Wrestling has had a long history with Hollywood, dating back to the 1940’s. With the emergence of former WWE Champion Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as Hollywood’s most bankable male star and Dave “Batista” Bautista emerging as a solid character actor in such franchises as the Marvel Cinematic Universe (Guardians of the Galaxy), James Bond (in Spectre) and now Blade Runner‘s sequel, pro wrestlers are now becoming more than just bit part cameos in films. So we begin a new series here at Last Word on Pro Wrestling, called WrestleCinema, looking at pro wrestling in the motion pictures realm. For our first entry, we look at 11 films that depicted varying aspects of the industry itself, featuring cameos (if not starring roles) from industry performers. (NOTE: these are all fictionalized films, they do not include documentaries. That will be a separate entry in the series)
WrestleCinema, Part 1: 11 Films About The Industry
ALIAS THE CHAMP (1949)
Plot Summary (from IMDB): “New York gangsters trying to muscle in on the California wrestling scene come up against a wrestler who won’t knuckle under. They frame him for a murder, and his manager and a cop set out to clear his name, catch the real killers and save the reputation of the sport of wrestling.”
Director: George Blair
Writer: Albert DeMond
Starring: Robert Rockwell, Barbara Fuller, Gorgeous George
Alias The Champ was a film noir series, during the height of that genre’s prominence in film, centered around the pro wrestling industry and featuring the first wrestling star primed for Hollywood – the one and only Gorgeous George. It helped make Gorgeous George a bigger name in the mainstream and American pop culture than he already was, and he became one of the early days of television’s most watched stars. The film also includes appearances from such wrestlers as “Slammin'” Sammy Menacker, Tor Johnson, Count Billy Varga, Bomber Kulkovich, George Temple, Bobby Managoff and “Sockeye” Jack McDonald.
RACKET GIRLS (1951) (aka PIN-DOWN GIRL or THE BLONDE PICK-UP)
Plot Summary (from IMDB): “A money launderer uses women’s wrestling as a front for his illegal activities, but earns the enmity of a powerful mobster.”
Writer & Director: Robert C. Dertano
Starring: Peaches Page, Timothy Farrell, Clara Mortensen, Rita Martinez
Another film noir style film, set to the backdrop of the emerging women’s wrestling scene in the United States. With film noir being such a draw at the cinema at the time, this film helped proper women’s wrestling to the mainstream forefront, and it enjoyed its first major boom beyond the occasional championship match. It featured a relatively unknown women’s wrestler Margaret Evans (aka Peaches Page), but more notably features Clara Mortensen, one of women’s wrestling’s earliest icons – she was one of the earliest world champions, winning the title in 1932. Rita Martinez was one of Mexican wrestling’s earliest stars as well, so the film features two absolute legends as far as women’s wrestling goes.
REQUIEM FOR A HEAVYWEIGHT (1962)
Plot Summary (from IMDB): “Mountain Rivera, a punchy has-been managed by the unprincipled Maish, is mauled in a fight and forced to quit boxing. Can his devoted cutman and a sympathetic social worker help him find a life outside the ring, or will Maish find a way to exploit him one more time?”
Director: Ralph Nelson (Lilies of the Field)
Writer: Rod Serling
Starring: Anthony Quinn, Jackie Gleason, Mickey Rooney, Julie Harris
While not a wrestling per say – it’s actually a social commentary on the rise and fall of a professional boxer, Mountain Rivera, played by screen legend Anthony Quinn. Following the collapse of his boxing career, he is convinced to become a pro wrestler. This echoes the path that many early boxers took when their boxing days ended, including such notable early Champions like Jack Dempsey and Jack Johnson, who had bills to pay once their lucrative boxing careers ended.
THE WRESTLER (1974)
Plot Summary (from IMDB): “Promoting the world of professional wrestling at the expense of the plot itself, Frank Bass (Ed Asner) takes a stand and defends what he thinks is right. Gamblers, mobsters, unscrupulous wrestlers, money-grubbing promoters, and fixers conspire to corrupt the industry, but Frank tries to make the game as honest and fair as it is his idealized vision. Frank’s efforts climax as he promotes an over-the-hill champion in the final matches of his career.”
Director: Jim Westman
Writer: Eugene Gump
Starring: Ed Asner, Verne Gagne, Billy Robinson, Dick The Bruiser, Dusty Rhodes, Ric Flair
Verne Gagne produced this movie in 1974, featuring himself as the aging champion out for one last run. Ed Asner is the lead, as the promoter determined to run a clean and honest promotion while the others get more and more corrupt (somewhat foreshadowing the demise of Gagne’s AWA in the 1980’s, while WCW and WWF exploded while AWA went bankrupt). UK legend Billy Robinson plays the upstart young star on the scene, including cameos from a whole crew of some of Verne’s own young recruits, including a pre-“Nature Boy” Ric Flair.
PARADISE ALLEY (1978)
Plot Summary (from IMDB): “Three Italian-American brothers, living in the slums of 1940’s New York City, try to help each other with one’s wrestling career using one brother’s promotional skills and another brother’s con-artist tactics to thwart a sleazy manager.”
Writer & Director: Sylvester Stallone
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Lee Canalito, Armand Assante, Anne Archer, Terry Funk
Sylvester Stallone‘s love for professional wrestling is well documented. He used Hulk Hogan in Rocky III (inspired by Andre The Giant‘s match versus boxer Chuck Wepner – who was the inspiration for Rocky Balboa) and his mother was a part of the original GLOW. In 1978, hot of the success of the first Rocky movie, Stallone wrote and made his directorial debut with Paradise Alley, a look at the early days of wrestling promotions in the 1940’s in a hard and tough New York City. Many of the NWA’s top wrestlers appeared in the film, including Terry Funk, Ted DiBiase, Don Leo Jonathan, Gene Kiniski, Dory Funk Jr. and Meng/Haku.
GRUNT! THE WRESTLING MOVIE (1985)
Plot Summary (from IMDB): “A documentary crew sets out to unravel one of professional wrestling’s most closely guarded secrets: is former champion “Mad Dog” Joe DeCurso.”
Director: Allan Holzman
Writer: Roger D. Manning
Starring: Magic Schwarz, Jeff Dial, Marilyn Dodds Drank
Akin to films like This Is Spinal Tap, Grunt! is a mockumentary about the industry, as the “filmmakers” go on the trail, travelling the territories to get the inside scoop on a mysterious former champion named “Mad Dog” Joe DeCurso (played by independent wrestler Magic Schwarz) who seemingly killed himself after a mishap in the ring where he decapitated his opponent. But soon a new wrestler called simply “The Mask” has everyone wondering if his similar style is an homage to DeCurso or if DeCurso is back from the dead. Features real wrestling action and appearances from Dick Murdoch, “The Destroyer” Dick Beyer, Exotic Adrian Street, Ray Stevens, and even a young Danny Spivey, amongst others.
BODY SLAM (1986)
Plot Summary (from IMDB): “M. Harry Smilac is a down-on-his-luck music manager who is having a hard time attracting talent and booking gigs for his band, Kicks (The most recent of the gigs is a Dairy Queen opening!!). When making arrangements for a campaign fundraiser, he mistakes Rick Roberts, a professional wrestler, for a musician and hires him. At that moment he becomes a wrestling manager and starts to book matches for him and his teammate Tonga Tom. The team is a success, and Harry decides to take his wrestlers and his band on a “Rock n’ Wrestling” tour. The tour is a success, and Harry feels what it is like to be a winner again.”
Director: Hal Needham (Smokey & The Bandit, Cannonball Run)
Writer: Shel Lytton
Starring: Dirk Benedict, Tanya Roberts, Roddy Piper, Charles Nelson Reilly
Dirk Benedict was hot off of the original Battlestar Galactica series and was a TV star with the A-Team when this comedy about a rock and roll manager who mistakes Roddy Piper as a rock star and ends up entering the pro wrestling business instead. Apart from Roddy Piper in his first starring role, it featured appearances from Captain Lou Albano, The Barbarian, The Tonga Kid, The Wild Samoans, Bruno Sammartino, and Ric Flair, amongst others.
NO HOLDS BARRED (1989)
Plot Summary (from IMDB): “Rip is the World Wrestling Federation champion who is faithful to his fans and the network he wrestles for. Brell, the new head of the World Television Network, wants Rip to wrestle for his network. Rip refuses and goes back to his normal life. Still looking for a way to raise ratings, Brell initiates a show called “The Battle of the Tough Guys”, a violent brawling competition. A mysterious man, Zeus, wins the competition. This gets Brell to use him as an angle to get at Rip.”
Director: Thomas J. Wright (Millenium TV Series, NCIS TV Series)
Writer: Dennis Hackin
Starring: Hulk Hogan, Joan Severance, Kurt Fuller, Tiny Lister
The WWF finally jumped into the motion picture business with this Hulk Hogan lead feature film that has since become a cult classic. A thinly veiled fictionalized version of the WWF was the focal point, with Hogan portraying Rip, who ultimately has his showdown with the monster Zeus (played by Lister).
READY TO RUMBLE (2000)
Plot Summary (from IMDB): “Two slacker wrestling fans are devastated by the ousting of their favorite character by an unscrupulous promoter”
Director: Brian Robbins (The Perfect Score, Norbit, Meet Dave)
Writer: Steven Brill
Starring: Oliver Platt, David Arquette, Scott Caan, Rose McGowan, Diamond Dallas Page
WCW entered the film world just in time to collapse and get sold to the WWE, but not before releasing Ready to Rumble, a comedy about two fans determined to get their favourite wrestler, the aging Jimmy King, back to the top of the mountain. It featured appearances by many WCW wrestlers, including DDP, Goldberg, Sting, Curt Hennig, Bam Bam Bigelow and more – the only real downside from this movie was that as part of its promotion, Arquette went to WCW and became the WCW World Heavyweight Champion.
THE WRESTLER (2008)
Plot Summary (from IMDB): “A faded professional wrestler must retire, but finds his quest for a new life outside the ring a dispiriting struggle.”
Director: Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan, Requiem For A Dream)
Writer: Robert Seigel
Starring: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood, Ernest Miller
The most revered film ever made about pro wrestling, it revived Mickey Rourke’s career. Following the exploits of former World Champion Randy the Ram at the twilight of his career, where he’s no longer in demand with the major promotions and working the indies to feel the rush of the (dwindling) crowd and earn his next meal. Featured cameos from many wrestlers, including Ernest “The Cat” Miller, Necro Butcher, Jay Lethal, R-Truth, Cesaro and Chuck Taylor.
THE ASHES OF CHIKARA (2014)
Plot Summary (from IMDB): “When a clandestine corporation puts a beloved wrestling company out of business, it’s time for the most hated man in the locker room to bring them back from destruction.”
Director: Ian Vaflor (Alpha Girls)
If you thought the secret hidden season 17 of CHIKARA that dropped the day that season 18 began was creative genius, then this film is for you. CHIKARA actually shut down for a year without warning – with no shows booked – and this film explained why. A comedic film noir featuring the whole cast of CHIKARA who struggled to find their places in the world post-CHIKARA, only to fight to get the company back up and running in time for 2015.