The shadow of Mickey Rourke as Charlie Moran in the The Pope of Greenwich Village’s opening frames, swaying to the seductive Sinatra ballad The Summer Wind, with a cigarette in one hand and an electric razor in the other, still strikes a chord all these years later and not just on the merits of how entertaining the film is (it’s truly a showcase for great character acting throughout), but also because it reminds us of a time when Rourke was an actor who held Hollywood in the palm of his hand. In 1984 when The Pope of Greenwich Village was released, Mickey Rourke was an actor on fire, and audiences were witnessing a man who was poised to be the heir apparent to Marlon Brando – turning in standout and critically acclaimed performances in such films as Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat, Barry Levinson’s Diner and Francis Ford Coppola’s Rumble Fish. It’s been written that Elia Kazan reportedly said Rourke’s audition for the Actors Studio was the “best audition in 30 years”. With his hair slicked up into a 1950’s style pompadour he looked like a throwback to a bygone era displaying the bravura of Elvis in Roustabout, the troubled emotional disillusionment of James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause and the leather clad cool of Brando in The Wild One.
“all summer long we sang a song and then we strolled that golden sand, two sweethearts and the summer wind”
When Rourke’s character Charlie is revealed from mere shadow to flesh and blood, he’s white tank top clad, with his pinky ring, gold bracelet, stylish watch, money clip, Marlboro Reds, manicured nails, cuff links, polished shoes and sharp suit, it would appear we’re looking at a man getting ready to hit the town – not step on the floor of a busy Italian restaurant as the Maître D’, which is exactly where he’s headed – and make no mistake, he takes pride in his work. You see Charlie’s a stand-up guy who dreams of owning his own restaurant, so it’s take care of the customers, try not to screw the flirty coat check girl that the boss already has dibs on, work the system within reason for kickback tips and make the juice payments on time to the local loan shark waiting for him in the men’s room. Rourke draws us in and makes us feel as if Charlie is a fresh face in a well-traveled genre. How could a guy with this much charm and a nose for running a restaurant be held down?
Enter Charlie’s cousin Paulie, played with a hyper sense of desperate-self-delusional-optimism by an electric Eric Roberts, who is like an albatross around Charlie’s better angels, and whose grifting costs both of them their jobs at the restaurant after Paulie ignores Charlie’s warning that the boss is on to him, so he’d better correctly add the entrees on all his tables and not skim off any cash. Charlie has a hard-enough time getting his cousin (third cousin when push comes to shove) to fly at all, let alone “straighten up and fly right” which causes breaking point tension between his girlfriend Diane (Darryl Hannah), a tougher than she looks street-smart girlfriend who knows Charlie’s biggest problem is his “tribal loyalty” to his cousin Paulie, which is going to make it next to impossible for Charlie to get ahead. Hannah’s Diane is more than just a leggy blonde harping on her boyfriend to do better, in her capable hands she’s the embodiment of the one that got away, and as hard as Charlie tries to spin all the plates, we know they’re going to come crashing down: the ex-wife racking up over two grand in parking tickets driving a car that’s still in his name, a young son he doesn’t get to see as much as he’d like, debt up to his eyeballs from loans, a cousin in Paulie who can’t even get through a meeting about a potential “score” without having his Cadillac towed for illegal parking.
With the walls closing in on the now jobless Charlie, his cousin’s “A1, guaran-fucken-teed, go to sleep on it” score with the aging “hot shot locksmith” Barney (Kenneth McMillan), who wants to leave a little something behind for his wife and their 25-year-old special needs son, seems more appealing than ever. But this was Paulie’s score, a man who borrows 5K off the street to invest in a race horse and who thinks that borrowing $500 to see Frank Sinatra at the Garden is the definition of success, so of course he holds out some key information from Charlie, like who the money in the safe actually belongs to – “Bed Bug” Eddie (Burt Young) the local neighborhood Mafia boss – who got his nickname for taking body parts off people who owe or cross him. Complicating matters is the bag-man-cop on the Bed Bug’s payroll – Bunky (Jack Kehoe) – who’s scheduled to pick-up the money Charlie and company have their sights on. Geraldine Page, as Bunky’s mom, received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress despite only appearing in two scenes, and shines when she tells the other dirty cops (including the always brilliant M. Emmet Walsh) through a plume of cigarette smoke to “Get the hell out of my house”.
When Charlie and Paulie’s Greenwich Village neighborhood becomes as small as a shoe box for the two men who are in way over their heads, the chemistry between Rourke and Roberts is as good as any “buddy picture” in the 80’s and it’s a shame we didn’t get more films with these two paired together. Director Stuart Rosenberg (Cool Hand Luke, Brubaker) was no stranger to directing movie stars, so it seemed only fitting that Rourke and Rosenberg’s paths would cross, with Rourke looking every bit the kind of rising star that would be offered films such as – 48 Hrs., Platoon, Beverly Hills Cop, Top Gun, Rain Man, Silence of the Lambs, Pulp Fiction and Tombstone. He famously turned them all down and, later, as his star was beginning to fade, he returned to the boxing ring leaving acting and stardom behind like jilted lovers.
“Like painted kites, those days and nights they went flyin’ by”
Darryl Hannah and Mickey Rourke have a break-up scene for the ages as Vincent Patrick’s screenplay (adapted from his own novel) serves up the kind of scenes that actors dream about playing in – Barney’s elderly wife Nora (Betty Miller) breaks our hearts when she tearfully asks “Why does it never work out right for us?” as she says goodbye to her husband before he goes into hiding, forced to leave his family behind. “Nora, maybe I wasn’t the smartest kid on the block, but I did the best I could. For all three of us.” This is the crux of the film, that guys like Charlie, Paulie, Barney, even Jimmy “The Cheese Man” (Joe Grifasi) who is part of a 15K buy in on the pipe dream race horse, Starry Hope, with Paulie and another friend, are only going to tread water in Greenwich Village unless they work for a Mafioso boss like “Bed Bug” Eddie or they carve out their own score, which Paulie surprisingly understands, but stupidly targeted one of the Bed Bug’s businesses. Even when he’s right, he’s wrong. If Paulie was Michael’s cousin in The Godfather II, Michael would’ve had Paulie go fishing with Fredo.
Rourke’s sex appeal and mischievous grin that belied a sense of danger and hard scrabble street wise toughness, gave him an unmatched onscreen credibility when compared to the up and coming male actors of the early to mid 1980’s. Hell, even the established untouchable stars like De Niro, Pacino, Beatty, Eastwood, Newman, Reynolds and Redford had to look over their respective shoulders at the new kid on the block. He was largely responsible for the influx of Harley Davidson motorcycles that were setting off car alarms along Sunset Boulevard in the back half of the 80’s, as well as the queue of young actors coming to Hollywood with dreams of having the same divested cool as Mickey Rourke did as the Motorcycle Boy in Rumble Fish. He was a comet setting trends with a brilliant bright tail that glowed white hot in Paris, where he was becoming bigger than Jerry Lewis and his likeness adorned restaurant walls, magazine covers and postcard racks. The time of Mickey Rourke was happening without a box office hit film or an Academy Award nomination and showed no signs of slowing down – until his talent could no longer transcend the second word in “show business” and his personal and professional decisions seemed to resemble his Charlie Moran character from Pope.
Mickey Rourke was like a gun fighter who could take down any role that he inhabited and you could almost smell the cordite coming off the screen, but when the smoke cleared, the Hollywood gatekeepers were no longer interested in his once in a generation talent, and all the battles won and lost both in the boxing ring and in his personal life were apparent on his battered and surgical repaired face, with pro boxer James Toney doing the bulk of the damage by breaking Rourke’s cheekbone in a sparring session. The mercurial Montgomery Cliff like smile now altered into a Lee Marvin like heavy, and after some time spent in his solitary existence of endurance with no high profile acting gigs, the fighting Irish passion of his early acting roles had left an indelible mark on people like Robert Rodriguez, who cast him as Marv in Sin City (2005) and finally, his role as Randy “The Ram” Robinson in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler (2008), provided him with a comeback that might not have been as razor quiffed as Elvis in ’68, but won him a Golden Globe and a trip to the Academy Awards with a Best Actor nomination. The talent still there, literally bloody from the role but undaunted.
But if you want to know what all the fuss over Mickey Rourke was about, there’s no better film to settle into and watch on the big screen than the crime drama (with a helluva lot of comedy) than The Pope of Greenwich Village. In today’s world of big budget super hero movies, we may never again see an actor put together such a succession of “can’t take your eyes of him” roles, with the caliber of directors he worked with, and whose films found a theatrical release than what Mickey Rourke accomplished. Perhaps Bob Dylan captured Mickey Rourke’s acting the best with the brevity he used to describe seeing him in Homeboy (1988) in his book Chronicles: Volume One, “He could break your heart with a look. The movie traveled to the moon every time he came on to the screen. Nobody could hold a candle to him. He was just there, didn’t have to say ‘hello’ or ‘goodbye’.”
“And guess who sighs his lullabies through nights that never end… my fickle friend, the summer wind”