Bob Calhoun

Bob Calhoun
Pacifica, California, USA
June 18
Bob Calhoun is a regular contributor to Film Salon and observer of offbeat media. His 2008 punk-wrestling memoir "Beer, Blood and Cornmeal: Seven Years of Incredibly Strange Wrestling" (ECW Press) has spent one entire week on the San Francisco Chronicle's Bay Area bestseller list.

Editor’s Pick
JANUARY 6, 2009 2:14PM

A Former Small-time Grappler’s view of “The Wrestler”

Rate: 16 Flag

This review may contain spoilers. I’m not quite sure it does per se, but you can probably puzzle out the film’s flow of events by reading this. Proceed at your own risk.

ONE OF THE MOST POIGNANT SCENES in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler shows Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke) making his way through the winding hallways of the “employees only” area of the super market where he works. It’s his first day of manning the deli counter where he will be seen by the public instead of moving boxes in the store’s loading dock. The scene is shot over Rourke’s shoulder, giving you a feeling of first person immediacy rarely captured in cinema. In the soundtrack you can hear the cheers of a crowd. They are faint at first but become louder with every turn down another concrete corridor. There is little to distinguish the backrooms of the super market from those of the arenas where Robinson used to perform. In his head he still hears those cheers although now, he is only going to slice ham and dish up egg salad.

He calls old ladies “spring chicken” and tosses tubs of potato salad at customers as if they were Hail Mary passes. He works his audience just like he used to in the ring. He uses crowd psychology. He becomes the star of the show. For a moment he almost makes his post-squared circle transition to the quiet life – almost.

Anyone who has ever been in the ring, deserving of that honor or not, knows what “The Ram” is going through here. From 1997-2003, I wrestled in a punk rock and pro wrestling amalgam out of San Francisco called Incredibly Strange Wrestling that incorporated some aspects of the indie wrestling scene as shown in The Wrestler. Sitting in my cubicle at my new job, I have moments where I wonder how I can get back into a concert hall packed with drunks to slug it out with Macho Sasquatcho. You miss the crowd reaction whether it comes in the form of boos or cheers. No entrance music plays when I walk into a room. Nobody is driven by my mere appearance to throw food at me (at ISW shows, the audience hurled tortillas at the wrestlers). None of my current co-workers tag me in the face with a vodka tonic while I’m logging into my computer. The need for that kind of recognition gets into a wrestler’s blood.

Randy doesn’t have such appealing options as I do however. He won’t write a book or become a research analyst at a major university. While I always had to keep my dayjob, Randy made his living from the wrestling game. He was a spandex clad superstar in the 1980s but now he’s pissed away whatever cash he earned during his salad days on easy women, cocaine and steroids. Rourke’s portrayal of Robinson is a riff on superstar turned crackhead Jake “The Snake” Roberts with Shawn Michaels’ fashion sense and a ghastly detour into Terry Funk country. Randy lives in a trailer. He’s late with the rent. He romances a stripper (Marisa Tomei) but she won’t break the club’s ban on dating customers for him. His daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) hates his guts. He headlines small time cards in high school gyms for a couple of rolled up bills. With the hopes of making it back into the big time, he gets drawn into an extreme wrestling bout complete with staple guns, thumbtacks, barbed wire and broken glass. He vomits and has a heart attack. He tries to stay away from the ring but he just can’t manage that. By the time he’s driving his beat-up van and rockin’ to Accept’s Balls to the Wall, Randy’s balls really are to the wall.

During the film’s final bout, a reunion match with his 80s arch nemesis The Ayatollah (former WCW wrestler Ernest “The Cat” Miller in a surprisingly excellent albeit brief performance), Randy’s opponent remarks, “I forgot how much fun this is!” The Ayatollah now owns a used car lot in Phoenix. Pro wrestling retirement works for him. He uses the fast talking skills that he cultivated to gain audience ire decades earlier to move pre-owned vehicles. The ambitions that he once channeled into the ring are now used to expand his automotive empire. He's allowed himself to forget the rush of being in the ring. The problem for Randy is that he never forgot.

The Wrestler is flawed yet hits so many of the right notes. Rourke manages to be understated while playing someone who is so totally larger than life. I doubt that this will be the kind of comeback for him that John Travolta had with Pulp Fiction. Rourke just looks too strange for more mainstream or diverse roles. After several sessions with the plastic surgeon, his countenance is both puffy and tight. When he has the right role however, as in this film or Sin City, he can be mesmerizing.

Aronofsky and scriptwriter Robert B. Siegel (a former editor of The Onion no less) capture the smalltime wrestling scene with a shocking accuracy. The scenes of wrestlers working out their matches in cramped backrooms were no different from similar scenes at the Fillmore or Transmission during my days with ISW. Before Randy’s match with the Ayatollah, the two veteran grapplers forgo talking over some of the spots – the hallmark of true pros who can call a match to capitalize on the crowd heat as opposed to pre-planning it.

The film’s flaws can be found in its occasional predictability. When I started to work on my memoir of my grappling years, Beer, Blood and Cornmeal, I had toyed with the idea of writing it as a loosely autobiographical work of fiction or roman à clef. The problem with that approach quickly became apparent to me: with fiction I had to generate the dramatic. Somebody had to die or become crippled in the ring. Melodrama and its resulting predictability were always nipping at my heels with fiction. I couldn’t escape it and ultimately, neither could the makers of The Wrestler. In their defense, there were very few places they could realistically take Randy “The Ram” Robinson. For me, giving a factual account of my days with the punk wrestling show was a liberating act. Surprisingly, nobody in ISW became crippled in that rickety ring of ours (at least not physically). Somebody should have broken their neck during one of our shows but nobody did. If I had written a work of fiction with those true-life outcomes, the book would have been scoffed at for being unbelievable.

Notable but nearly lost in the wake of Rourke’s return from straight-to-video limbo is Marisa Tomei’s portrayal of the aging stripper Cassidy. The role is almost a reprise of the tough Jersey girl from My Cousin Vinny that won her an Oscar in 1993, only this time she is taken down a darker path. Like Randy, Cassidy has worked in a profession that relies on her ability to manufacture fantasy out of her physicality. But wrestling and exotic dancing are both young person’s games and the film finds both characters in parallel declines.

At one point, Randy attempts to woo Cassidy over some beers in a dive bar while dancing to Ratt’s Round and Round. The two would-be lovers find common ground in their agreement that Kurt Cobain ruined music and that “the nineties sucked.” In the hands of lesser actors, Siegel’s dialogue may have come off as so much post-modern ironic snark, but Tomei and Rourke give this scene a kind of sincerity far beyond those of similar conversations found in Tarantino films. If Rourke should see an Oscar nomination for his work here (very likely), I hope that the Academy doesn’t look down on Tomei for spending much of her screen time with her nipples exposed.

Eighties metal plays a prominent role in The Wrestler. Tomei does a striptease to The Scorpions’ Animal Magnetism and Quiet Riot’s Bang Your Head plays over the opening montage showing The Ram’s past glories. I also never thought that GnR’s tired Sweet Child O’ Mine would be able to generate so much pathos as it does here. Bruce Springsteen contributes the song that plays over the end credits. However, despite The Boss’s Jersey roots, the move seems like an out-of-place appeasement to the indie-film lovers that are this film’s primary audience. If only Aronofsky could have convinced Axl Rose and Slash to reunite to record a November Rain type monster ballad for the movie’s closing. The Wrestler is more than good enough to demand such a thing.


Bob Calhoun AKA Count Dante was an untrained grappler and master of ceremonies for the punk rock/lucha promotion Incredibly Strange Wrestling.
His memoir of those years, "Beer, Blood and Cornmeal: Seven Years of Incredibly Strange Wrestling" (ECW Press) is currently available through and bookstores everywhere.



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This is great and I had not intention of seeing this movie until reading your view. If you say it is authentic then I will go ;0)
Dorinda, "The Wrestler" is very, very authentic. Be forewarned though, the scenes of the extreme wrestling match (with the broken glass and staple gun) are also very authentic. Thanks for reading the review.
I had read another review of this and wanted to see it at the theater. Then Mickey Rourke was on David Letterman and just made me want to see it more. Now you've convinced me as well.
Great review. I saw the preview a week ago, and it is on my 'must see' list. I think Marisa Tomei is evolving into a much more interesting actress as she ages.
This is something that I want to see, mainly because I want to get a bit more insight into my boyfriend (he's a former wrestler). He's still on the fence about going to see this with me though.

Thanks for the review!
AnniThyme, you might want to consider seeing "The Wrestler" separately from your boyfriend but you should still both see it.
This sounds like it's worth a look-see. Thanks for the review.
Solid reviewing from an insider's perspective. Mickey Rourke's career has been full of strange twists and turns and even despite his bizarre countenance, I still have a soft spot for him. He was so memorable in Diner -- that seems about a million years ago.
Mickey Rourke in the Pope of Greenwich Village, Barfly,
Fuel man I need fuel. I wonder if he beat his plastic surgeon up afterwards.
Extremely well written and great insight for obvious reasons. The Wrestler is on my list to see. Thanks.
Saw it this past weekend, the bout preceding his heart attack had both my wife and I feeling a little queasy. Great post
What an opening paragraph!

Seriously: you are a fine writer.

I read some of this thru my fingers to avoid spoilers but could not stop reading it.

You have a great, natural gift. You write with confidence and deceptive informality, your sentences are tight, and you have a strong sense of timing, pacing, variation, that is worth study by writers who want to learn how.

And your Voice is utterly believable. I want to have a beer with you. Consider this some Cheering, a fan's Vodka in your face.

Get a column gig, dude. And let us know where & when.
Couldn't agree more with your generous comments Greg.

Wonderful insightful review, Bob. I appreciate the comments about Tomei's acting. She matched Rourke's carefully crafted strokes beat for beat. And yeah, the music rocked too. The Wrestler is an awesome character study, and I'm sure it will be nominated if not handsomely awarded soon.
As for Coogansbluf's earlier comment about the barbed wire match scene in "The Wrestler," there's a similar section of "Beer, Blood and Cornmeal" (my punk wrestling memoir) where two of our wrestlers decided to do a blood match at New Jersey tour stop, complete with forks and razor blades. Jersey must bring this kind of thing out in people or at least wrestlers. That part of my book is pretty well contained so I've read it at book readings. The blood match section always leaves my audience slack jawed. People squirm in their seats through it. I've since decided to uncork it at bar readings and not at bookstores.
Stephanie, "Wrestling with Shadows" and "Beyond the Mat" are both very compelling documentaries. What's amazing is that it's taken Hollywood 10+ years to catch up to these docs with a dramatic film that touches on the same subject matter. Previously, the only treatment that the movie industry gave pro wrestling was "Ready to Rumble" and "Nacho Libre."
Bob, this film was already on my must see list. The man I worked for from 1996 until his death in March 2007 had been a pro wrestler. Through him I knew/knew of many of the greats of the industry. He went annually to the Cauliflower Alley Club conventions. The pictures he brought back were of old men reliving their glory days. Most lived "ordinary" lives after their wrestling careers ended. A very few went on to be successful in a variety of professions/businesses. He was one of the most financially successful post-wrestling. But it was through wrestling that he found the roots of his success. Plus, when I was 7 or 8 years old, I would spend Saturday nights with my great-grandmother who was a died in the wool wrestling fan. Her favorite was Gorgeous George, who gave my employer a scar on his chin.

The Wrestler opens this weekend in Dallas and I hope to see it on Sunday.

Thanks for the brilliant review.
Julie, who did you work for? My first book was a ghostwriting job on the autobiography of "Judo" Gene LeBell (titled "The Godfather of Grappling"). He was a pro wrestler and stuntman in the LA area (you've probably seen him fall of horses and buildings in a lot of movies). He also wrestled the Gorgeous One and is also a fixture at the Cauliflower Alley Club.