Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez's Sin City (2005) is playing on MUBI June 18 - July 17, 2016 in the United States.
What happens when a performer’s face changes?
This very question animated a bewildering piece by Owen Gleiberman last month in Variety, wherein Gleiberman—a man—pondered whether Renée Zellweger’s slightly aged, maybe plastic surgery-tinkered visage made her an entirely different performer. He sustained this mediation on the basis of a whopping three-minute trailer for Bridget Jones’ sBaby, hoarily declaring his good intentions to combat Hollywood’s sexist machinations at his piece’s onset. Yet, in spite of this pretense, his approach exhibited an astonishing lack of stringency, ultimately scrutinizing Zellweger along the same sexist lines he claimed to bemoan.
Like others, I find this storied practice of male critics inspecting women’s faces pretty odious. If male critics have gotten craftier than such forefathers as John Simon (who, as a thoroughfare of his criticism, routinely spewed kindergarten physical insults at our finest actresses) in veiling their misogyny, the same sense of entitlement Simon popularized persists. See the backhanded compliments doled out to Patricia Arquette for her work in Boyhood (2014), her willingness to age over a decade obtusely celebrated as a “lack of vanity.” Zellweger’s face has been the subject of some of the more bruising taunts leveled against actresses, so the very fact that a man scribbled over a thousand words on her face in one of the country’s major trade publications should be enough to give pause. But consider this: Are Hollywood’s men who age beyond recognition examined with such ruthless critical scalpels? Men like John Travolta? Sylvester Stallone? Mickey Rourke?
Pair Gleiberman’s Zellweger piece with another he wrote on Mickey Rourke six years ago. In it, Gleiberman seems to celebrate Rourke’s bruised face as a virtue, not a handicap, as he sees Zellweger’s. Gleiberman spends the perimeter of his piece hoping Rourke won’t be typecast into roles that play off the monster/saint dichotomy his physicality suggests. He fixates upon Rourke’s face, observing that Rourke’s features swelled, turning soft and pillowy with time, and that any observant director would exploit this chasm.
With a face that has alternately been described as roadkill and a melted candle, Rourke has had a beguilingly spotty career in cinema. He began as a promising star, turned into a failed one, and, finally, became a man doomed to reenact that trajectory on celluloid. The last of these incarnations was realized most fully in The Wrestler (2008), where director Darren Aronofsky basically excavates Rourke’s public persona, deploying the actor as a symbol for his own career. It’s the stuff of plum comeback narratives—narratives that would have been tidily capped by, say, an elusive Oscar. The role of Randy “the Ram” Robinson seemed so congruous with the way a certain generation of cinemagoers liked to imagine Rourke, a roughed-up man of failed promises, that it begged the question: did he reach his artistic apex? Was The Wrestler the summation of all he could give us as an actor?
Revisit Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City (2005), which offered Rourke’s first true comeback role years before The Wrestler. Rourke plays Marv, a man seeking avenging the murder of Goldie (Jaime King), a woman he slept with. Marv is a gallant beast of a man who crops his hair in a flattop; the scars on his face render him almost reptilian. The film is frankly gruesome, stark in its intensity, and Rourke lumbers through its macabre universe with a gruff, grizzly heart. Buried under tons of Max Factor, Rourke spends all of Sin City outfitted with prosthetics. And so he is denied some of his trademarks as a performer—in particular, those sly, knowing eyes that made you sense he was the most wised-up guy in the room.
What remains, then, is Rourke’s voice. And that voice, I’d argue, is as distinctive as Rourke’s face. I am struck by the scene in which he’s being pummeled by Goldie’s twin sister, Wendy (Jamie King), who’s hurling the accusation that he killed her sister against him. He’s bloodied and at his wits’ end, but stalwart in his refusal to feel humiliated. The line readings of the scene’s other players, King and Rosario Dawson, are earnestly, unappealingly flat; in contrast, Rourke’s are rich with color, by turns tender and tough.
David Thomson traces Rourke’s acting lineage back to James Dean and Marlon Brando, implying that Rourke is, like those predecessors, feral in his intensity both onscreen and off. This very tension between endearment and danger made him a terribly exciting performer back in the 80s, the kind who seemed at once to embody machismo and also expose that machismo’s limitations. In the context of that decade, it seemed as if Rourke had tinkered with the blueprint of what constituted a leading man. This frisson informed his most distinctive creations—in Body Heat (1981), Diner (1982), The Pope of Greenwich Village (1984), 9 ½Weeks (1986), Angel Heart (1988).
To my mind, his strongest work of the decade was in Barbet Schroeder’s Barfly (1987), where he gave a wily, loose performance of a deadbeat Charles Bukowski, a wearied and sardonic Faye Dunaway serving as his ballast. Rourke almost sings each of his lines in that film with a peculiar cadence, and the effect is hypnotic.
Watching Barfly in conjunction with Sin City confirms that Rourke’s voice is as much an asset as his face, a face so ripe with symbolic charge that it’s seemed to render filmmakers impotent since The Wrestler, as if Aronofsky had exhausted that face’s potential. Sin City testifies, quite plainly, that Rourke is more than just that face. Rourke’s post-Wrestler career has been pretty checkered, with flickers of greatness—see this heart-stopping monologue from Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables (2010), wherein Rourke meticulously cycles through bitterness and agony—that clamor for a more full-bodied role.
Regardless of this repeatedly mangled casting, Rourke enjoys one privilege. Few editors would give real estate to writing on Rourke’s face that traffics in the same coded language Gleiberman subjected Zellweger to. It’s quite a double standard, isn’t it? Rourke’s aging face is seen as a filmmaker’s goldmine; Zellweger’s is a liability, a mutation that inhibits her.
It circles back to a greater question—are actors just their faces? A chief crime of Gleiberman’s writing on Zellweger was the implicit suggestion that actresses are just their faces and nothing else. It’s woefully reductive, ignoring the calculus of what makes a great performance—the way actors use their bodies, their voices. Notice how Gleiberman acknowledges that Rourke’s imposing physicality and voice are essential parts of his arsenal as a performer.
The guile of Rourke’s casting in Sin City demonstrates the depth of what he possesses: Miller and Rodriguez overwrite Rourke’s famous aging face in favor of his voice. At the end of his piece on Rourke, Gleiberman turns to the reader—how would you cast Rourke, he asks? To this, I offer the suggestion to re-watch Sin City, where Rourke is stripped of his face, very mechanic that’s ultimately limited him. In Sin City, Rourke gives a performance contained almost solely in his voice; he simply speaks. We should listen.