalie Portman’s— Rourke has a valuable A-list ally in director Tony Scott, who has long had the actor in mind for his Hell’s Angels (after already working with him on 2005’s Domino). And though Seven Psychopaths didn’t work out, Rourke is attached to another indie, Iceman, where he’ll play a famous mafia hitman for director Nick Cassavetes.

The Bottom Line: Rourke’s a valuable star to have in the Hollywood constellation, but he needs to realize that the Earth doesn’t revolve around him. Everyone is rooting for Rourke, and his performance in The Wrestler is one for the ages, but he could use another critical success to make him as important as he already seems to think he is. Don’t blow it, Mickey!

Buy/Sell/Hold: Strong Hold, though only to see what Rourke might do after he stabilizes his checking account. If he starts taking more interesting parts like Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, he might become a “Weak Buy,” says one agent, “because he’s so talented, I’d say he’s a value play — there’s always value in talent.”

The Star Market: Is Mickey Rourke His Own Worst Enemy?