Monday, April 14, 2014

Crazy on the mic: Deceased Artistes the Ultimate Warrior and Mickey Rooney

They say celebrities die in threes. Sometimes we only get two at a time, as happened this week when we learned of the deaths of Golden Age Hollywood stalwart Mickey Rooney and the pro-wrestler known as “the Ultimate Warrior.” Both men had very different show business careers, but both were alike in that they made little sense when being interviewed. For “Warrior”(Jim Hellwig did legally change his name to “Warrior” – presumably to block the McMahon ownership of the phrase “Ultimate Warrior” and allow him to keep the name when he moved to other federations) it was part of his shtick, but he clearly also believed the inspirational gobbledygook he imparted to his cheering fans; with Rooney, it was a matter of one-upping the interviewer and speaking the Voice of Authority. A really crazy, crazy authority.

First, let's view the Ultimate Warrior in action – no, not wrestling (the steroided “monster” types that Vince McMahon has favored over the last three decades can't do shit in the ring). He affected the same sort of gravelly voice that a number of the “sports entertainment” stars have had over the years. His spiels, though, were nowhere as blatantly funny and aggressive as Ric Flair or “the Macho Man.”

Instead, the Warrior – whose use of steroids gave him the most pronounced nipples in the WWF – would talk about his fans as “warriors” and do rambling discourses (half-screamed, half-whispered) on what he would do in the ring, interspersed with the occasional lopsided metaphor.

He also hit on the fact that if he could say his opponent's name in an accentuated way and repeat it a thousand times, he'd have a five-minute promo without having to come up with any additional thinking. Here it's “Hulk Ho-kan.” “Mean Gene” Okerlund is a perfect straight man here:

The Warrior frequently would do his promos with his back to the camera (making him, as friend M. Faust pointed out, “the Miles Davis of wrestlers”). Here he does the gravelly biz, plus saying “Ho-kan” over and over, ending with a metaphor about a plane crashing. The piece ends with the nasal snort that became the Warrior's signature punctuation mark.

A fan-edited collection of Warrior's promos has this amazing piece of free verse: “Dig your claws into my organs/Stretch into my tendons/Bury your anchors into my bones, for the power of the Warrior will always PREVAIL!”

By this point it's evident that Warrior knew how to craft *professional* craziness (that's a pro-wrestler's job), but where is the connection to the real-life craziness that Mickey Rooney exhibited? I must note that Warrior became a self-made political pundit of sorts when his wrestling career was over. He wrote fervently conservative blog entries online, spoke as much about political situations as he did pro-wrestling, and did speaking engagements (using his real, non-gravelly voice) where he dispensed wisdom that had all the sound illogic of the plane-crash metaphor above.

His most famous speaking engagement was at the University of Connecticut in 2005. At one point he was asked about gay rights and decided to tackle the situation head-on by noting that “Queering doesn't make the world work” (see it at 4:30 below). This from a guy who worked for many years in a completely oiled-down state, tangling his limbs with those of other adult males, as they both strove to prove their manhood.

He returned to this subject a few times, including his nasty obit for Heath Ledger, whom he depicted as advancing the gay agenda by being in Brokeback Mountain. The Deadspin site put up an entertaining “hit list” of Warrior's private beliefs and public excesses.

To conclude my section on the unexpected insanity of Warrior, let me just point to this blog entry on a very special issue of the Warrior comic book, in which our hero attacks the North Pole and takes Santa's place, but not before tying up Saint Nick in a very bondage-like way. The issue is known online as the “Santa rape” comic book. To be entirely fair to Warrior, he was supposed to have been the co-writer of the comic, but claimed later on that he just let the illustrators do what they wanted.

So Warrior did craft a very eccentric image that was built upon, first, a crazy cartoonish character and, later, some deep conspiracy-minded right-wing beliefs. Mickey Rooney, on the other hand, was a died-in-the-wool Hollywood legend who was at one point the most popular star in America (1939-41), thanks to his “Andy Hardy” series of films, but later on became a kooky old character actor who was the very definition of “quirky senior.”

Mickey did indeed start in silent film – and with his death, the list of surviving actors from the silents gets even smaller. As a public personality Rooney was anything but silent, though (sorry – had to). He was known for hijacking interviews with other panelists, as seen here on a Larry King episode about Marilyn Monroe. Milton Berle (he of the giant penis and horrible disposition) gets plenty pissed at Little Mick for his constant interruptions.

Mickey wanted to be the center of attention, as he was here on the PTL Club with the amazingly artificial Tammy Faye Bakker. At one point (34:00 in), he recounts to us a conversation he had with Christ (he unfortunately only tells us his side of the conversation). In general, though, he really loved to contradict his interviewers for no good reason and to no good effect. (Of course earlier in his career he was just plain drunk on-air, as he was on The Jack Paar Show.)

Here is an interview with Mick conducted by Canadian broadcaster Michael Enright (thanks to Richard L. for the tip). For some unknown reason, Rooney does the Python “Argument Clinic” bit with Enright here, contradicting basically everything he says, even when he's correct or merely stating an opinion. At the outset Enright laments that it was an interview that went horribly wrong, as if he did something to cause the chaos. What one gets out of it is that Mickey was contentious just because he could be – and that he liked to stretch out words.

Speaking of that... here is my personal fave bit of Rooney nuttiness. When told that younger people do watch The Twilight Zone, Mickey disagreed (but of course!) and informed his interviewer (identity unknown to me) that they just watch “ssssssexy things.” What a perfectly Rooney way to say that phrase....

One of the more notable explosions in an interview occurred when TCM's affable nice-guy interviewer Robert Osborne interviewed Mickey about his career and literally shrank back from the Mick as he praised Louis B. Mayer (at 12:00), and then again when he told the story of how his career and reputation were ruined by director Roy Rowland (at 29:30). Perhaps these interviews were Rooney's greatest performances:

There is an odd “sizzle reel” (yes, that term is ridiculous, especially for this material) on YT for what looks to have been an unfinished docu about Mickey and his wife Jan, from whom he separated two years back. It appears that the arguments between the couple were intended to be amusing, but Mickey looks really pissed off in most scenes in this montage.

To close out, I will offer you the two Mickey film performances that best define the man. I used scenes from these two movies on the Funhouse TV show when filmmaker Guy Maddin noted he'd like to work with Rooney. I asked which Mickey he'd rather have in his films, the young one or the old one, and he replied that either would do. “He's just so eager.” A good word to describe the screen's best Puck:

And although Steve Puchalski of Shock Cinema magazine has found an utterly astounding later performance by Mick (as a millionaire who wants to live as an adult baby!), that can be found here, the film that still seems to define the older Rooney is B.J. Lang Presents, aka The Manipulator (1971).

The film is deeply disturbing on a number of levels. Chiefly because its plot involves an actress (Luana Anders) being held hostage by crazy director Mickey in an abandoned film studio. This means that we, the audience, are held hostage by Rooney and spend 90 horrifying minutes in his company. Mickey in drag, Mickey as Cyrano, Mickey playing the ultimate Old Hollywood filmmaker, and having nightmares about his naked, makeup-caked, father and mother.

Filmmaker Yabo Yablonsky never made another film, and it's evident why. Here he tapped into a nightmare so terrifying that he never needed to make another movie. Here he trapped on celluloid the essence of Rooney.

The trailer is below, the whole film can be found here.

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