When I was growing up, professional wrestling wasn’t allowed in my household – at least not when my mother was home.
The fighting – the punches, the kicks, the clotheslines and the slams – combined with the outrageous stories gave her unsettling anxiety. So my exposure to the “sport” was limited to the rare nights she was out of town, forcing my dad into babysitting duty.
Those memories came flooding back Thursday night in Hollywood at the premiere for HBO’s terrific new documentary “Andre the Giant” – a film about the life of one of pro wrestling’s most legendary and mythical figures.
It’s the first film produced by Bill Simmons for HBO and directed by Jason Hehir . Simmons, one of the creative leaders behind ESPN’s 30for30 films, clearly knows his way around a compelling sports documentary.
The movie succeeds in catering to people who fondly remember Andre’s battles with Hulk Hogan in the mid-1980s. It also succeeds in painting an interesting portrait of a man who is recognizable to non-wrestling fans thanks to his work in “The Princess Bride” and his spot in pop culture.
The story is so whimsical, so ridiculous and so fun that it’ll appeal to anyone (that was the consensus at the premiere where non-wrestling fans were even pushed to tears).
But what I enjoyed most in the film is what I still enjoy most about professional wrestling – the blurring between fact and fiction, between myth and man.
There are the obvious examples in the film – stories about Andre’s legendary drinking, his appeal to women. But the film also does this more subtly, showing Andre get announced to the ring under half a dozen different heights and weights.
In wrestling, those facts don’t matter – 500 pounds, 400 pounds, 300 pounds, it’s all the same. When you’re as big as Andre the Giant, and that’s bigger than everyone else in an already oversized world, promoters have as much creative license as they want.
WWE owner Vince McMahon says as much – he once told people Andre had an extra row of teeth and two hearts. One of the funnier lines in the documentary comes from Ric Flair trying to determine if that was actually true.
In those moments as an adult wrestling fan, I’m reminded why I still care about these choreographed battles.
The moments of realism spliced into a world of fantasy make wrestling its most fun, and there’s plenty of this in “Andre the Giant.”
McMahon’s emotion, Hulk Hogan’s candid description of their in-ring battles and historian David Shoemaker’s context all help the story move from Andre’s childhood in rural France to his stardom in the United States to his eventual death.
Watching the archival footage took me back to my parent’s living room, watching the matches on a console television.
And “Andre the Giant” is compelling enough that if what was airing, my mother would even sit down and watch.