Underdog Nominees’ Strengths Also Their Challenges: Being Themselves May Not Be Enough


Published: February 12, 2009

Mickey Rourke, who has been nominated for Best Actor for his performance in “The Wrestler,” and Robert Downey, Jr., nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his role in “Tropic Thunder,” both face an overwhelming challenge in winning these awards, almost as overwhelming as their personal lives have been in the past.

If “Tropic Thunder” is a film about how crazy Hollywood can be and the insecurities that weigh down actors, then Downey, Jr. was the perfect choice to play the character Kirk Lazarus.

“I’m a dude playing a dude disguised as another dude!” exclaimed Lazarus at one point in the film. What could better summarize the identity issues facing many Hollywood actors, especially Downey, Jr.?

Downey, Jr. was first exposed to the Hollywood lifestyle by his father, director, writer and producer Robert Downey, Sr. (“The Twilight Zone”). In 1987, Downey, Jr. starred in “Less Than Zero,” a movie about a young man living an extravagant life defined primarily by drug abuse. Many critics found this performance definitive for Downey, Jr. likely because it was such an accurate reflection of Downey, Jr.’s real life drug addiction and life of excess. Downey, Jr. himself told the Guardian, a British newspaper, that he “became an exaggeration of the character” in real life. During the 1990s, Downey, Jr. not only performed in several films, including the critically acclaimed “Chaplin” (1992), but was also in and out of rehab centers and prison for his continued drug use. This pattern continued until 2001, when Downey, Jr. successfully completed a rehab program. Since then, he has starred in several films, but his portrayal of alcoholic-genius-businessman and superhero Tony Stark in 2008’s “Iron Man” has been cited as his big comeback role.

Both Tony Stark and Kirk Lazarus are roles that reflect Downey, Jr.’s personal struggles. Stark must deal with his personal issues and substance abuse; Lazarus must come to grips with his own identity. In roles that are such genuine reflections of Downey, Jr.’s true self, the actor excels.

This is equally true of Mickey Rourke. Another actor with a troubled past, Rourke has worked hard to get back to the top of his game. As a teenager, Rourke’s greatest ambition was to be a boxer; for a time it seemed likely, until two concussions forced him to take a break. During this time, Rourke discovered his true passion—acting. He left home in Miami to take acting lessons in New York. Soon, he was on the path to success, starring in films like “Diner” (1982), “Rumble Fish” (1983) and “9½ Weeks” (1986). From there, however, Rourke’s acting career began to disintegrate. He began to turn down roles in films destined to become hits, including “Rain Man,” “Pulp Fiction” and “Platoon.” In 1991, he returned to his first calling and became a professional boxer, but due to neurological problems, returned to acting in 1995. He has since played minor roles in several films. “Sin City” (2005) is widely recognized as his comeback film, but “The Wrestler” is his first major lead role in years and will likely be even more crucial to his future career development.

Rourke’s role as washed-up professional wrestler Randy “The Ram” Robinson must hit close to home in many ways. Like The Ram, Rourke had been dismissed as a washed-up actor, has cultivated careers based in physical presence and cannot seem to form meaningful connections with anyone but his pet Chihuahua. As in the song by the same name written by Bruce Springsteen for “The Wrestler,” Rourke might be seen as a “one-trick pony” whose only trick is his acting. But this role is the perfect one for Rourke’s comeback, as the actor pours himself into his character whole-heartedly with superb results.

Both Downey, Jr. and Rourke chose to take on serious roles that reflect the dire circumstances they each have faced during their careers. This has resulted in passionate and memorable performances by both men. Yet will such performances earn these two actors their Oscars? In a business that rewards performance rather than authenticity, it’s hard to say.