' ' Cinema Romantico: Andre the Giant

Tuesday, July 03, 2018

Andre the Giant

Throughout HBO’s original documentary “Andre the Giant”, the one person we never hear from is Andre the Giant himself – that is, Andre Roussimoff, the professional wrestling superstar. That, of course, is because Roussimoff, 7’4 and suffering from acromegaly, died tragically at the age of 43. I mean, we do hear from him, in old interviews as well as in the myriad recorded spots he did for the WWF (World Wrestling Federation), but these are all filtered through the gaze of time or, in the case of the latter, deliberate theatrical fabrication. As such, Roussimoff himself remains sort of shrouded in myth, as he generally was throughout his life, very much present and real yet still somehow towering over anyone, seen, heard, even touched, but somehow still out of view. A stock photo in the early-going captures it best, of a young child standing down here Andre the Giant’s ankles, looking up in awe with a smile that can’t quite believe what he’s seeing. Imagine, the doc seems to be saying with this clip, that everyone looked at you like that all the time.

“Andre the Giant” spends minimal time on Roussimoff’s childhood, more or less reducing it to siblings’ bewilderment when, as a teenager, their brother just kept growing. I kept yearning for a glimpse at Roussimoff’s diary, literally or theoretically, to have some grasp about how someone feels at that tender age when his body is going through changes no one can quite process. Still, in its own way this dearth of pre-mythology is sort of beneficial to director Jason Hehir’s tone, reminiscent of the opening minutes of “Man on Wire” where tightrope walker extraordinaire Philippe Petit just sort of brushes past those being-brought-up details by re-calibrating his own childhood as a kind of origin story. For Roussimoff, it all really began when he began growing.

As Hehir makes clear, the rise of Andre the Giant and nascent professional wrestling itself were intertwined. To novices like me who really only know the sport through the sleazy braggadocio of its overseer, Vince McMahon, it is interesting to note that pro wrestling came up like so many American athletic enterprises – that is, as a regional entity first before eventually going national. And in showing how Andre the Giant spent time across the whole swath of provincial wrestling leagues, his rise is not only tied to the sport’s ultimate unification under a massive umbrella but shown to essentially be the catalyst. At Wrestlemania III, in the Main Event, Andre the Giant retained the power to put, so to speak, the now-famous mustachioed Hulk Hogan over the top. Roussimoff did, though Hogan suggests he was made to sweat it out behind the scenes, which was proof of both Andre the Giant’s edgy playfulness and big heart.

Both those details emerge best in multiple talking heads simply regaling us with Andre the Giant stories, whether demonstrating how the unthinkable size of Roussimoff’s hands could dwarf a whole human being’s head or ruminate at length on the impressive amount of alcohol he was able to imbibe in a single setting. After so many of these stories, however, the tone turns more melancholy as those same talking heads note how his alcohol intake was obviously the signal of deeper emotional trouble and how the size of his hands connoted his overall otherworldly size that rendered acts the rest of us take for granted, like riding in a car or flying in an airplane, as agony. (An archival photo of his sitting in a cramped airplane seat, drenched in sweat, is a swift evocation of his everyday hardship.) The former directly informed the latter, and the documentary lets that take shape bit by bit until, like everyone interviewed, you feel as if it’s too late to stop the slide.

Early in the film we hear Roussimoff voice his desire “to be somebody.” In a certain context that age-old line imbues sadness about one who really is, though in Andre the Giant’s case that desire seemed less an active choice than a conscription by fate. There is another old adage, one proffering that you can do anything you put your mind to, and maybe Roussimoff could have, because as the documentary points out he was well ahead of the curve in seeing what marrying sports and entertainment could elicit. But it’s hard to look at Andre the Giant and not think his body just sort of decided for him.

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