04/08/2014 02:01 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Requiem for a Heavyweight -- One Of Rooney's Finest


Mickey Rooney as "Army" in "Requiem for a Heavyweight"

I was a little ghetto girl when I first "met" Mickey Rooney on my TV screen. He was Andy Hardy that first time -- this really white kid growing up in the kind of family we thought all white families were like. Of course they weren't. But he made me believe they were.

I loved his energy. And that earnest, elastic face. Rooney walked chest out, head high -- a little "mannish boy" as my relations would've called him, strutting across the screen.

He and Judy Garland even made me believe a couple of kids could get together and put on a big Busby Berkeley-style show in... well... their backyards, if they wanted to. Okay, we knew better, but it didn't stop us from emulating them, creating crazy little "all singing, all dancing" variety shows in our backyards to annoy the neighbors.

Actually, our neighbors liked them. It was a vibrant Black neighborhood where people whistled -- and sang -- while they worked, inside and outside. And there were big barbecue parties on weekends -- everybody danced and sang then. So Hardy's world wasn't really all that different from ours. At least in that sense.

Later, I saw Boys Town. And that wasn't "my" Mickey Rooney. This Mickey Rooney was a tough egg, more like the boys I actually hung out with. I was dumbfounded. Fascinated. And, in the end, deeply affected by "Whitey." Yes, the kid's name vexed me a little bit, but Rooney made me believe a kid like that could win against all odds. And I shed tears of joy when he did.

He made a pretty good bad boy, that Rooney. And yet, I was totally unprepared, decades later, for his gritty, unflinchingly, unflatteringly realistic portrayal of Army, in Rod Serling's searing Requiem for a Heavyweight.

Heavyweight is a grim tale about a boxer who dwells in the limbo land of "what could have been." Poignantly played by Anthony Quinn, he's a shambling, punch drunk, vaguely Mexican/Native American hulk named Mountain Rivera, whose Quasimodo face tells the whole sordid story.

Rooney is the "conscience" of the film, a counterbalance to Maish, the cruel, calculating boxing manager played by another "former funny man," Jackie Gleason. And their tale takes a harrowing, heart-rending turn when Rivera is forced to relinquish his last shard of dignity by "taking a dive" to save Maish from local loan sharks.

Rooney's uncharacteristically understated performance is brilliant. It's almost Whitey again -- a Whitey who slipped through the Boys Town safety net and landed squarely in the demimonde, chafed and chastened.

He saw through Maish the manager long ago. But he cares for trusting, childlike Rivera like an older brother trying to put off the inevitable for as long as he can. He fails, of course. The underworld is more formidable than any foe Rivera faced in the ring.

In the final scene, Rivera emerges from his dressing room wearing a ridiculous "Indian" costume complete with fake braids, Halloween head dress and toy tomahawk. Forced to become a "wrestler" to work off Maish's debts, Rivera has finally hit absolute bottom. Army can only watch. And weep.

It is a crucifixion, that scene. And as he looks on, silently sobbing, Rooney makes us feel and understand the incredible sacrifice this poor man has made.

It is, for me, Rooney's finest movie moment. Andy Hardy grew up to be a helluva man.

Image credit: screenshot by "stillafool," Pixhost