"People never come up and say, 'You're a hell of an actor!' They just go, 'You're a phony!'"--pro wrestler Bret Hart, 1998.
Barry W. Blaustein, director of the documentary Beyond the Mat, was outed by the woman he trusted most. His wife, without his approval, gathered all of Blaustein's friends and show biz associates and revealed to them her husband's secret life: He was...a professional wrestling fan.
"I'd never told anybody," laughs Blaustein, 45, from his Southern California offices. "My mom would find my wrestling magazines when I was a kid and throw them away, and as an adult I would buy the pay-per-views and watch by myself. But I came home one day, and all of a sudden I hear this voice calling my name, and I'm thinking, Wait a minute: That sounds an awful lot like the American Dream."
It was indeed the Dream, the wrestling legend also known as Dusty Rhodes. He'd been hired, along with other ring luminaries, by Blaustein's wife to take part in a This Is Your Life-style roast of the American University class of '76 dropout--and Saturday Night Live alum--for his 40th birthday.
Blaustein, already a scriptwriter of some regard in Hollywood, says he was genuinely humiliated by the experience. But after the party, that embarrassment gave way to artistic liberation. Blaustein's once-secret passion was suddenly just his passion. That meant that there was no reason he shouldn't make the movie he'd wanted to make for ages: the wrestling documentary.
Five years later, it's done.
"People ask me, 'What audience were you after?'" Blaustein says. "I tell them, 'I'm the audience I was after.' I wasn't trying to guess what other wrestling fans or non-wrestling-fans want to see. Everything I did was for me."
In the beginning, he prepared himself for a studio suit to dismiss the project because wrestling was "fake." Yes, the outcomes of matches are predetermined, Blaustein would argue, just as the ends of Hollywood feature films are. Blaustein's favorite actors have to follow scripts while fearing for their physical well-being. Let's see Laurence Olivier hit his marks after a few chair shots to the head. (If Beyond the Mat proves anything, it's that there's nothing fake about a chair shot.)
As it was, Blaustein didn't have to work too hard to convince Ron Howard's Imagine Entertainment, the production company for which he'd written the Eddie Murphy vehicle The Nutty Professor, to bankroll the movie.
Then he had to land film-worthy subjects. Terry Funk was Blaustein's first and ultimately most significant "get" from the wrestling world.
"I could tell Barry had compassion for what I do," Funk tells me. "So I told him I'd do whatever I could to help him out with his movie."
It was Funk who convinced the other main protagonists, Jake "the Snake" Roberts (real name: Aurelian Smith Jr.) and Mick Foley (the best-selling self-abuser also known as Mankind), to trust the director. Whereas the general filmgoing public and critics seem most moved by Blaustein's portrayals of relationships between Roberts and his daughter, and Foley and his wife, wrestling fans should get their biggest charge out of Funk's relationship with wrestling itself.
"He can't get away," Blaustein says of the guy he calls his favorite wrestler. "I worry about Terry."
That inability to leave the ring runs in the family. Funk, now 56, played football for West Texas State, blocking for future NFL stars Mercury Morris and Duane Thomas. But wrestling was in his genes. His father, Dory Funk, was a legendary pro wrestler based in Amarillo who in the '50s became the first Texan to win a world title. Dory was still wrestling in the spring of 1973, when he invited a lot of his fellow grapplers over for a barbecue. A big, young Brit named Les Thornton challenged Dory to an impromptu match in the back yard. Terry laughed as Dad and Thornton rolled around on the lawn and then took their fight inside, knocking over chairs and tables in the kitchen.
When the brawl stopped, Dory came over to his son, said, "Not bad for an old man, eh?" and then had a heart attack on the spot. He was dead by nightfall.
Terry Funk won several world titles, then went on to become the father of "hard-core" wrestling, a sadomasochistic subgenre that cropped up in the '80s in which anything goes as long as it draws blood. The older he gets, the more punishment he allows others to inflict on him. Funk has made several tours of Japan in recent years to participate in matches where the ropes are replaced by barbed wire. He claims he went hard-core strictly for the money and that he can make the equivalent of six months' U.S. salary in a few brutal days in Asia. If Far Eastern wrestling fans pay top yen, he thinks they deserve to get what they want, even if what they want is for the performers to mutilate each other.
"I've come across a lot of guys in this business whose bodies just couldn't take the punishment," Funk says. "I've been blessed, genetically. But when I sign for one of these matches, I don't go out and say, 'Yay! Barbed wire tonight!' I just keep telling myself that I'm going to get through it."
Beyond the Mat shows plenty of evidence of the toll that Funk's career has taken on his body, yet the film allows him and the other wrestlers to come off more like devout entertainers than freaks. No small feat, for sure, but not enough to get the picture nominated for this weekend's Oscars. At the risk of sounding arrogant and whiny, Blaustein says he has a hunch that the Academy snubbed his work strictly because it was about wrestling.
If it were up to Funk--who dabbled in cinema as the bouncer fired by Patrick Swayze in Road House--Blaustein would have gotten his statuette.
"There's a sweetness to the movie, which has never been part of any wrestling movie I've ever seen," Funk says. "But that's all Barry. I'm tired of people coming up and telling me, 'Terry, you did a great job!' I didn't do anything. Where were all these people after Road House?"--Dave McKenna