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The Slamming Truth Behind "The Wrestler"?

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As a former rabid fan of wrestling, The Wrestler was one of the saddest movies I saw last year. Yes, anyone can relate to the sadness in Mickey Rourke's portrayal of Randy "The Ram" Robinson, even if they don't know anything about wrestling—you can easily feel sympathy for his troubled family life and his tough retirement years—but if you were a wrestling fan like me, the movie probably reminded you of those wrestlers you used to love and made you think of the broken lives some of them lead now, all because they traded their bodies and personal relationships for our adoration.

So how accurate is the film? People from within the wrestling industry can't seem to agree. Are wrestlers' lives really that awful?

For some of them, no. Some wrestlers lucky enough to achieve superstar status were smart to cross over into other endeavors while they were still popular. People like Hulk Hogan, Mick Foley, The Rock, Stone Cold Steve Austin or Triple H (who married the boss' daughter)—they're not quite trailer park has-beens working at delis. For others, it's a different story. Many wrestlers who have seen the movie are praising it as a truthful representation of the problems they face. At the BAFTA screening of the film, former WWE champion and Hall of Famer "Rowdy" Roddy Piper broke down during the Q&A and told director Darren Aranofsky, "It's not my story, but it is my story, and no one else has ever told it."

But there are those who are eager to dismiss the movie's portrayal. Just yesterday, WWE wrestler John "Bradshaw" Layfield (aka JBL) wrote this on his official WWE blog:

A lot of people ask me about The Wrestler. I thought it was awesome and extremely well written. This was the business I broke into many years ago. However, that business has changed - and for the better.

In the last six months, I have had MRIs, concussion tests, HIV test, trauma test, drug test and even my cholesterol tested - which was the only one I failed. This business in WWE is really a corporate environment these days - it has changed for the better. I am glad for my old days, I wouldn’t change a thing. But the WWE has done so much to clean up the abuse that the business as I knew it was so known for.

All that being said, I loved the movie. Even with all the negative stereotypes in the movie, this was a part of what I did to get to WWE and it was fun to watch. A little scary to watch, but fun.

That's nice and all, but since JBL is actually a self-made millionaire from playing the stock market and being employed by several companies, it's safe to say that he won't end up the way some of his colleagues turned out once he hangs up the tights. What's more, from what he was talking about, JBL seemed to focus only on The Ram's heart problem and steroid abuse. This doesn't begin to touch what Aranofsky's film uncovers so ardently, which is a pro wrestler's fate after he is tossed aside when the spotlight had flickered and died.

In former wrestling legend Mick Foley's "insider" review of the movie for Slate, he wrote:

The scene depicting a poorly attended "Legends Convention" where Randy, a man so proud of his past, is forced not only to accept his present but to take a glimpse at the future, will strike an uncomfortable yet legitimate chord with every wrestling star whose personal appearances have ever been met with a symphony of silence.

That's the real sadness depicted in The Wrestler. It's the story of people who, not unlike rock stars, rose to celebrity far too quickly and in a period of fame-drunk confidence killed any hope of having a happy ending. There's no question that they hold responsibility in choosing their own paths, but these guys are performers, stuntmen and athletes rolled into one, working in a dangerous business that doesn't offer any certainty when it comes to employment. Isn't there any organization helping them cope when their profession finally catches up to them, or at least ensure that they're being treated fairly? Nope. Because pro wrestlers are not unionized. They have no health care, no pension, nothing. They're not organized.

Which explains why WWE head honcho Vince McMahon is really pissed at The Wrestler, making his extreme displeasure known after Aranofsky privately screened the movie for him in December at WWE headquarters. The movie is something he didn't want the public to see, because it painted the business in a fairly negative light. Vince was so offended by it that he vetoed advertising for the movie on any WWE programming. WWE subsequently released the following statement:

“While ‘The Wrestler’ is a very engaging movie, it portrays how wrestling was conducted in some independent wrestling circuits, unlike WWE, which is a global brand with millions of fans.”

This is true, to an extent. The dominant WWE is able to provide more benefits for their wrestlers compared to other wrestling promotions, but even this is only a recent development. After the unexpected death of wrestler Eddie Guerrero in 2006, WWE launched the Talent Wellness Program. It's a policy that regularly tests WWE wrestlers for recreational or prescription drug abuse—alcohol included—as well as cardiac issues. This is unique to WWE, however, and does not cover everyone in the business. Furthermore, it's only a medical program to ensure their ability to perform as wrestlers. They are still missing the benefits that talents in other occupations possess.

Efforts to unionize wrestlers date all the way back to the mid-80s, but they're always quickly shut down by promoters and bigwigs like Vince McMahon.

If you know your WWE, you'd know that for the past decade they've been pushing the term "Sports Entertainment" as the adopted name for their business. This isn't just a gimmicky name—it's also a clever business shield on their part. By calling it "Sports Entertainment," McMahon was able to claim that it's not sport, therefore their rampant steroid abuse should not face the same penalization as, say, baseball athletes. At the same time, he could also claim that it's not strictly entertainment, thus preventing the wrestlers from joining union groups such as the Screen Actors Guild—which, according to Aronofsky, they should be members of.

"There’s really no reason why these guys are not in SAG," he told Newsday. "They’re as much screen actors as stuntmen. If not more. They’re in front of a camera performing and doing stunts, and they should have that protection. That’s the only thing that for me came out of it. Why doesn’t SAG help get these guys organized? They’re on TV performing. Or, if they’re not even on TV, the ring is a theater. So they’re not just screen actors, they’re theater actors. They’re performers. They should have insurance and they should have health insurance and they should be protected.”

The pitfalls of the business have been documented by several documentaries already, most notably the excellent 1999 film Beyond the Mat, but an intimate character piece like The Wrestler is able to not only submit the issue, but present the humanity behind it, as well. As the movie gains more traction (it opens wide January 16th), being the strong Oscar contender that it is, maybe this whole issue will finally have the attention it deserves.

There's probably no changing Vince McMahon's mind about it, though.

Jan
08
2009
Arya Ponto • Contributor

As former Editor of JPP, Arya likes to entertain peeps with his thoughts on pop culture, when he's not busy watching Battle Royale for the 200th time. He lives in Brooklyn with a comic book collection that's always the most daunting thing to move with, and writes for Artboiled.com.

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