There's something magical about wrestling. And I'm not talking the Greco-Roman, kind of wrestling that less than .001 per cent of the Earth's population gives a crap about. Nor Japanese Sumo, (which is awesome and has its own culture and mythology I know nothing about.) No, the magic I am talking about can only be found amongst the screaming mullets and gaudy effects that accompany the lowest common denominator of sports entertainment: the World Wrestling Federation a.k.a. the WWE.
Certainly, everyone knows it's fake (even in Grade 4 we all secretly knew), but there's something uniquely North American about all the protruding neck veins, guttural threats, blatant steroid use, rampant testosterone and middle-school theatrics. Despite all that bullshit, there's just something about wresting that's almost noble. It hints at deeper truths.
Especially when wrestling finds its way into the cinema. Remember 2008 and Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler? Mickey Rourke shone as a tortured soul in failing health who keeps going back into the ring because it's the only place in the world that accepts him. Or the Netflix documentary The Resurrection of Jake The Snake. Part of that one is a bit of a random promotion for Diamond Dallas Page's yoga program, but the rest is raw film about falling from grace, the quest for identity and the evils of addiction (see also, the even better Beyond The Mat).
And of course there's Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. Who would have guessed that the dude who would thrust his hand down the front of his pants then smack an opponent with his own ball sweat would end up being one of the most bankable and loved stars in Hollywood? We lack Samurai in this part of the world, and all the cowboys have gone out to graze, could it be the wrestlers are the last great heroes of our age?
Watching the new HBO documentary André the Giant, one might be inclined to think so. Born André René Roussimoff in 1946 in France, The Giant led a fairly normal, and normal sized, childhood, but due to the effects of gigantism, a growth hormone disorder, by age 12 André stood 6'3 and weighed over 200 lbs. At 17, he'd towered to a stunning 7'5 and was working as a farmhand, mechanic and woodworker until a move to Paris in 1960 thrust him into the world of body slams, leg drops and professional wrestling.
The rest is history. While travelling the world, (but mostly North America, which had dozens of regional wrestling leagues) André the Giant grew into an undefeated-and-much-loved character, one of the most recognizable "athletes" on the planet. And then the cable TV boom of the early 1980s and Vince McMahon's WWF exploded wrestling into a nationwide hero factory that could fill arenas two to three times a week. Amidst the orchestrated theatrics and insanity, André remained a hugely popular draw, the humble, friendly giant who could beat anyone but was happy to let his buddy Hulk Hogan retain the much coveted Championship Belt. Until, of course, the business required he wasn't. And in front of 90,000-plus people in Michigan, Wrestlemania III pitted once-friends as enemies, with Hogan and André, two titans of the "sport" entering the squared-circle to determine the ultimate champion.
Directed by Jason Hehir, HBO's André the Giant film tracks this journey with vintage footage and interviews with all the key players involved, including Hogan, McMahon and André's closest friend and handler Tim White. What emerges is a compelling look at someone who was a cultural icon simply by being alive, but who was also unable to escape his own mythology. (How do you go incognito, when you're 7'5"?)
Andre was a commodity and a clown, a warrior and a friend, and most definitely a legend in and out of the ring (he could drink 18 bottles of wine a day and unleash 30-second room-clearing farts) but in an industry built around illusion, it can be chilling to get a glimpse of the loneliness and humanity behind the smoke machines and glittering curtain.
Andre the Giant starred in The Princess Bride and played Bigfoot in 1976's "The Secret of Bigfoot" episode of The 6-Million Dollar Man. The new HBO doc is available on HBO and other less reputable corners of the internet. And for a good look at pre-WWE wrestling hit Youtube and find The Wrestling Queen, a 1973 doc about Vivian Vachon.