I went to see The Wrestler this weekend. Instead of critiquing the ins and outs of the plot (which is serviceable, if cliche)... I think I'll begin my response to it with a few names:
"Ravishing" Rick Rude
The Big Bossman
"Mr Perfect" Curt Hennig
Davey Boy Smith (of The British Bulldogs)
Miss Elizabeth (Randy "Macho Man" Savage's valet)
Bam Bam Bigelow
Andre the Giant
Flyin' Brian Pillman
That's a list of wrestlers who have achieved some public notoriety, or have wrestled for the WWE at some point. If you were a kid growing up in the 80s, chances are you've heard of some or all of these wrestlers.
All of the people listed above are dead. And all of them died before they reached 50 years old.
This isn't even a very big list. There are lots of lesser known wrestlers who have died at a young age that you've never heard of. There are also tons of wrestlers you've probably heard of who simply have fallen apart from drug abuse. If there was an epidemic like this of young deaths in baseball, or football, or even among Broadway dancers... we'd all be calling our Congressperson.
Let me tell you another story.
Bret Hart, for years, was my favorite wrestler. His character began as a part of a tag team, and his whole gimmick (besides wearing the outfit of his favorite hockey team, the Calgary "Hitmen"), was being an exceptionally good "wrestler." He wasn't the biggest guy, he wasn't the most impressive looking. He was charismatic, "over" with the fans, but he was the sort of guy that Vince McMahon would never put the belt on. Not in an era of guys like Hulk Hogan and The Ultimate Warrior.
Then, one day, Bret Hart won the belt. It was in 1992 at a "house" show (not televised). One morning he just showed up on Wrestling Superstars as champion. I can tell you I was not only thoroughly shocked, but thrilled. I always like Hart, and it was nice to see someone like him being given a chance to be the face of the company.
As an in-ring performer, Hart was brilliant. He was, maybe, the Robert DeNiro of pro-wrestling. The matches all played out with a sense of real competition and realism. You never felt like Hart was simply an entertainer (like Hulk Hogan or the Rock); you felt like he was really wrestling. He was a great actor. You always knew it was a show, but he was good at making you believe in it. That was his job, just like the job of any actor.
Hart had a rather public falling out with Vince McMahon in 1997, live during a pay per view (the now infamous "Montreal Incident"), which permanently broke the contract between the real world and pro wrestling that the two should never meet. Hart later moved on to WCW. During a match with then star Bill Goldberg (a flash in the pan, stiff, green wrestler who has since retired) Hart was kicked in the head and given a severe concussion. He will never wrestle again, because of this legitimate injury.
Hart's brother, Owen, was killed during a mishap with a ring entrance, again during a live televised event. This was years before Hart quit. It was a wrestling tragedy for the Hart family, and wrestling fans across the world. Owen Hart, for his part, was as good as his brother. I was in the crowd when Bret and Owen wrestled at Wrestlemania X: the best live match I've ever seen.
A protege of Owen and Bret Hart was Chris Benoit. Benoit, when Hart retired, took his place as the wrestler I followed most closely and cheered for the loudest. Benoit had started off training with the Harts, then moved to Japan, and wrestled all over the world, from ECW to WCW, before finally making it to the WWF in 2000. He was considered the best wrestler in the world by most "smart fans," but also not flashy, funny, or even particularly handsome. Still, he was totally beloved, his matches were always the best on any show, and the storyline that he was playing out, throughout his life, was similar to Bret Hart's: the best 'wrestler' in the world, in a world of showmen. As if to drive their connection home...when Bret Hart wrestled a "tribute match" to his brother Owen... he chose Benoit as his opponent.
Benoit fashioned his wrestling style after The Dynamite Kid, who was one of the British Bulldogs in the 1980s (the British Bulldogs were Canadian, and they feuded with the Hart Foundation in the wrestling storylines.) Dynamite Kid was small, tough, and impressive: his finisher was a sick looking flying headbutt from the top rope. He'd often walk off with nosebleed he clearly gave himself.
The Dynamite Kid is permanently in a wheelchair to this day. (He didn't die at 39 like his former tag team partner Davey Boy Smith, though.)
I was in the crowd at Madison Square Garden when Chris Benoit wrestled in the main event at Wrestlemania XX. He was wrestling in a three-way matched which also included Triple H (Vince McMahon's real-life son in law) and wrestling legend Shawn Michaels. Lots of fans, including myself, knew that the three-way had been put together because the company didn't think Benoit could sell PPV buys on his own. They were probably right.
But I will say this: when Benoit locked Triple H into his finishing hold, and the entire place went insane with happiness when he won, it wasn't because he won a "match." It was because the industry had finally acknowledged his excellence, his hard work, publically. The fact that his friend, and a person with a similar story, Eddie Guerrero, had won the "other" World Title (don't ask) on the same show meant that the two of them had reached the top of the business at the same time. When they hugged in the ring that night, everyone knew why: because of years of hard work inside a tough business. Fans were cheering professional accomplishment, because they knew just what it meant to these guys to win.
Eddie Guerrero died of heart failure in November 2005, just over a year after that moment.
Chris Benoit infamously went mad, killed his wife, his children, and himself in June 2007.
I say all this in order to express why I liked The Wrestler so much: it understands the world that it's occupying. Wrestling is full of real life professionals, striving to succeed, in an unhealthy place. They get killed, permanently injured, they work hard, and are treated like second-class citizens for the most part. The parallel the film draws between wrestlers and strippers is remarkably apt. Frankly, if it gets people to acknowledge the problems that exist in this bizarre industry, I'd be a very happy guy.
Wrestling is fake. So is "The Wire." So is "Star Trek." So is "The Little Mermaid." But...wrestling embarrasses people. They find it juvenille, silly, stupid, violent; something that kids care about. All the while, it's a multi-million dollar industry, with massive television presence and its a major part of the popular culture, whether we like it or not. It's also controlled almost entirely by a single family (barely in competition with the smaller independent promoters) and is entirely without union protection. Professional wrestlers are dealt with like independent contractors, who have to protect themselves from being crippled, whose careers are held together by a thread, and who have an excellent chance of dying young. It's notable, if you look at the credits of this film, that Ring of Honor (a real promotion) is all over this picture, but there's not a hint of help from the WWE. This isn't a story they want to see told. They're a monopoly, simply put, they've bought all their competitors, and wrestlers are at their mercy. Randy "The Ram" might be a bit of an exaggeration in places, but in some ways, it doesn't go far enough. His story is nowhere near as bad as Chris Benoits, for example. If anything, the real thing is no where near as heartwarming as The Wrestler is.
If there's something else that stands out to me about the film, outside the response I have as an actual fan of the product, it's that The Wrestler is one of the best movies about acting I've ever seen.
- Matthew Freeman is a Brooklyn based playwright with a BFA from Emerson College. His plays include THE DEATH OF KING ARTHUR, REASONS FOR MOVING, THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE AMERICANS, THE WHITE SWALLOW, AN INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR, THE MOST WONDERFUL LOVE, WHEN IS A CLOCK, GLEE CLUB, THAT OLD SOFT SHOE and BRANDYWINE DISTILLERY FIRE. He served as Assistant Producer and Senior Writer for the live webcast from Times Square on New Year's Eve 2010-2012. As a freelance writer, he has contributed to Gamespy, Premiere, Complex Magazine, Maxim Online, and MTV Magazine. His plays have been published by Playscripts, Inc., New York Theatre Experience, and Samuel French.