The odds of a pro wrestler having a decent film career right now is slightly better than it was ten or twenty years ago. Dave Bautista having a substantial role in Marvel’s upcomingGuardians of the Galaxy film is what makes me think about this now, on top of his appearance in last year’s Riddick. While I wouldn’t pay to see Bautista headlining a film (or a pay per view, but that’s another matter), I think was a good addition to films like Riddick and The Man with the Iron Fists. I think he will be fine in Guardians of the Galaxy.
His part in the movie makes me think of The Rock, who has maintained a fairly successful film career for over a decade. It also made me think of guys like Roddy Piper, who has made some very strange film and TV appearances over what has now been nearly thirty years (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia or Super Sweet 16: The Movie), Hulk Hogan (who has apparently given up on acting, and thank the gods for that), “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Kevin Nash (who recently showed up in Magic Mike), and others. There is no disputing that The Rock has had the most critically and commercially viable run. Looking over some of the wrestlers who have worked in film and television over the years, the list reveals some of the great in-ring performers of all time. These are talents who had/have extraordinary charisma on the microphone, while also being able to back that up with the ability to do what pro wrestling is ideally designed to do: Create a compelling narrative through two or more people pretending to beat the hell out of each other.
To be considered by a majority as one of the greatest pro wrestlers of all time means that they were someone who was extraordinary in some way at a very difficult job. That doesn’t necessarily mean that can translate to good work as an actor. “Stone Cold” Steve Austin is one of my favorites of all time, and I like The Condemned in spite of how dazzling it is in its stupidity, but his legendary presence and in-ring work has never really translated to what I would consider a good film performance. That hasn’t stopped me from buying four of the direct-to-video movies he has starred in over the past few years, but one of the most commercially successful wrestlers in history will probably never have a significant film career. The same can be said for Piper, who I’ve always thought was at least a capable actor. He also has at least two cult films on his resume (They Live andHell Comes to Frogtown). Jesse Ventura appeared in several movies with Arnold Schwarzenegger, but anything he ever did on his own came and went with little notice. It’s very unlikely that anyone is ever going surpass The Rock in terms of quality or success.
What’s still funny about that is how his wrestling career almost ended before it ever really took off, as his initial good guy run resulted in arenas around the country chanting things like “Die Rocky Die.” It wasn’t until he became a guy who referred to himself in the third person that people began to pay positive attention to him. Since then, he has used his strongest qualities to turn in good performances in several films. It’s not surprising that he’s done so well. It is surprising that so few have been even a tenth as successful as he has been. Is it a bias against wrestlers? Is it simply a matter of finding vehicles that are suited to their specific talents? Is it simply the fact that being able to tell a good story on the microphone and in the ring doesn’t translate to being able to tell a good story through acting in a movie or TV show?
Bias might be the main problem. To date, the only good fictional film about the wrestling business that has ever been made was The Wrestler. People were a little too surprised about how good it was, even given the talent that was involved behind and in front of the camera. At least there’s an understanding that with other athletic events, there is the potential for good cinematic storytelling.
There are certain wrestlers I’d love to see act more, such as The Big Show or Mick Foley, but that’s probably not going to happen anytime soon.
And in case you were wondering about my five favorite movies that feature pro wrestlers:
The Wrestler (2008)
The Princess Bride
Man on the Moon
The Wolf of Wall Street (2013): A+
It’s really hard to imagine how anyone could think this movie glamorizes the life of Jordan Belfort, who made a pretty good living destroying lives through his financial dealings in the 90’s. It’s true that the movie gives Belfort a certain amount of celebrity by virtue of its existence. It’s also true that Belfort made a million dollars for selling the film rights. You can certainly say the movie has the kind of ferocious energy Scorsese has brought in the past to such films as Casino and Goodfellas. Energy is one thing. The movie packs a lot of it into Scorsese’s impeccable sense of style, his soundtrack choices (one of the best Scorsese soundtracks he’s compiled in quite some time), and a huge cast generating incredible performances (who knew Rob Reiner had it in him?). The movie has comedic moments aplenty, and Leonardo DiCaprio captures the essence of how Belfort was able to charm and screw over so many people in the first place. But glamorous? Hardly. In the same way Scorsese made figures like Howard Hughes, Henry Hill, and Jake LaMotta captivating and complex, he and DiCaprio (as well as Boardwalk Empire creator Terence Winter with the screenplay) have accomplished this feat again with Belfort. It’s entertaining to watch Belfort transform from quietly ambitious to a blurry cavalcade of sex, drugs, and gleeful corruption. Because Scorsese has told this sort of story before, he is able to create something that’s engaging, but which also makes for a pretty strong case that Belfort is a rather pathetic figure. Even when we’re laughing at one of his many drug-induced meltdowns, Scorsese and Winter never let us forget that Belfort and his cronies are ugly caricatures of greed and self-destruction, defined largely by their obsessions and compulsions. They make good cinema out of that, but they don’t turn The Wolf of Wall Street into a glowing advertisement of Belfort’s career and life choices. The movie understands that most of us would like to make enough money to make cheating death (or just the law) seem at least theoretically possible. That’s understandable. The way in which someone relates and responds to the movie is left entirely up to the individual. Anyone who feels spiritual kinship to Belfort did not get to that point because of anything the film did on purpose. The movie’s moral tone is clear, but it’s set up in such a way as to make it possible to have a number of reactions to the story. The Wolf of Wall Street is another complex masterpiece by Scorsese that also happens to be hugely enjoyable.
The Comedians (1967): D+
I’m only now starting to make my way through the long list of films Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton made together. If The Comedians is a clear indication of what I should more or less expect, it’s going to be a long time before I go beyond this and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (which I loved). Based on Graham Greene’s novel, the story of a Haiti hotel owner watching the country descend into madness is a good one. Burton, Peter Ustinov, Alec Guinness, and Lillian Gish all have moments that prove they deserve their immortality. Unfortunately, getting to those good moments, such as Burton addressing a group of guerilla fighters who don’t understand a word he says requires a hell of a lot of patience. At two and a half hours, there are long, long, painfully long spaces of absolutely nothing happening. The characters are there, the scenery is in place, and people are interacting with each other, but I’m hard-pressed to remember if anything actually happened. One of the knocks against the films Burton and Taylor did together is that most of them were and still are bloated, pretentious affairs. They were movies that didn’t feel the need to do anything beyond cast the two biggest tabloid figures of the day. The Comedians offers compelling evidence to back up that suggestion.
The Lego Movie (2014): A-
As something that’s still essentially a giant advertisement for a toy company, The Lego Movie gets its message across with a surprising level of dignity. The ways in which the film finds the time to tell us how Lego can apparently enrich our lives is certainly obvious. It nonetheless comes across in broad enough terms to avoid being obnoxious. As a vehicle for entertainment, The Lego Movie is probably going to make the ten funniest movies of 2014 list for most of the people who see it. Across an astonishingly detailed, complicated universe, The Lego Movie tells a fairly simple story. Yet something as straightforward as an ordinary Lego builder accidently assuming a quest to overthrow an evil ruler gives the film a lot of room to have a good time. The references are relentless, the humor never runs out of energy, and the voice acting is perfect from top to bottom. Chris Pratt nails the enthusiasm necessary to play a character that loves everything, but doesn’t really understand why that’s so. The award for show-stealers is shared quite easily by Will Arnett’s Batman, Morgan Freeman saying the ridiculous things we’ve always wanted him to say, and the universal law that states Liam Neeson talking in a high-pitched voice is never a bad thing. Lego is indeed one of the most creative toys in existence. The way the movie is so ingenious and charming on so many levels is actually the best argument for Lego’s creative potential of all.
Dallas Buyer’s Club (2013): A-
Criticisms about another straight man winning another award for playing a transgendered individual aside, Dallas Buyer’s Club is one of the best examples in recent memory of obvious Oscar bait that’s still pretty good. Much of that is because of Matthew McConaughey. To appreciate the fact that he at least deserved the Best Actor Oscar nomination (if you don’t think he deserved to win), you have to let go of the famous rule that suggests actors and actresses who dramatically change their appearance for a role are likely going to be rewarded when awards season rolls around. Thinking about that distracts from the comprehension that McConaughey plays real-life figure Ron Woodroof without any posturing. There is no gleam in his eye that maybe, just maybe his performance as a man whose self-interest wound up giving hope to many in the early moments of the (ongoing) AIDS crisis will pay off big with critics and awards ceremonies. Although he became the darling of both of those things, it’s worth taking the time to strip away all the hype and surrounding noise. Focus instead on a performance that is so layered, so dedicated to character, you forget completely about the man playing that character. You’ll see that McConaughey is now at a point in his career in which any movie he appears in is at least worth a serious look. Dallas Buyer’s Club handles its bleakness with realism and subtlety, has a formidable supporting cast, and is beautifully shot. It deserves every nice thing that’s said about it.
Splitting Heirs (1993): D-
I had never actually known this movie existed until a couple of months ago. It would have probably been best to never discover it on HBO Go. Nonetheless, this might be the worst thing Eric Idle has ever done. A legendary writer and performer for a reason, Idle manages to take an interesting premise, avoid almost every possibility for something funny to happen, and leave us with 87 minutes that feels as long as The Comedians actually is. Idle is intensely annoying as a man who weighs the pros and cons of murdering his friend to claim the wealth and privilege of a noble title. In a perverse sort of way, that’s fine because everyone else in the movie is also irritating. Rick Moranis is shockingly unlikable as the friend, Catherine Zeta-Jones is bewildered and wooden in an early role, and Barbara Hershey is as baffling as she is insufferable. John Cleese as a lawyer who wants in on the whole murder scheme is the sole ray of hope in what is otherwise one of the most spiritually unpleasant comedies I’ve ever come across. The plot twists are stupid, the humor is overbearing, and the characters are loathsome for all the wrong reasons. There is no excuse for something with this much talent to be so terrible. If you’re tempted because of the people involved, if you happen to stumble across this on some sort of streaming video site, stay away. Do not consider the idea of exploring the concept of a giant waste of time realizing that potential to the fullest. Anything from a list of things you could accomplish in 87 minutes is better than Splitting Heirs. Clean your keyboard. Break your masturbation record. Anything is seriously fine.