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‘DRAGON’ ROURKE BREATHES FIRE

Times Staff Writer

It’s tough to be the only person voicing an unpopular opinion. Mickey Rourke knows; after weeks of speaking out in support of his latest film, “Year of the Dragon,” and its director, Michael Cimino, the actor is bruised--and bitter.

“It’s been a nightmare,” Rourke said wearily in a telephone interview. “It’s completely changed the way I feel toward film critics and the media.”

Much of Rourke’s indignation that day stemmed from an interview he had with “Good Morning America” co-host Joan Lunden.

“After I talked with her,” she told the producer to kill the segment because I was too supportive of Michael,” he claimed.

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(A spokesman for the ABC morning show said the videotape of the interview had been “inadvertently damaged” and was therefore unusable. Rourke’s publicist, however, recalled being told by the producers that the interview had been too “one-dimensional.”)

To call Rourke’s opinion “unpopular” seems almost an understatement, given the barrage of bad press aimed at “Dragon” since its Aug. 16 release. The story of a crime-busting police captain’s fight to crush a powerful Chinese underworld syndicate--its director, screenwriters (Cimino and Oliver Stone), actors and distributor (MGM/UA)--have variously been excoriated by critics, columnists, Chinese- and other Asian-Americans and even a city councilman (Mike Woo of Los Angeles).

Issues raised include everything from “Heaven’s Gate” (Cimino’s previous debacle) to the changing hues of gray in Rourke’s hair (although most complaints focus on Cimino’s treatment of Asian-Americans and women).

Rourke was particularly irritated at Woo’s involvement in Asian-American protests: “He’s only become involved in that issue to elevate himself politically. Let Woo organize something to feed people who can’t get jobs instead of grandstanding like this.”

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Rourke voiced even less respect for the critics, who generally have praised him for his film performances (“Body Heat,” “Diner,” “Pope of Greenwich Village,” among others).

“Sometimes I used to read what they had to say about movies,” Rourke said, “but after what we’ve gone through with the critics on this film, my opinion of them has changed. They’re totally gutless people who don’t realize that it takes one or two years to make a movie. To slash things apart like that. . . .” Frustrated, he stopped mid-sentence.

Still, it wasn’t as if the reaction to the film had been unexpected.

Several days before “Dragon” opened, Mickey Rourke conducted business as usual from his Beverly Hills office.

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Outside, it may have been the Big Orange, but inside the atmosphere was pure Big Apple. Despite an abundance of sunlight outside, the heavy dark wood furniture on the bare floors was just barely illuminated in the shaded room by a lamp in a corner.

Given Rourke’s predilection for New York City and living in hotels, his emigration to Los Angeles seemed out of character (in addition to his office, he’s rented a home here with his wife, actress Deborah Feuer).

“I had a thing with my wife about the hotels that had come to a crossroads,” Rourke explained, smiling guiltily.

“I had to make a decision and think about what my priorities were. Besides, I get, uh, self-destructive in New York. Whatever schedule I try to put together, I can’t seem to stick to it. I get too . . . um, well,” he smiled again. “I have too much fun.”

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Although he turns 30 this week, Rourke seems older. His hair was pomaded back in a 1950s style and, though unwrinkled, his face is weathered, perhaps the result of his years spent boxing, first professionally and now for fun. His eyes reflect the kind of awareness and wisdom that come from years of streetwise living.

Rourke has been elevated to Godfather-like status by many actors in their early to mid-20s, who seek him out for counsel on their careers and speak of him in reverential tones. He referred to them as “kids,” and complained, “I enjoy working with them, but all some of them want to do is be famous; they don’t want to work hard enough.”

A mention of the Brat Pack and his derision became palpable.

“I’m very careful now who I open up to because, in the past few years, I’ve seen a lot of the kids I cared about get very neurotic. Once they start working, they get real. . . ."--he searched for the word--"I don’t know how to describe it . . . it’s ugly.”

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With those words, Rourke’s youthful innocence rose to the surface like cream, with his dese and dose voice as soft and soothing as lamb’s wool and a smile that managed to be angelic, vulnerable and mischievous simultaneously.

His primary loyalty is to his friends; he protects and helps those he deems “good dudes,” often at his own emotional and financial expense.

Rourke lit a cigarette and began to talk about such a friend, director Cimino, who cast Rourke in “Heaven’s Gate” although the part was later cut.

Cimino was more than just a “good dude.” Rourke said he considered him to be “the best director I’ve ever worked with,” superseding Francis Coppola, who used him in “Rumble Fish,” Barry Levinson (“Diner”) and Lawrence Kasdan (“Body Heat”).

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(Cimino returned the compliment during a rare interview in this month’s issue of the Economist, calling the actor “an extraordinary talent” and adding that Rourke’s work since “Heaven’s Gate” only showed “part of what he could do and part of what he was.” The English magazine also gave “Dragon” a rave review.)

In “Dragon,” Rourke said, Cimino pushed him to try a different acting style. “Usually, I know what I want to do with a character and the director leaves me alone, but Michael only let me do that to a degree.”

If Rourke had any problems with script or story, they went unsaid. Cimino is a friend. Period.

The scathing reviews on the film were still a day or two away and Rourke, admittedly anxious, said he was prepared for the worst. “Mike warned me that the reviews might be controversial. He said, ‘There’s going to be backlashes on the movie,’ mainly at him.”

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Rourke backed Cimino emphatically, proclaiming, “Hey! If somebody would give me a piece of paper and say, ‘Just sign this and you work with Cimino for the next 10 years, ' I would sign it in two seconds.”

He termed “Final Cut” (former United Artists executive Steven Bach’s blow-by-blow account of the “Heaven’s Gate” fiasco) “vindictive.”

“I think that guy (Bach) had nothing better to do so he wrote a book,” Rourke said. “Who did he write it for? Who the hell is going to read it? It’s boring to everyone except industry people. Anyway, by the end of the book, all you see is that all Michael wanted to do was make the best movie that had ever been made. I don’t think he came off that bad.”

He paused for several moments, studied his hands and let out a deep sigh. One sensed Rourke’s growing disenchantment with the hoopla attached to “controversial” films--the ones with roles that he said “challenged” him as an actor.

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Before “Dragon,” there was “9 1/2 Weeks,” the still-unreleased film directed by Adrian Lyne (“Flashdance”) and co-starring Kim Basinger. The story of a sadomasochistic relationship that lasts as long as the title indicates appealed to Rourke initially. Now, after myriad changes brought about by skittish studio executives (Lyne continues to re-edit), the actor felt differently.

“I was fascinated by the script. I liked the mystery and the dialogue in it. It reminded me a lot of (playwright) Harold Pinter,” he recalled. “It was something different I wanted to try. But they never shot the original script and then certain casting choices were made. . . .” His voice trailed off. He shook his head.

“The girl (as he referred to Basinger, removing doubt about which casting choice he wasn’t thrilled about) didn’t want to do certain things and there were just too many bosses; there was too much input from many different places. I thought, ‘Man, if you do a movie like that, go all the way with it and see what happens,’ but they chickened out. Now, what is there to look at? I don’t even know where it is--I haven’t seen it in a while.”

He laughed. “I mean, I knew we weren’t making ‘Lawrence of Arabia.’ I knew that probably six people would go see the movie. I don’t feel bad. I had certain reasons for doing that movie that were personal--as an actor.”

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In the meantime, Rourke said he was rewriting the script for his own film, “Homeboy,” a story about the downside of boxing. “It’s about a guy who never was a champion; he’s a guy who was pretty much the reason I stopped boxing.”

He had no other plans at present. “I’m waiting to go to work, I’ve been waiting for the last six months,” he said. “We’ve turned about 16 projects down; there’s just nothing I like.”

Would he ever want to do a comedy?

“No, I don’t like comedies that much; I have no desire at all to do one. I don’t even go see them.”

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He had abandoned another potentially controversial movie on the life of singer Jerry Lee Lewis because “I think they wanted to make a ‘Movie of the Week’ out of it. What they don’t want to do is commit to working really hard to getting a good script.”

He shrugged. “I’m at a point now where I’m only going to work with the directors I want to work with, and with the casts that I want. I couldn’t bear to be on a movie knowing I’m doing it just to make the money. I just couldn’t stay on the set.”

After “Dragon” opened, Mickey Rourke appeared on Larry King’s televised talk show.

Or at least he looked like Rourke.

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Much of what he said didn’t sound like Rourke, not at all.

While he told King that, yes, he would work with Michael Cimino again, his spirit and conviction were subdued.

His other answers were far more perplexing:

--He liked “9 1/2 Weeks” very much.

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--He would certainly like to do a comedy.

--He continued to be involved with the Jerry Lee Lewis project.

During the subsequent phone conversation with The Times, Rourke explained the discrepancies between the two interviews. He said that he had seen the newest version of “9 1/2 Weeks,” following the Beverly Hills interview. “I wasn’t as disappointed as I thought I would be.” He paused. “I think it’ll play well overseas.”

He acknowledged that his responses about comedies and the Lewis project during the King interview had been less than candid. But Rourke apparently had learned some lessons from his “Dragon” experience. “It’s better to just totally ignore (such questions),” he mused. “Why get involved?”

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