mickey_rourke_110807_0001For maybe a nano-second, I wondered if Mickey Rourke might not be the much-needed New Jack Nicholson. You know, the old warrior, godlike in his aura of sex-drugs-and-rock ‘n roll. To whom you’d cut when things got slow (as they inevitably did) on the Oscar show.  If HE was still having a good time (or so it seemed), so should we.

Smilin’ Jack had become less of a fixture at award shows, Oscar or otherwise. Age, perhaps, has hastened his recent absences. Or, just as probably, no new nominations or noteworthy movies.

Anyway, thanks to his extraordinary from-the-heart performance in “The Wrestler,” Rourke was a bonafide front-runner at this year’s Oscars. He’d already proved a fine cut-away, with his thumbs-up, camera-friendly, how-stoned-am-I grin and rambling but irresistible acceptance speeches. I mean, who else thanks their dog and makes an impassioned plea on behalf of Eric Roberts at his moment of triumph?

Alas, after winning a slew of awards, Rourke lost the big one, the Oscar, to an equally deserving (albeit certainly less colorful in the RIGHT way) Sean Penn for his genius performance in “Milk.”

Still, it’s the work that matters, right? Well, right or not, “The Wrestler” reminds us what all the fuss was about to begin with — decades ago — in movies like “Body Heat” and “Diner.” “The Wrestler,” in which Rourke plays a washed-up former champ striving for a come-back, offers one of those amazing actor/role congruences. Not only did Rourke himself do a few years on the pro wrestling circuit, the plot provides an eerie parallel to the actor’s own comeback-kid story.

I was admittedly worried that Rourke’s courageously outsized portrayal might be just that —  too big for a smaller screen. Surprisingly, nothing is lost in the DVD version; if anything, we gain a better perspective on the more nuanced aspects of Rourke’s work. The roar remains, but the weary whimper of a man whose life lesson has been a bitter one — fail better — can be heard, too. And Mickey behind a deli counter is one for the history books.

“The Last Picture Show” has arrived on the DVD shelves curiously paired with “Nickelodeon.”

The former is one of the most affecting films ever made about movies and memory. The latter is an antic mess that heralded the now-unsalvageable downward trajectory of director Peter Bogdanovich’s career.

It turns out there’s a reason for the double-disc coupling.

Bogdanovich directed both. Double duh, but I’d forgotten.

He was at the zenith of his career when he made “Nickelodeon” in 1976. Okay, so his mega-musical, “At Long Last Love” had tanked big time a year earlier. Bogdanovich was still “in play,” so to speak, and a hit could’ve carried him effortlessly over the previous debacle (as well, if you are counting, “Daisy Miller”… and you probably should).

Alas, it’s hard to think of a more embarrassing “tribute” to those crazy days of madcap moviemaking, circa 1910-15, than “Nickelodeon” Caught in the breathless (airless?) vortex are some of the biggest names of the mid-‘70s: Burt Reynolds, Ryan O’Neal and Ryan’s not-so-little girl, the youngest Oscar winner ever, the increasingly less darling, Tatum.

But backtrack a few years to 1971 and, arguably, Bogdanovich’s best film — “The Last Picture Show.”  Set in a dreary dust-choked Texas town in the 1950s, it’s an elegy for the closing of, yes, the last picture show, i.e., the town theater. The cast is headed by Cloris Leachman, Ben Johnson (both won Oscars), Ellen Burstyn and Timothy Bottoms, all of whom give, artful, sensitive performances. And perhaps equally noteworthy, this is when Peter Met Cybill (Shepherd), launching a romance, if not for the ages, at least, for the early ‘70s.

Both films offer commentary by Bogdanovich who, despite (perhaps because of??) his many failings, is one of the most astute film critics of our time. It’s interesting, to say the least, to hear what he has to say.

And what he doesn’t.

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Eleanor Ringel Cater

Eleanor Ringel Cater

Eleanor Ringel Cater, long-time movie critic for The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, also has been a regular contributor to CNN, MSNBC, Entertainment Weekly, Headline News and WXIA, Atlanta's NBC affiliate, and a columnist for TV Guide.