The Wrestler for real – Beyond the Mat

Jake “the Snake” Roberts. Anyone who watched wrestling remembers him- he didn’t just have a bag with a snake in it, he had charisma. If you loved The Wrestler, you owe it to yourself to dig up Beyond the Mat and watch Jake the Snake, with his crack addiction and estranged relationship with his daughter, which obviously was some inspiration for Rourke’s excellent performance.
Roberts is shown working smalltown gigs, getting high, getting confronted by his wounded daughter and continually fucking up, yet beneath it he’s sharp enough to be introspective, and eloquently discuss his own problems. About crack: “Speeds me up so fast I forget about my past. I don’t have to be responsible.” About his children: “I said I’d never treat my kids like my father treated me, and I look back 20 years and I did the exact same thing.” He was known for being one of the most psychologically sharp performers with the crowd, and then he disappeared into obscurity.
Counterpoint to Jake is Mick Foley, aka “Mankind,” a sort of circus geek hero in a Texas Chainsaw Massacre costume who takes falls and beatings that look deadly, yet seems to have a normal family relationship. Though I think it was insane if his kids were really watching him wrestle when The Rock was bashing his head in with a chair. Kids can’t understand that shit. But maybe it was clever editing- while it’s a solid documentary, you do wonder if everything is what it seems sometimes. After all, it’s wrestling- it’s a dangerous, strenuous performance, but it is a performance.

While it doesn’t delve too deep into wrestling’s inner secrets about heels, faces, and “kayfabe” carnie chicanery, and some of it is a definite puff piece, you get a look at what these performers endure, and how shabbily they are often treated. So what’s kayfabe? Well, it’s carnie talk, probably fractured pig latin for fake, ake-fay, the theater part of the performance. The long feuds, wrestlers who turn from good guys (faces) to bad guys (heels) and turn on their friends, bringing the “cheap heat” or angering the crowd by trash talking to them.
You actually get a bit more background in The Wrestler, when you see the Ram and his opponents laying out a thin plot before they go into the ring. For example, The Rock appears but never breaks character. He’s the heel against Mankind, who does some stunts that are pretty damn impressive. There’s a cage fight where he ends up on top of the cage, what looks like 15 feet above the ring, and falls through, onto his back. There’s only so much you can do to break your fall, and this wasn’t a mattress he landed on. Even if it was planned, it was risky. Barbed wire around the ring, and other extreme props- much like the staple gun from The Wrestler– make you wonder how far they go to entertain the crowd.
Vince McMahon himself not only appears as the CEO, interviewing a young wrestler who can vomit on cue and wants to perform as Puke, but ends up in the ring himself. Since he angered a lot of the fans with his decisions, why not make them pay to see him get beat up? It was a brilliant bit of showmanship, the ultimate con. But he was really getting stomped, even if it was pulled. You’ve got to give him credit for that. That’s the heart of professional wrestling, playing to the crowd, putting on an acrobatic show of battle, and making it look good. And it takes a terrible physical toll, as you can imagine.

There’s a lot more to this documentary- director Barry Blaustein, who writes a lot of Eddie Murphy movies like The Nutty Professor- begins with his love of pro wrestling, and we get many small interviews and profiles of people from Jesse Ventura to Chyna, who they mention got her chin shaved to look more feminine. If you read Something Awful’s review of her porn debut, the chin is just the beginning. You also get to see some young wrestlers trying to get a break, but the only older one you see is Jake the Snake- which is telling. Either they got out, and want to be remembered in their prime, or they’re just not around anymore.
Someday they’ll be treated like running backs, but for now they’ll suffer for our entertainment until like Randy the Ram, they’re just broken down pieces of meat. Some can retire, or move to acting- where doing your own stunts is much less risky- but not everyone is so lucky. For every Mick Foley and Dwayne Johnson, there’s a half-dozen Jake the Snakes, working the ring until they can’t anymore.

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