With WrestleMania 39 set to kick off on April 1, and Polygon contributor Abraham Josephine Riesman’s new book Ringmaster: Vince McMahon and the Unmaking of America set to enter the ring on March 28, we’re spending the week grappling with pro wrestling — and everything it’s shaped.
Terry “Hulk Hogan” Bollea is one of the most recognizable cultural figures of all time, and not just due to fame accrued as the figurehead of the World Wrestling Federation in the second half of the 1980s. His iconic physical features during that heyday — the golden blond hair and mustache, the hot dog tan, the ketchup-and-mustard color scheme on his easily-tearable shirts, the biceps and chest that made him a hazard to doorways across America — established his place in history as more mascot than man.
So, when it came time to cash in on that notoriety in a series of movie roles that would take Hogan out of the squared circle and put him in front of Hollywood cameras, a grand experiment occurred. Could Hogan, the pro wrestling star known for riling up the crowd and then dropping a meaty thigh on a downed opponent’s throat, translate his popularity to film? The answer would soon reveal itself in the resoundingly negative. Hogan was never quite meant for the red carpet, and the results of trying to put him there show the limits of translating a very specific character into another medium.
In a way, it was his first shot in the movies that proved to be the best exercise of his potential, one that took place a few years prior to him becoming professional wrestling’s most recognizable figurehead. In 1982, Hogan was working for the American Wrestling Association, first as a heel and then as a beloved face, a representative of pro wrestling’s evolution as grand spectacles of heroes and villains usurped any claims of the medium being a true athletic competition. It was here that he appeared in Rocky III, itself a movie about glorious pageantry replacing formerly hard-fought drama, as “Thunderlips,” a pro wrestler that faces the titular boxer in an exhibition match. It would be the biggest film that Hogan would ever star in, and perhaps it helped that it could cash in on some of Hogan’s best traits while not being forced to contend with him as a superstar.
In the film, Hogan is an obvious outlier to the regular human form — he dwarfs a positively ripped Sylvester Stallone and chucks him around the ring with aplomb. For the most part, Hogan’s given standard pro wrestling dialogue and insults, grunting with bared teeth and eventually getting tossed out of the ring himself by Stallone. But he’s never lacking in presence, a kind of charisma that means you’re flexing for the back row, even on a movie screen. If you can work around the fact that his delivery is sometimes wooden, you can make Hogan happen.
Pro wrestling and Hollywood aren’t exactly strangers. Mr. T, who plays the archrival to Stallone in Rocky III, went on to team up with Hogan in the main event of the first WrestleMania. And cinemas aren’t bereft of “sports entertainers” nowadays either — Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, John Cena, and Dave Bautista, just to name a few, have all made successful leaps to movie careers. But they’ve all required a bit of finessing, a balancing act that means capitalizing on the inherent physicality and visceral appeal that a wrestler provides with the finer points of narrative and character work. At their best, you get something like Johnson in Fast Five or Cena in Peacemaker or Bautista’s understated performance in Knock at the Cabin.
At their worst, you get someone like Hogan, who wasn’t able to convert his specific brand of charisma from a ring to the screen. In the ring, Hogan was masterful. His movements were broad and outsized, making him an action figure in real life. And though history would reveal his set of moves to be fairly limited, his expressions — all huge gestures of happiness, betrayal, and (usually) triumph — made him a pleasure to watch, even when it played like camp. Turning that into a film character was putting a square peg into a circular hole, and filmmakers would try it over and over again.
His first leading role was in 1989’s No Holds Barred, a movie produced by the WWF that starred Hogan as a pro wrestler named Rip Thomas, with every facet of his persona based on Hulk’s. Even though it seems like it would play to Hogan’s strengths in the most obvious fashion, the film struggles in every direction. Hogan is never really given an emotion that tests him, and when he tries to deliver anything other than outsized brutishness, it feels misplaced. The jokes, usually juvenile gags that might delight kids in the front row, are similarly disoriented.
It doesn’t help that the plot plays out like a couple of wrestling scenarios strung together: A mean guy named Zeus wants to violently fight Hogan, a man who is dedicated to being a good example to children. Zeus beats up Hogan’s little brother and now Hogan wants revenge. That revenge comes at a huge event where Hogan emerges victorious. It’s all simple stuff that would satisfyingly culminate in a pay-per-view match at Madison Square Garden, but in a movie just stretches an audience’s patience thin.
Zeus (played by actor “Tiny” Lister) would go on to wrestle in a few WWF matches, with the film’s promotion evolving into a kind of side career for the big man. Hogan, on the other hand, would see Hollywood work throughout the early ’90s, starring in films and TV series like Suburban Commando, Mr. Nanny, Thunder in Paradise, The Secret Agent Club, and Santa With Muscles. Half of them are built around a single joke — Hulk Hogan is huge, so what if he did (insert gentle domestic activity here)? The other half are stock adventure roles, with Hogan filling whatever brawny stereotypes the films required. All of them play like abandoned Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicles (Suburban Commando actually was), and Schwarzenegger had an aspirational charm that Hogan lacked.
With Hogan’s only standout performance being when he played himself in a brief, loud cameo in Gremlins 2: The New Batch, it became clear that his push as a Hollywood attraction was doomed. It was a fall that coincided with Hogan’s own in the pro wrestling world, as WWF event numbers that had seen blazing heat in the late ’80s had cooled down by the mid-’90s. It wouldn’t be until Hogan reinvented himself as the villainous “Hollywood” Hogan in 1996 in World Championship Wrestling that he’d return to the spotlight and a similar level of cultural renown.
Hogan was never a bad actor in the same way that we typically define it. Bad acting usually appears like a void on screen, taking whatever potential a role had and disintegrating it painfully before our eyes. It’s stilted and bland and monotone. Hogan, on the other hand, had his aptitude for the arc of a WWF promo or a big match totally put to waste in a 90-minute movie. In a match, the pained expression of being on the receiving end of a body slam, or the climactic wave of the finger in an opponent’s face to let them know that Hogan and the 20,000 screaming Hulkamaniacs in the stadium won’t put up with the heel’s bullshit anymore, make sense. It’s Hogan in his purest form.
But Hogan doesn’t work if Hulk Hogan isn’t Hulk Hogan, even if, as we saw in No Holds Barred, he’s meant to pretty much be Hulk Hogan. It’s more than a fish out of water — it’s speaking different languages of performance. In Suburban Commando, there’s a scene where Hulk’s character (an intergalactic warrior that crash-lands on Earth and befriends a family) becomes confused by the actions of a mime. As the mime pretends to be trapped in an invisible box, Hogan grows worried and eventually punches the mime to the ground in an attempt to break him out.
It’s a pretty succinct metaphor for Hogan’s entire acting career. Far away from his home in the middle of a ring, he tried to grapple with a kind of performance that’s totally alien to him. There, he applied his talents in the only way he really knew how — in outsized, ill-fitting physicality and mannerisms. For better or for worse, Hulk Hogan is best when he’s being Hulk Hogan.