Directed by Jason Hehir
Andre the Giant charts the career and life of André René Roussimoff, a 7’4″ wrestler from France who bridged the gap between the early, regional days of WWE and the national, cable-driven heights of the performative sport.
Through the lens of his life the film discusses celebrity, myth, fame and the toll being larger than life can take on someone. His is a somber story due to the advantages and disadvantages of a disease that accelerated his growth and gave him a career built off the sheer spectacle of his appearance. That same disease, which could be curbed but not reversed, is one he decided not to seek treatment for out of fear it would jeopardize his career. The documentary presents that career as the sole thing that gave him purpose, a way of owning his own physicality and directing the eyes of strangers which he would attract anyways even without the fame.
In the early days of wrestling, Andre was not only an attraction but something of a hero. It is in the nature of wrestling, itself a scripted performance more than a brawl, to have a hero and a “heel,” one who deliberately takes the fall to raise up the hero. When Andre fought, it was an unwritten rule that he would win, but as wrestling took off and his health deteriorated, Andre turned into the heel in a nationally-televised fight with Hulk Hogan, the new golden boy of Vince McMahon’s WWE.
Though the hero and the villain are all a part of the wrestling performance, the documentary makes its case that playing the villain took a particular toll on Andre. Before it was his way of being the celebrated life of the party, a way to socialize and own his own limitations. In the later years of his life, however, playing the villain made that more difficult.
McMahon, the President of the WWE who turned it into a national sport, admits that Andre disliked him in later years. When Andre’s body began to give out under his weight and with older age, he became forgotten. In that televised bout with Hogan, we see just how much of a struggle it was for him to carry out what would normally have been routine moves.
Andre’s decline and eventual death is an almost cliché fall from grace, the kind you see in the stories of myths and larger than life characters, the ones whose gifts become their downfall. At the same time such a simplification is a betrayal of the human underneath the Andre the Giant moniker.
Jason Hehir’s documentary is enthralling because of the way it simultaneously shows Andre’s human side but also celebrates the myth he helped create and the type of myth, it seems, we all crave. We need larger than life figures to look up to, to admire, to celebrate in a way, I suppose, of staving off our own mortality. It’s the extreme celebration of a single person that makes that person seem to rise above us, as if we’ve all taken out a piece of ourselves and added it to that person’s celebrity. By giving them our attention and perhaps something deeper than that we build them up, and in that way we might subconsciously be extending ourselves, our own lives and influence. Maybe it’s not that unlike Voldemart’s horcruxes. That should actually be Voldemort, but I’m going to keep the misspelling in there, because the idea of Voldemort starting a Walmart-like super chain tickles me.
With that rise, though, comes an inevitable fall. No one is more than human, at least not yet. You hear it sometimes among friends, when a celebrity passes away, that it seems as though that person could never die. How could it be that someone who had such an unknowingly meaningful role in our lives simple disappear? In a way they don’t because your relationship to that celebrity is generally unaffected by their death. The way you listen to their music or watch their movies, that will remain unchanged as long as what they’ve left behind remains. Even when someone so famous dies, they haven’t really, at least not from an outsider’s perspective.
But they have to the people who knew them intimately and on a human level. Andre the Giant interviews outside admirers, the people to whom Andre might as well still be around in some faded way, as well as the people who knew him deeply. There is his family in France, a close friend and the people who maintained his ranch in North Carolina while he was out on the road.
There is a compelling duality to this movie, one that I think I might be severely overanalyzing but one which fascinates me because it’s in our lives every single day. We consume celebrity, in one way or another, whether we realize it or not. It might be that I’m grasping at straws here, but bear with me.
This morning I listened to the beginnings of an audiobook on Dwight D. Eisenhower, a man who never knew me but whose life is giving me some kind of stimulation, whether as information or entertainment or both. Later I will watch a baseball game or two played by people I feel like I’ve known pretty well for anywhere from 1 to 10 years now. These are players for whom I’ve carved some space out in my heart (cheesy I know, but stay with me) because of certain memories I hold dear. One of those players is Buster Posey.
I remember the day Buster Posey was called up to the big leagues in 2010. He had three singles, and it was the same day I graduated high school. I remember going to see the second Iron Man with my sister and future brother-in-law. I remember feeling a bit melancholy but for some reason hanging onto the hope Posey’s arrival offered to me.
I remember sitting at a friend’s high school graduation the night Buster Posey hit his first Major League home run agains the Cincinnati Reds, a deep shot that closely mirrored the one he would hit off Mat Latos in the NLDS a little over two years later. I remember filming the reaction of my freshman dorm-mates when Buster Posey caught the third strike that ended the 2010 World Series. I remember the self-inflicted pain of purposefully rewatching Posey get run over by Scott Cousins in May of 2011, a collision which would knock him out for the rest of the year.
In 2013 I had the summer to myself in a two-bedroom apartment while my roommates went home for a couple months and (thankfully) neglected to have anyone fill their abandoned rooms. I was lying on the couch I spent every night sleeping on watching the end of what should’ve been a boring game between the Padres and Giants when Tim Lincecum threw a no hitter. I still remember the bear hug a smiling Posey used to embrace the slender pitcher. It was a heartwarming scene, one with added importance since bloggers and commenters online were theorizing that the struggling pitcher and catcher had a strained relationship off the field. How could any of us know that and yet we continued to wonder.
By now Buster Posey has played 9 seasons for the team I’ve grown up loving. He’s past his prime, as far as baseball standards go, but he remains the face of the franchise. I see him on jerseys worn around the community and on cheesy Toyota commercials.
The point is that Buster Posey has no idea who I am, and by now I’ve spent hours that add up to days and probably even weeks, thinking about him. And he’s just one of many people like that. Hell, about 9 months ago I met the two lead singers of my favorite band, and I don’t think my heart has ever raced that much.
Anyways, celebrity is a big part of our lives, but with that rise comes a fall. Someone like Buster Posey might slowly fade from my life. Someday he’ll retire, and I won’t hear about him unless he drops by the announcer’s booth during a broadcast or becomes a tv analyst. Other celebrities disappear much more sharply. I never knew much about his music, but I had certainly heard of Avicii, and I write this only days after he died far too early.
What am I saying? People rise and fall, and for some celebrities the fall feels much more severe, from the outside, than death. You have people like Britney Spears or Lindsay Lohan who seem to have been entirely consumed by their own celebrity, by the thing other people, we, have thrust upon them. There’s a certain morbid curiosity in watching those who have been given more than we will ever receive, fall to what we perceive as rock bottom.
You hear of so many people who can’t handle celebrity, some who even die from it.
Okay, so the real point, I guess, is that Andre the Giant touches on our need for celebrity and the enjoyment someone might get from fulfilling that need. But then sometimes you’re the villain, and the documentary briefly shows the burden this can have on someone. Even still the documentary remains a tribute to Andre and the positive roles celebrity can have in our culture.
We need people like that, but there’s a dark side to that need as well. Jeeze, I really made this a negative sentiment, huh? It’s a good documentary, a celebration of Andre’s life, one that doesn’t indulge in the dark sides of fame the way I have.
Up Next: Earth Girls Are Easy (1988), One Wonderful Sunday (1947), The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail (1945)