How Mickey Rourke became irresistible again.

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Feb. 19 2009 3:39 PM

Captain Charisma

How Mickey Rourke became irresistible again.

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Illustration by Charlie Powell.

It's best not to hazard a guess as to whether Mickey Rourke will pick up a best actor Oscar for The Wrestler this Sunday night; the odds have him losing to Sean Penn, but it wouldn't be the first time this sly, mercurial, irreplaceable actor has overturned everyone's expectations. As Rourke awaits his big moment (though, in fact, if the portrait of him that's emerged in recent interviews is accurate, he may not give a shit about the outcome—he's just enjoying the ride), I want to revisit the role in which many of us first noticed him and in which I remember him best.

Dana Stevens Dana Stevens

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.

I don't propose to provide a full survey of Rourke's career: Sheila O'Malley has done that, definitively and beautifully, in this chronicle of her long-standing love affair with his work. But for those who haven't had the chance to confirm Rourke's talent via Netflix lately, let me just state that your fond memories of Diner are not wrong. In the 27 years since its release, I'd come to assume that the movie couldn't justify the level of affection I had for it. Diner had congealed in my mind into a kind of feature-length Happy Days, a cutesy time capsule of '50s nostalgia. Whenever I'd think about Diner (or hear any of the songs from its glorious soundtrack, especially the novelty hit "Ain't Got No Home"), I'd feel an almost guilty glow of well-being that somehow never translated into the desire to see it again: I didn't want to be let down, to discover it was never as good as I'd thought.

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Something similar seems to have happened with our cultural memory of Mickey Rourke. When he got so embarrassing in the early '90s—if I had to date it precisely, I'd say 1991, the year of Desperate Hours and the deeply unfortunate Wild Orchid—it was as if we had to forget why we once loved him so much, to downgrade his image retroactively in our minds. Adrian Lyne, the director of 9½ weeks, once said that "if Mickey had died after Angel Heart, he would have been remembered as James Dean or Marlon Brando": a gifted young man too beautiful to live. Instead he aged, drank, took bad roles, made stupid decisions, and eventually disappeared from sight. If you've picked up a periodical or clicked on a Web site in the last few months, you know about Rourke's brief, doomed career in boxing, his decade or more on the skids, and his unlikely resurrection in The Wrestler. But the arc of his comeback is hard to appreciate unless you peel back the layers of '90s cheese and look again at what Rourke was in the '80s: the freshest, most vivid, most exciting actor around.

So, then: Diner (1982), Barry Levinson's first and best movie, a wistful comedy about a bunch of young men in Baltimore in the winter of 1959. Though the ensemble acting is perfection (has Daniel Stern ever been so well cast? Ellen Barkin certainly hasn't), it's Rourke's movie before he even appears on-screen: In the opening shot, Modell (Paul Reiser) enters a crowded party, looking for Rourke's character, Bobby "Boogie" Sheftell. "Have you seen Boogie?" he asks as the camera tracks him through the jitterbugging crowd. "Have you seen Boogie?" And then, in the distance, we see Boogie—just standing around like everybody else, but clearly the guy to know at the party. As O'Malley cannily points out, Rourke always plays that guy, the one to know: "We all know guys like that, guys who are not famous, but who have a glitter to them, something 'extra.' "

That "something extra" is apparent in everything Rourke does in Diner: the loving sadness in his eyes as he watches his developmentally arrested buddies bullshit around the diner table, or the strange, almost feral way he suddenly pours half a dispenser's worth of sugar into his mouth as he sits at the diner counter, chasing it with a swig of Coke. By way of illustrating what made the young Rourke such a marvel to watch, it's worth doing a close reading of one of Diner's raunchiest and yet tenderest moments, known among Diner-heads (oh, they're out there) as the "pecker in the popcorn" scene.

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