It’s official: The Toronto Film Festival and the Academy Awards have broken up. Or, at least, they’re engaging in a trial separation. From this critic’s perspective, that’s a good thing. The establishment of Toronto as the official launch pad of the Oscar season started back in 1999, whey they wheeled out the klieg lights for the red-carpet premiere of American Beauty. That campaign proved so successful that Academy Awards mania then descended on Toronto as a kind of annual autumn PR/media blitz. Yet you hardly need to be down on the Oscars to feel that the domination of Toronto by a handful of awards-bait studio (or specialty division) titles somehow violated what had always been the festival’s defining feature: Its vibrantly eclectic, democratic mix.

The trend reached its nadir last year, when I can recall being informed that Atonement was an “Oscar lock” before it had even had its premiere showing. By the time the screening was over, the Oscar possibilities were all that anyone was talking about; the “buzz” seemed to be not so much deafening as a preordained fact. (By the time the movie actually opened, its journey to likely Oscar contender status seemed to have been going on for longer than the presidential campaign.)

But that was then. This year, with the exception of The Duchess, the studios have mostly pulled back on previewing their prestige hopefuls — movies like, say, Baz Luhrman’s Australia or Oliver Stone’s W. And the reason for that is revealing. At a moment when specialty divisions are folding (Warner Independent) or in shrinkage and/or limbo (Paramount Vantage), and when even the most high-powered films for adults have become officially recognized as hard sells (just check out the modest grosses for last year’s acclaimed big-shot releases like Michael Clayton — which premiered in Toronto — and There Will Be Blood), Hollywood, in a strange way, no longer entirely wants the association with a film festival. Instead of building titles up, it can make them look “small,” idiosyncratic, and (gulp) artistic.

Over the last decade in Toronto, I admit I always got jazzed to see those big Oscar titles. I have festival-defining memories of going to the electrically anticipated premieres of movies like Ray and 8 Mile.
But this year, even though the awards buzz-meter is still in operation, working like a geiger counter to pick up on the possible tick-tick-tick emanating from movies like Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married, the volume is lower. Which means that we may all hear a few more unexpected things.

After the jump, the scoop on Mickey Rourke (pictured)’s triumphant reinvention in The Wrestler

addCredit(“Mickey Rourke and Evan Rachel Wood; Jeff Vespa/WireImage”)

Has any actor in Hollywood been through as dramatic a transformation as Mickey Rourke? In his youthful prime — in movies like Diner, The Pope of Greenwich Village, and Angel Heart — he was a soft-voiced, bow-lipped, twinkly-eyed cherubic bad boy: a super-cool leader of the pack whose seductive secret was that he could also be the sweetest guy in the room. (But he kept you guessing.) Then, he dropped out of the movie business and took up boxing as an obsession, and through some combination of hard fighting and hard living, his facial features got knocked askew and stretched like Silly Putty, and as surely as Bruce Banner he ballooned into a tormented hulk.

Just before the premiere of The Wrestler, the fierce, tender, gripping, and altogether remarkable new movie that literally gives Rourke the role of his life, the director, Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream), introduced his lead actor as “the icon, Mickey Rourke,” and you could feel that just about everyone in the audience was there for the same reason that Aronofsky made the movie: to see if the Mickey Rourke who now looks like a monster is still, deep down, a star — if he still has the grace that once made him a magical actor.

He does. In The Wrestler, Rourke plays Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a professional-wrestling star of the heavy-metal ’80s who, 20 years later, has become a broken-down, hollowed-out wreck — but who is still working the minor-league circuit, subjecting his body to punishment almost as a way to remind himself that he’s still alive. With his hair grown down to his back and bleached platinum, Rourke looks some bloated, freakazoid Sammy Hagar, and he makes you feel every crunched bone and pained breath — what it’s like to spend each day living inside a massive trashed body. Yet from within that mountain of wounded flesh, he gives Randy a deep, slow voice of disarming gentleness.

Aronofsky cuts through the fakery of wrestling in a simple and moving way, by letting you see how the sworn “enemies” in the ring actually love and support each other. At the same time, they’re not just sham
gladiators, and far from all of their the pain is make-believe. Randy endures body blows, self-inflicted razor cuts, and being lacerated by barbed wire and a staple gun. At times, The Wrestler is like The Passion of the Rourke. What catches you up short is that Randy is no brute. He’s a quietly sad and stunted middle-aged man who lives in a New Jersey trailer park, and has almost no life outside of the twinges of faded glory he still feels inside the ring.

After the phantasmagorical loopiness of The Fountain, Aronofsky has now gone in the opposite direction, stripping his filmmaking down to a kind of core humanity. Every scene in The Wrestler tingles with life; the director’s style is as pure here as that of early Scorsese or Lukas Moodysson (who seems to have influenced the movie’s jump cuts). The Wrestler mines a gritty excitement by showing us, with something like intimacy, how this lowly, rough-and-tumble corner of the sports-entertainment world really operates, yet where the movie finds a kind of greatness is in beholding the beast that Mickey Rourke has become, and in letting the audience touch his scarred inner beauty.