From Nothingness To Beingness: The Inexorable Rise Of Mark Wahlberg
An appreciation of an actor who gives us nothing but good vibrations
If you look up Academy-Award nominee, prolific television producer and TIFF honoree Mark Wahlberg (who receives a career-spanning “In Conversation With” Sept. 13 at TIFF Bell Lightbox) on Amazon in my home country of the United States, you’ll find his movies. You’ll also find an 8-by-10 image of him, clad only in a backwards baseball cap and a tight pair of junk-hugging underwear, sneering goofily at the camera, while looking like a teenage sex bomb.
This photo stands as a reminder that before he became a critically-acclaimed actor and major movie star, Mark Wahlberg earned a curious and semi-embarrassing fame as a teen idol, underwear model and novelty dance-pop rapper. (That’s right, we’re talking about Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch.) During a part of his career he probably wishes that he could erase from the public imagination like Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones zapping memories in Men In Black, Marky Mark even made a workout video and “Make My Video” videogame considered one of the worst of all-time. I imagine that he’s relatively unique among Oscar nominees in that regard.
Yes, we all know that Wahlberg initially rose to fame as a teenybopper icon with a boyishly handsome face, a charming Boston accent and a ripped physique. But it’s also true that Frank Sinatra began as a teen idol. As did Channing Tatum, Justin Timberlake and several other total hotties-turned-Oscar contenders. (George Clooney, for one.) All of those dreamboats worked incredibly hard to establish themselves as serious artists, as well as pop-culture icons.
The future action star’s wisely-abandoned silly stage name made it easier to delineate between Marky Mark and Mark Wahlberg, serious thespian and seriously funny comic actor. In that respect, he’s not unlike Wahlberg’s Pain & Gain co-star Dwayne Johnson, who rose to fame as The Rock, and eventually became successful enough that he could drop one of the most famous monikers in wrestling history without confusing his vast army of fans.
Wahlberg’s unlikely path to respectability began with an appropriately gritty turn as one of the protagonist’s degenerate friends in the 1995 adaptation of Jim Carroll’s The Basketball Diaries and continued with his first lead role in 1996’s Fear. On paper, Fear must not have looked like much. Wahlberg’s breakthrough film is a cynical teen variation on Fatal Attraction starring a man who had only recently stopped calling himself Marky Mark about a good girl (Reese Witherspoon) who falls for a very bad boy (Wahlberg) and suffers the consequences.
If the material was standard-issue, Wahlberg’s performance is anything but. It’s a role that smartly utilizes the duality of Wahlberg’s persona - the gulf between the actor’s soft-spoken Boston charm and his hyper-masculine capacity for violence and rage. Just watch as Wahlberg alternates between a sexy, soft-spoken purr and exasperated shouting. The two leads’ chemistry make Fear genuinely sexy and it’s worth noting that, if anything, Wahlberg’s character is as sexualized as Witherspoon, if not more so.
An infamous scene in which Wahlberg’s stalker-with-a-heart-of-pure-evil digitally stimulates Witherspoon while riding a roller coaster helped usher a generation of girls into womanhood. (It probably helped some young men discover their own sexuality, as well.) The actor’s whiplash turns between ingratiating seductiveness and blinding anger makes Fear far more compelling than it has any right to be. Even back then, it was evident that Wahlberg had more to offer than a pretty face and a six-pack.
Prophetically, his career exploded the next year with Boogie Nights in a breakthrough performance every bit as brilliant and culturally important as John Travolta’s similarly superstar-making turn in Saturday Night Fever. Part of what makes Wahlberg’s portrayal as a man who rises to porn superstardom as fuck monster Dirk Diggler so poignant and powerful are the autobiographical overtones of the role.
As a former teenybopper idol masterfully carrying one of the best movies of the 1990s, Wahlberg understood intuitively what it was like for the world to look at you as nothing more than a beautiful piece of meat. Boogie Nights represents the platonic ideal of a Wahlberg role. It allows him to be funny, sexy, tender, vulnerable, yearning for family, acceptance and self-respect, to be sad and ultimately desperate for redemption. Boogie Nights has one of the greatest supporting casts in film history but Wahlberg’s tenderness and charisma is essential to its greatness. This movie didn’t just prove Wahlberg could act, it made him a bonafide star. A famous scene where a coked-up and exasperated Wahlberg tries to bully a studio employee into releasing the awful demo of him recording the Transformers: The Movie-gleaned power-ballad “The Touch” (who could have guessed that a little under two decades later Wahlberg would star in a billion-dollar-grossing live-action Transformers movie?) feels like a winking nod to Wahlberg’s half-forgotten past as a “musician.” In this context, the smartass allusion to his earlier fame only underlines how far the actor had come since stealing hearts alongside the Funky Bunch. His disarming charm and magnetism make Dirk Diggler the kind of drug-addled, larceny-minded porn star that you just want to give a big hug and make a big bowl of soup for. Diggler is like real-life porn star John Holmes, only cuddly instead of empty and evil.
If Boogie Nights made Wahlberg a star, Wahlberg’s performance in 1999’s Three Kings, the first of three essential collaborations with writer-director David O. Russell confirmed his legacy. The film cast Wahlberg in what would become a familiar role: soldier, which alongside cop, is his go-to profession.
Wahlberg has the physique and macho swagger to play an endless series of heavily armed dudes. He invariably looks the part, but in Three Kings, he plays someone smarter and more soulful and interesting than they initially appear. Wahlberg is no generic warrior, here, he gives the character a sweetness that pays off unforgettably in a scene where he pauses from figuring out a fraught situation in the war-torn Middle East to call his wife in the States while she’s looking after their baby. In Three Kings, Wahlberg is heartbreaking and funny as an ordinary family man who stumbles onto something remarkable and rises to the occasion. That’s not a bad description of his career, either.
Boogie Nights and Three Kings are huge cult films, but they were not huge box-office hits. Wahlberg didn’t star in an out-and-out commercial smash until he reunited with Three Kings co-star George Clooney in The Perfect Storm (released in 2000), a special effects extravaganza that found Wahlberg playing an actual real person. This is something he would do from then-on in movies like Invincible, The Fighter and Lone Survivor.
Wahlberg followed The Perfect Storm with the universally-reviled 2001 version of Planet Of The Apes, which despite its frigid reception was still the ninth top grossing film of the year. 2003’s The Italian Job was another box office hit but Wahlberg would not find another standout role until he re-teamed with O. Russell for I Heart Huckabees (released that same year).
Wahlberg first appears in I Heart Huckabees wearing a ratty bathrobe and a dirty undershirt, rocking a week’s worth of unflattering stubble. He looks and acts like a man in the midst of falling apart. “I don’t know if nothingness matters or somethingness matters. I’m trying to figure that out and I need you to help me,” he desperately implores his fed-up, estranged wife as she regards him with a combination of pity and derision.
It is the least likely introduction for a Mark Wahlberg character imaginable. In I Heart Huckabees, Wahlberg abandons any vestige of macho self-assurance to play a character (in another macho profession, a firefighter) who is a giant puddle of doubt, confusion, sadness and exhaustion. He’s a man desperately in search of meaning, for answers, for a purpose, for a reason to get out of bed every morning in light of the universe’s unending cruelty and randomness. Wahlberg’s fireman, when paired with his “other” (played by Jason Schwartzman), is trying to reconcile his fiercely progressive beliefs, particularly centering on a conviction that petroleum and all those who use it are evil with his complicated philosophical convictions.
“Daddy’s not crazy! The world’s crazy!” Wahlberg yells not-so-reassuringly to his daughter as he tries to explain how and why his world is unraveling. In I Heart Huckabees, the two assertions are not mutually exclusive. The presence of a rock-solid neighborhood guy like Wahlberg, a dude bro that the men in the audience can both aspire to and identity with, adds to the film’s beautiful insanity.
Rock-solid is a good description of Wahlberg’s next collaboration with Russell, who understands how to use Wahlberg’s gifts better than anybody else. Russell has cast Wahlberg as such masculine archetypes as a soldier, boxer and fireman. He just needs to cast him as a cop, a biker and a construction worker and they will have worked their way through just about all the hyper-macho types found in the Village People’s various line-ups.
In 2010’s The Fighter, the actor returned to his Massachusetts roots to play boxer Mickey Ward, a real-life friend of the actor’s. His relationship with his crack-addicted brother Mickey (played by a focus-stealing Christian Bale) forms the film’s heart. Wahlberg is overshadowed at every turn by Christian Bale’s flashy, Oscar-winning performance. (There’s also Melissa Leo’s equally big, equally Oscar-winning turn to contend with.) Still, he imbues his lead role in The Fighter with a gritty, working-class authenticity that recalls Warner Brother’s tough-guy melodramas of the 1930s and '40s. The role is once again in Wahlberg’s wheelhouse. He is particularly touching in his romance with a tough-talking barmaid played by Amy Adams, who responds to his tender advances by disparaging him as nothing but a “stepping stone”, a warm body for better fighters to defeat on their way up. When he tells Adams’ sharp-tongued cynic, “This next fight is going to show who I am,” it’s touching because he’s clearly trying to convince himself that that’s true.
She challenges him, but, like Dirk Diggler, he has faith in himself and his unlikely but very real potential for greatness. He’s a sweetheart, a gentleman in a brutal realm but he also won’t hesitate to rough up a punk he thinks is disrespecting the object of his affection. Wahlberg’s sweetness makes it strangely palatable to see a man who looks like Mark Wahlberg and beats people to a bloody pulp for a living as an underdog, a dreamer, a real-life Rocky worth rooting for. With I Heart Huckabees, Russell and Wahlberg blasted off into the stratosphere, creatively speaking. The Fighter brought them both back to earth.
The same year Wahlberg helped make Bale and Leo’s Oscars possible, he teamed up with Anchorman director Adam McKay and Will Ferrell for the subversive hit buddy comedy The Other Guys. It was the first time the actor used his comic persona for a mainstream film. The movie makes inspired use of the comic aggression and barely suppressed rage that distinguished Wahlberg’s turn in Huckabees. A running gag involving Ferrell’s milquetoast bean-counter inexplicably being perpetually frustrated with his gorgeous and seemingly perfect wife played by Eva Mendes is fairly hack. Wahlberg’s perpetually apoplectic air, the sense that he cannot conceive of a universe where a woman who looks like Mendes is not universally worshipped as a sex god, sells the gag however.
Wahlberg’s casting in The Other Guys is inspired partially because Wahlberg could very easily get cast in the non-satirical version of this story. As a comic actor, Wahlberg alternates between two antithetical but equally effective modes. He can be soft-spoken, quiet and charming, as he is in a hilarious cameo in the otherwise uninspired Date Night where he gets big laughs just by being so lust-worthy that male lead Steve Carrell can’t help but be intimidated by the way wife Tina Fey ogles him. Of course it does not hurt that he’s introduced shirtless and sweaty in what looks like a million-dollar bachelor pad. Yet Wahlberg is equally inspired in a much higher comic register; he’s particularly gifted at hoarse, high-volume comic exasperation, as evidenced by him getting as many laughs in The Other Guys as professional funnyman Will Ferrell.
When DiCaprio and Wahlberg were hungry young actors eager to shed their teen idol images in The Basketball Diaries, they never could have imagined that a little over a decade later they would be reunited in a Scorsese film. In 2006’s The Departed, Wahlberg joined Jack Nicholson, DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin, Vera Farmiga, Ray Winstone and Kevin Corrigan. He also got the best reviews and was the only member of the cast nominated for an Academy Award (for “Best Supporting Actor”). While ultimately losing out, it would be a mistake to see his role here as anything but a triumph.
As a Boston cop meaner than Satan and twice as crafty, Wahlberg doesn’t just dress down the newbie cop played by Leonardo DiCaprio, he destroys him with words. In fact, he delivers every line in William Monaghan’s slangy, propulsive, Oscar-winning script like a boxer raining devastating blow after devastating blow on a overwhelmed opponent. In The Departed, the rhythm and force of his delivery is downright pugilistic.
Of the film’s rogue’s gallery of bad cops, good cops and really bad criminals, Wahlberg plays the hardest of hard asses, the most profane of shit-talkers and the biggest swinging dick in a cast full of him. (Even Nicholson!) With The Departed, the actor didn’t just prove conclusively that he deserved to play at this level - he proved he could win. Behind his pummeling onslaught of verbal aggression was an unexpected intellectual streak.
The same year I Heart Huckabees debuted, Wahlberg cemented his status as a bro icon by executive producing Entourage, lifestyle porn loosely based on his own life and group of friends. The proto-early aughts zeitgeist-capturing smash centers on the obscenely-charmed life of Vinnie Chase, an extremely attractive actor and male starlet who is like Wahlberg minus the talent, hard work, charisma and drive. The good-looking blank slate at the show’s centre did not keep Entourage from becoming a huge hit. In the film, Wahlberg is naturally one of the slew of celebrity cameos.
In 2012, Wahlberg cuddled up as human half of Seth McFarlane’s smash-hit Ted. Wahlberg was the perfect star, in that he’s an aspirational figures for dudes, yet solidly masculine and tender enough to plausibly be best friends with a talking, weed-smoking, anthropomorphic teddy bear voiced by Seth MacFarlane. That combination of sweetness and raunch made the film yet another blockbuster and spawned an inevitable sequel.
Mark Wahlberg might not have gone to college. Hell, he dropped out of school as a troubled teenager to get into the lucrative underwear modelling business. However, as his career progressed, his characters became progressively better-educated. An intellectually rapacious fireman gave way to a classics-quoting cop in The Departed and a science teacher in The Happening. Finally, one of his characters made it all the way through grad school for 2014’s The Gambler.
The film reunites Wahlberg with Departed screenwriter William Monahan for a decidedly perverse endeavour: remaking a James Toback movie so personal, it’s practically an X-ray of the hefty filmmaker’s soul. (Toback actively spoke out against the film when it was first announced.) Wahlberg is cast against type as a professor whose gambling addiction spirals increasingly out of control. Uncharacteristically gaunt and full of nervous, weaselly bravado, Wahlberg’s man of words is intent on self-destruction. Still, the universe has other ideas for him.
To the part, Wahlberg brings the same gladiatorial poet-warrior delivery as he did in The Departed. Coming out of the mouth of a professor lecturing about Shakespeare with the aggression and general tone of a mafioso describing how he beat a man to death, it feels awfully strange. But then again, considering Toback’s pugilist of intellectual ideas and also supreme horndog persona, the academic macho combination feels oddly appropriate.
The Gambler epitomizes Wahlberg’s willingness, even eagerness, to stumble in roles that do not suit his natural gifts at all. In The Gambler, he’s fascinatingly miscast as a verbose ranter who communicates in dissertations and soliloquies. The dialogue and delivery here is so heavily stylized that it borders, at times, on some weird word jazz, poetry slam, spoken word ramble. Yet even Wahlberg’s overreaching speaks to an admirable ambition that often yields greatness or something approaching it. The same audacity that made the actor think he could pull off playing a rail-thin James Toback surrogate with a head full of fancy words and complex ideas led to genuinely brilliant turns in I Heart Huckabees and The Departed.
Afterwards, Wahlberg did the huge movie star thing and made a fortune subbing in for Shia LaBeouf (who was off being artistic) on the fourth Transformers film. He also gained a shit-ton of muscle to play an unhinged fitness junkie who gets in way over his head in 2013’s Pain & Gain, undoubtedly Michael Bay’s most offbeat and interesting film. (Although that’s setting the bar awfully low.)
Wahlberg is underrated as an actor, in part because some of his movies have connected with audiences in the worst possible way. The public remembers The Happening and Planet Of The Apes in the same way people remember the moment they found out about a loved one’s death. (Both films actually had huge grosses.) A good rule of thumb is that if Wahlberg is holding a gun on the movie poster, chances are that the film advertised will not be as good, or as distinctive, as the movies where’s he’s not wielding a weapon. I suspect even the actor might have difficulty remembering crucial details from movies like Contraband, Shooter, Max Payne, The Corruptor and Four Brothers. And he has occasionally been miscast in ways that border on perverse, as when he was slotted into the Cary Grant role in The Truth About Charlie, an ill-fated remake of Charade. There’s also the time he replaced Ryan Gosling in the dad role in Peter Jackson’s equally disastrous adaptation of The Lovely Bones, or when someone thought he’d be perfect to play a professor in The Gambler.
Wahlberg has already accomplished infinitely more than his early fame would suggest. The actor became famous because he was pretty and ripped. But he earned his success through hard work and continual growth. In the last two decades, Mark Wahlberg has carved out an impressive, seemingly permanent place in pop culture. It will be fascinating to see what he does in the decades ahead, as this one-time pretty boy moves deeper into middle age. He’s so eternally boyish that it’s jarring to see him play the father of an adult, as he does in the last Transformers movie.
Ultimately, he may need to reinvent himself once more as time works its dark magic and action-hero roles become less feasible. But then again, Wahlberg has reinvented himself dramatically and spectacularly before. You might even say it’s what’s he’s best at, more than even than dance-rap novelty ditties, underwear modeling and workout videos. As a producer, he has been a huge force behind iconic TV hits like Entourage and Boardwalk Empire. In yet another example of even his most questionable ventures crazily overachieving, Wahlburgers, a reality show about Wahlberg and his brothers running a chain of hamburger restaurants that sounds like a joke show based solely on a terrible pun, was recently nominated for “Best Reality Show” at the 2016 Emmys.
He is a quintessential success story, the affable embodiment of the American dream. It speaks to the bifurcated nature of Wahlberg’s career that further greatness undoubtedly lies in his future, just as surely as at least one more Transformers sequel does. Mark Wahlberg may have evolved into an artist and powerhouse producer, but everyone’s gotta pay their bills, especially if they have an entourage to support.