Welcome to FrockTalk, the web’s only costume-based movie review site. The goal of Frocktalk is to shed light on the magnificent artistry of costume design in motion pictures. Reviews on this site are written by working costume designers in the entertainment industry – people who know, better than anyone, what it takes to make it all happen. The focus of FrockTalk is not to comment on the big flashy costume dramas, but to call attention to the seemingly ordinary costume design work in film that silently and persuasively moves the audience toward understanding the characters. Costume design for motion pictures is an art form that deserves more recognition than it usually gets. Fancy, pretty costumes do not always equal effective, appropriate costumes. The art of the costume is in letting the audience know who the character is, before the actor even has a chance to open his mouth. Read on, and enjoy. ** CAUTION: ALL REVIEWS CONTAIN SPOILERS! **

The Wrestler

Release Date: 12-31-08
Review Date: 11-1-08
Runtime: 109 min.
Period: Contemporary, 2008
Costume Designer: Amy Westcott

I have been hearing about this movie for a long time.  As a byproduct of Costume Designer’s Guild membership, we are invited to early screenings of movies up for the end-of-the-year Oscar horserace.  The Wrestler is one of these films.  The performances are fabulous.  The story is wonderful – sad, funny, heart wrenching, and satisfying.  The costumes are excellent, too, though they will probably go unnoticed by many who see this film.  These costumes set the stage for the action – they silently inform the audience about who the characters are and about what they endure.

The film centers on Randy “the Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke), who was a star wrestler in the 1980s.  The march of time has not been kind to Randy – he is an unwilling participant in the 21st century, who yearns for the glory days of the 1980s when he had a booming career, action figures and a video game of his own.  Randy is now relegated to wrestling on the independent circuit, in school auditoriums and VFWs across the east coast, to make ends meet.  And they rarely do. Randy’s continued pursuit of wrestling has caused him to turn to steroids, prescription pain medication and tanning booths, and all these cost him a great deal of money.  Randy sleeps in his van, locked out of his trailer for past-due rent.  The kids at the trailer park love him, as he pretends to wrestle them, they dog-pile him in the parking lot.  Randy is not without fans, but he is alone in life.

Randy befriends an aging stripper, Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), who tries to help him mend the broken relationship with his estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood).  Stephanie despises him because he abandoned her in her youth, was never there for her, and has not supported her, emotionally, spiritually or financially, in the interim.

Randy has been approached to participate in a re-match with one of his fiercest opponents from the 1980s, “The Ayatollah”.  There is a large purse involved, and Randy can hardly say no, given his financial situation.  Unfortunately, Randy’s health soon takes a dreadful turn; he has a heart attack after one of his wrestling matches.  Things get even worse when the doctor informs him that his wrestling days are over, that wrestling will cause him to have another heart attack, and he will surely die.  Wrestling, it seems, is the only thing Randy has ever been good at; the loss of his fans (the only family he’s ever known) is devastating.

Desperate to reconnect with his daughter, he shows up at her house.  She sternly rebuffs him, dismissive, and walks away.  Meanwhile, Randy’s relationship with Cassidy has started to heat up.  Cassidy initially feigns disinterest in Randy, stating that the rules say that she can’t get involved with the customers.  But slowly, her interest in Randy blooms.  Cassidy helps Randy to buy some presents for Stephanie at a second-hand store, in her off-duty time.  She tells him that he can call her Pam, her real name.  Randy convinces her to have a beer with him, just one beer, at a nearby tavern.  At the bar, they share some of their burdens – their frustrations with the passing of time and the process of aging, their disdain for the 1990s and their love and nostalgia for the 1980s.  It is a brilliant scene – we begin to discover the core of Randy’s character, and we see the connection forming between these two people, washed up and fragile, longing for what once was and will never be again.

Trying once again to reach out to his daughter, he turns up at her house bearing birthday gifts.  She softens, and they spend an afternoon together, slowly, tenuously trying to build a new relationship upon the rubble of the old.  He lays bare his soul for Stephanie, apologizing for his prior apathy.  He tells her (and I’m paraphrasing here) that he has no reason to expect her love and her companionship; that after all he’s done, he deserves to be alone.  And he’s right.  As he leaves, he makes dinner plans with Stephanie, and says he’ll see her then.

Randy goes to see Cassidy at the strip club to ask her out.  She flatly refuses him, citing the “don’t get involved with the customer” rule, and this time, it appears she’s lost her sense of humor about it.  Randy, stunned, decides to go to an independent wrestling match in a nearby town.  He watches numbly from the sidelines as the other wrestlers bask in the roar and warmth of the crowd.  After the match, he goes to a local bar, gets drunk and high on cocaine (and I was cringing, thinking about his heart!).  He ends up schtupping a young woman in the bathroom, and sleeping over at her house.  Meanwhile, he has forgotten to meet his daughter for dinner.  When he arrives at Stephanie’s house, she is vitriolic, and justifiably so.  She cuts him out of her life in a manner so terrifying, so emasculating, there can be no measure of doubt as to the permanence of her intention.  She means forever.

Randy has taken a job at the deli counter of the local low-rent grocery store, filling plastic containers with potato salad, pasta salad, and the like.  It’s a mundane job, but he seems to enjoy the social interchange, until one day it hits home.  A fan from the old days recognizes Randy and calls him out.  Randy, having lost his career, his daughter, and his love interest, loses his mind.  He cuts his thumb on the deli slicer, smears himself with blood, and storms out of the market, pushing things off the shelves in a mind-bending rage.

He makes a phone call to the wrestling organizers: I’m back in.  Randy has nothing to lose at this point.  If he survives the match, he will have his pride and some money. If he does not survive, so be it.  Randy would rather go out in a blaze of glory than die on his knees, it seems.

Cassidy, knowing about his heart problems, sneaks into the wrestling match.  The fanfare is intense – this rematch is one for the books.  Throughout the grappling, Randy’s opponent urges him to take it easy.  Randy doesn’t hear him.  The movie ends with Randy flying from atop the ropes to land on his opponent, his signature move, the “Ram Jam”.  He never lands.  Cut to black.  Cue end credits.

I am just going to say this – Mickey Rourke has done an “art imitating life imitating art” thing here.  Rourke’s career was as washed up as Randy’s when he took this movie, and what an amazing thing he has done.  Rourke burns up the screen, filling the character with flawed humanity – Randy is sensitive, selfish, vulnerable, self-aware, drifting through this ‘roided up world of machismo and illusion.  Rourke’s performance took my breath away.  I can’t imagine anyone else playing this part, and that only means one thing in my world: Oscar.

Randy’s visual portrayal scores the hair/makeup/costume hat trick.  Hair: bleached-out, long, stringy, dark-roots, top-ramen-textured Hesher hair.  Perfect.  Makeup: let us acknowledge that in all honesty Rourke’s weathered face speaks of abuse and surgical alteration, but the makeup department did a brilliant job of illustrating what he willingly does (via tanning, cutting with a razor, letting himself be stapled and used as a thumb-tack pincushion) to further his foray into self-destruction. Randy’s costumes are depressing, and appropriately so.  Here is a man who spends his earnings just trying to keep his head above water (in terms of his physique and fitness) so he can continue to go to work.  This is not a man who has a spare penny for a new coat.  In fact, his down jacket is riddled with holes, some of which have been hastily repaired with duct tape.  The prop team deserves a special mention for Randy’s old-fashioned hearing aid.  It’s big and bulky, compared to modern hearing aids, and it speaks volumes about his poverty.

Randy is the kind of man who pulled over to the side of the fashion highway in 1987.  His car broke down there, along the fashion highway, and that is where he remains.  He looks kind of like a run-down version of Dog the Bounty Hunter, if you know what I mean.  However, nothing about Randy’s costumage is new or even really contemporary.  He wears relatively high-waisted ripped jeans with boots, and the colors and patterns of his shirts seem to change as his character arcs.

His wrestling costumes are very interesting.  It appears that, through most of the film, he wears the same “Ram” pants and boots.  Surely Amy Westcott and her crew had these custom-made somewhere – stay tuned for more info on that.  However, in the final showdown sequence, Randy’s costume is different – brand-new, different design, cleaner, more sparkly, showier.

In fact, all of the wrestlers in the film had very interesting costumes (lots of spandex, of course), and it made me wonder if Amy and her crew had to measure, design and build all of these.  That would certainly be a lot of work, and my hat is off to her for that effort. These wrestlers – background players, as well as supporting actors, were costumed superbly.  My particular favorite is the sado-masochistic wrestler who wears nothing but cut-off jeans, ripped in Incredible Hulk TV series-style shreds at the bottom.  It’s hilarious, and adds a certain sense of self-deprecating humor to this violent (and in this case, quite bloody) wrestler.

In the final showdown with this rival, “The Ayatollah”, Randy enters the ring in a faux lambskin vest, and flashy new pants/boots.  The Ayatollah waits for him, a chubby man in a tight spandex unitard, the colors of which symbolize the Iranian Flag.  When you look at this face-off, it is easy to see why Randy had such a legion of fans in the 1980s.  At that time, with Iran so deeply vilified in American culture, who would America send to defeat the Ayatollah?  The Ram, that’s who – the blond, ripped, white wrestling savior of the United States, by God.  As the Ram, Randy represented something bigger than wrestling.  He represented America, and all that entails: physical might, righteousness, truth and justice, for his fans.

Cassidy’s costuming is equally interesting. From the beginning, she is portrayed as over-the-hill, but Marisa Tomei has evidently put in some long hours on her physique and on her dance skills.  She looks older in the face than the other dancers, but her body and the way she moves it are ageless.  She is at work when we first see her – she wears a thong and a long slashed black t-shirt, reminiscent of the teenaged Bon Jovi or Whitesnake groupies from years gone by.  She lifts her shirt up to reveal her breasts, and it appears that her nipples are pierced.  Makeup department?  How did you do this?  It looks real! She wears long, leaf-shaped earrings that dangle almost to her shoulders.  Her hair looks like it is damaged, and it stays messed up when she runs her hand through it – it looks fried.  Nice job, hair department!

We see her again at work; this time she wears a fishnet dress – these are very bold costume choices!  It’s brave for Tomei to wear this costume, and it’s brave for a designer to suggest it in the first place.  She runs outside to talk with Randy, and she throws on a long, grey, puffy down coat, straight out of 1988, with a fur-trimmed hood.  She has probably held on to this coat since the 1980s.  The weather in the film (set in New Jersey) is consistently abysmal, so we see Cassidy in this coat more than once.  We see her wear the coat over street clothes; it’s appropriate that this coat is all she has, and it’s appropriate that it looks dated.

When she joins Randy at the second-hand store, she wears jeans, layered t-shirts, her puffy down coat, and a knit cap with a brim, nothing like a stripper.  The cap is an interesting idea – a lot of DPs (Directors of Photography) hate hats, because it makes it more difficult to light the actors’ faces – but the brim is so shallow on this cap, it doesn’t seem to make much of a difference.  In fact, when we see her again in street clothes (later in the movie), she wears a beige bandana on her head (tied Brett-Michaels-style), again covering her hair.  I wonder if there’s anything to that, other than cold weather.  It hadn’t occurred to me before, but it is worth asking.

When Randy comes to the club to ask her out, she is wearing a dark blue outfit that looks slightly more sophisticated and “hookerish” than her other outfits.  She wears a necklace that looks like it might be significant (it is big and chunky) but I couldn’t make out what it was, so its meaning was lost on me.  She also wears big “C” earrings, hinting “don’t call me by my real name (Pam); I am Cassidy in this world”.  Her face is made up with heavy eyes, glittery lashes, glossy lips.  She rejects Randy, looking almost like a different person.

Cassidy quits her job at the club, and goes out to the trailer park to see Randy.  She’s wearing a Motley Crüe t-shirt, and I couldn’t quite make out whether or not it was vintage.  I wondered about how many phone calls it took to get clearance on the shirt – I have been around and around with this many times myself on films, and sometimes it is very difficult indeed.  I wonder if they tried any other bands of that era (Queensryche, Scorpions, Ratt, Iron Maiden, Skid Row, Winger, Great White) or if the Crüe just said yes without any drama.

In the end, she shows up at the final wrestling match in the Crüe t-shirt, hair down, jeans, looking frantic, natural, and nothing at all like a stripper.  It’s almost too bad that the ending of this film is so abrupt.  I felt like I needed to know what happened to the Ram (although the implication is clear), and to Cassidy.  These characters were so well-drawn, without judgment, that the audience grows to truly care about what happens to them.  THAT is great filmmaking.

Definitely check this one out when it is released.  If Rourke does not get nominated for an Oscar, I’ll… um, I’ll… well, I’ll be pretty shocked.

-KMB

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