The Last of the Old Champions: Jim Westman’s The Wrestler
What a drag it is getting old! So sang The Rolling Stones before they morphed into the hardest rocking group of apple dolls this side of arena rock. Craft fair jokes aside, there is zero shame in getting old. Being above ground at any age is a gift, but what do you do when not only your livelihood but also your heart’s utmost passion rely on your physical self to be strong, flexible, and most importantly, young? This is the heart of the obscure 1974 feature, The Wrestler.
The Wrestler is a fascinating historical oddity. The film sports a tonal approach that is more early 1980’s TV-movie-of-the-mid-week than theatrical feature with a central character who is in no way shape or form a wrestler. In fact, I have two words for you: Ed Asner. That’s right. He of stout, middle-aged grumpy man with silken back hair and character actor fame. Asner is a treasure in the field and is predictably great in the lead role here, playing the 20+ years wrestling promoter Frank Bass. (That said, I guess The Wrestling Promoter is not as jazzy as a title as The Wrestler?)
Speaking of, the film’s titular co-star and executive producer is none other than wrestling icon and former promoter of the now-defunct AWA (American Wrestling Association), Verne Gagne. Gagne was a multiple-title holding champion who was one of the greats and a legend in his home state of Minnesota. The north star state was a huge wrestling territory both pre-AWA with the MBWC (Minnesota Boxing and Wrestling Club) and then especially during the AWA’s heyday. The latter featured such squared circle legends as Superstar Billy Graham, Mad Dog Vachon, The Crusher (a man so great that he inspired the 1960’s garage band, The Novas, to write a thoroughly badass titular song about him), Ric Flair, Stan Hansen, Larry & Curt Henning, Hulk “Hot Dog” Hogan, Jesse “Sexual Tyrannosaurus” Ventura, The American Dream Dusty Rhodes and of course, Verne Gagne himself. With a roster that stacked, how would a film tied to this legendary wrestling promotion play out?
The Wrestler focuses on Frank Bass (Asner) and his struggles with trying to organize a massive wrestling event described as “the Super Bowl of Wrestling.” (Note that this was eleven years before Wrestlemania, but that's a whole other story.) Between trying to get all of the other promoters on board, getting hassled by some made men, a nasty head cold, and, most importantly, worrying about his top guy, Mike Bullard (Gagne) getting past his prime, Bass is overworked and more than a little stressed.
While The Wrestler hints at some rich dramatic potential, especially with the scenes featuring Mike’s wife, Betty (Sarah Miller) and her fear of becoming a widow, it spends too much time with reedy subplots, watering down whatever emotional potency it has. Not to mention, the sight of both Asner and the lead mob guy semi-nude in a sauna is a sight that will linger before your eyes. Even when you close your eyes, all that swarthy middled-aged-meatiness is burned into your retinas.
By far, the absolute best parts of the film involve seeing all the real-life wrestlers featured throughout. It's a veritable valentine to old school wrestling fans. Here, you get to witness Superstar Billy Graham (or as I call him, the GOOD Billy Graham) cut a promo, Ric Flair, before he was sporting platinum tresses and a slimmed down Nature Boy build, and a young Dory Funk Jr. tangle it up in the ring. This is all a total delight. In the middle of that, the creamy delicious center are the scenes with the American Dream himself, Dusty Rhodes and his wrestling partner at the time, fellow Texas Outlaw Dick Murdoch. The whole movie should have been built around these two. What sounds better? Ed Asner having a head cold in a sauna or Rhodes and Murdoch raising hell at various honkytonks? That’s what I thought. After all, bar fights will always trump middle-aged ennui.
While The Wrestler works better as a fascinating artifact more than a dramatic feature, it does have some tangible gravitas. This is helped greatly by Asner, whose rough-hewn charisma and innate acting chops brings Frank Bass to life. You truly like this character and worry about him. Speaking of that little tug of concern, Sarah Miller also deserves some props for her turn as Bullard's wife. The public at large historically tends to not have the best grip of the emotional and physical toll this great sport can have on both the wrestlers and their loved ones. The whole crowing of “wrestling fake” is far older than the term “sports entertainment.” The best thing Bill Maher ever did in his life was getting owned by the late, eternally great Roddy “Rowdy” Piper on Politically Incorrect, where Piper shows his hip replacement scars and brings up the loss of Owen Hart. No matter how premeditated an outcome maybe, which is something 1970s fans were definitely not smartened up on, the bumps these men and women take are not fake. You can look at the faces and bodies of some of the more veteran wrestlers and you'll see a constellation of scars and the physical aura of an elder who has weathered things the average rube could not even comprehend, much less dream about. Combine the physical pain with living constantly on the road and especially for the old school grapplers, working everyday plus holidays. The professional wrestler with a steady and happy marriage back in the day was undoubtedly rare.
We get a taste of all of this with Betty Bullard. There's obvious love between her and her champion husband, which is why her fear about what's going to happen to her spouse does have an impact. What weakens The Wrestler is that we don't get enough of Betty and Mike's story. The film is pulled in these macro-directions, between Mike, Mike and Frank, Frank, Frank and his assorted situations, the other wrestlers, and Dusty and Dick. Though, god bless the sections with Dusty. The man was saddled with a polka dot gimmick and PULLED IT OFF during his WWF run. The best American Dream is the one attached to the son of a plumber. I digress.
The Wrestler was the sole directorial feature from James A. Westman, whose bread and butter was more as a production manager, with credits including several episodes of Magnum, P.I. and the 1996 Wesley Snipes/Robert DeNiro thriller, The Fan. The Wrestler is currently out on a legally nebulous DVD, which is better than nothing, though the print and audio are two shades away from the glory of “Latrine-O-Vision!” It would be sweet to see someone clean the up and properly release it. Even better, craft some special features that include interviews with veterans like Flair, Jim Cornette, Jim Ross, and Mick Foley. Hey, to quote Blondie, dreaming is free. The Wrestler may not be a great film but it is a terrific time capsule with some good performances and a must-see for anyone who is a fan of the majesty of the squared-circle.