The Wrestler 1974
December 4, 2012
I sat down the other day to watch the movie "The Wrestler", staring Ed Asner; not to be confused with the more recent version of "The Wrestler" starring Mickey Rourke. The Ed Asner version was released in 1974, when the business was a whole lot different, and starred noted wrestlers of the day, Verne Gagne and Billy Robinson, with smaller roles being played by The Crusher, The Bruiser, Nick Bockwinkel, Dusty Rhodes, and Dick Murdock. There were a ton of other small cameos but those where the wrestlers featured more prominently.
The most notable thing about the film is that it was done during the "Kayfabe" era of wrestling and thus protected the business, and did not admit to its true nature. This to me was one of the best aspects of the film because while the people in the wrestling business protected the industry there was a scene where Asner (Promoter Frank Bass) had to deal with the media and their reluctance to cover the industry, which addressed outsider's scepticism of wrestling's true nature. 1974 was also a very different time in the industry with smaller territories, darker arenas, and a more overall sports approach where Titles really meant something. While I was not wrestling in 1974, this style of system was still alive somewhat (be it on life support) in 1990 when I broke in and it was a bit of a nostalgia trip for me seeing the territory system in its full glory here.
While I did enjoy the film, and I'm glad I watched it, I would not call it a good movie. I found it lacking in direction with no real definable lead character to emotionally invest in. The movie is called "The Wrestler" but it's told from the perspective of The Promoter Frank Bass (Ed Asner). Because the film is told from Frank's perspective, Verne Gagne's character Mike Bullar, "The Wrestler" the Movie is named after, plays a fairly insignificant role. To me this is the biggest failure of the film and I suspect it was something done in the editing process, and I would not be surprised in the least if the film's original title was "The Promoter".
The movie opens with a narrative by Frank and most of the film deals with his trials and tribulations of running a professional wrestling company. It covers his dealings with finding new talent, dealing with an aging champion, trying to control wild and out of control personalities, his romantic interest in his office assistant, corruption and pressure from the mob, as well as dealing with rival promoters in attempts to put together a SuperBowl type Super Card featuring the champions of all the wrestling territories. Mike Bullar (The Wrestler) only plays into a few of these aspects and thus does not come off as the focus of the film, despite being the focus of the finale.
With Mike Bullar being the climax of the movie all of the other elements fall by the way side and either don't get resolved or in some cases become completely pointless. Dusty Rhodes and Dick Murdock fall into this latter category in that they really have nothing to do with the film other than one very whacky scene in a bar where they get insulted by an ignorant guy who thinks wrestling is fake (A very real occurrence back in the day) and end up in a cheesy, over the top, cartoon like brawl, with a couple Japanese guys that are only there to prove that Karate is more effective than Pro-Wrestling. The wrestlers prevail as the legit tough guys beating up everybody including humiliating the ignorant "fan". This scene was early in the film and Dusty and Dick really didn't do anything else the rest of the film. I suspect they may have played a bigger role in the original cut but ended up on the cutting room floor.
There were so many elements of the film, most importantly the SuperBowl event with the other promoters that never got wrapped up so when the credits started to role at the end of the film I was surprised it was over, because I felt there was much more to be told in this story. The ending as it was could have been a great one, had the movie been edited differently and Mike Bullar's struggle to remain Champion and compete at the SuperBowl event was the focus of the film. There were many forces in the film that did not want Bullar to go into the SuperBowl event as Champion and if they were presented more as the heels of the film, Bullar could have been that aging Baby Face Hero wanting to hang in for the one last hurrah (competing in the SuperBowl event). A slight tweaking of Asner's character could have put him in the role of the one guy standing behind Bullar, despite amazing pressure to put him out to pasture, and the story could have still be told from his perspective allowing the story to be told by the best actor in the film.
As I said I enjoyed the film for the most part and I am glad I watched it but it was a long way from being a good movie. Much of the wrestling antics were way over the top and the story they ended up telling was a disjointed one, which did not build to a climax in my opinion. To me Frank Bass was the main character of the movie and the finale was a match between Mike Bullar and Billy Taylor (Billy Robinson) who were both presented as baby faces, which killed any possible drama to the Main Event.
I don't do star ratings, so I will leave you with this: If you can watch it for free on Netflix or YouTube, check it out, the wrestling cameos are worth it if nothing else, but I would not recommend purchasing the DVD, I doubt you'll get your money's worth.
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