Cinema cage match!

A longtime writer for Eddie Murphy directs an alluring doc on the weird world of pro wrestling. Why is WWF capo Vince McMahon trying to pile-drive it?


Michael Sragow
March 16, 2000 10:00PM (UTC)

Barry W. Blaustein, a co-screenwriter of
"The Nutty Professor" and a longtime
writer for Eddie Murphy, just wanted to
make a documentary on his closet passion
for pro wrestling. He didn't count on
winding up in a cage match with the
World Wrestling Federation's colorful,
pugnacious impresario, Vince McMahon.

But Blaustein's searching documentary on
the sport, "Beyond the Mat," has come
under fire from McMahon and his powerful
franchise, culminating in a
cease-and-desist letter aimed at
disrupting the movie's advertising
campaign.

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McMahon is a charismatic on-camera
presence in the movie; at one point he
even wanted to invest in it. But now
he's told his wrestlers that they can't
help promote the film -- and he's used
his muscle to keep the film's
commercials off his shows. Blaustein
says McMahon has even worked to bar TV
ads from two networks -- a charge that
the WWF denies. The contretemps has
chagrined both Blaustein and his
distributor, Lions Gate Releasing.

Mark Urman, co-president of Lions Gate,
has said, "Mr. McMahon has decided that
he doesn't like our film, so now he
wants to prevent wrestling fans
nationwide, who so far have embraced the
film, from finding out about it."

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How could such a battle come about --
and with such unlikely combatants?

Blaustein and his comedy partner, David
Sheffield, have been writing for Murphy
ever since the three joined "Saturday
Night Live" in 1980. Blaustein and
Sheffield share credit with other
writers on "The Nutty Professor" (1996)
and on the forthcoming "Nutty II: The
Klumps," which Blaustein vows is better
than the first.

But for a decade longer than he's known
Murphy, Blaustein has been a fan of
professional wrestling. When he was a
kid in Westbury, N.Y., his dad would
take him to wrestling bouts in West
Hempstead and Queens. Blaustein never
lost his love for it -- nor his
embarrassment over it.

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Five years ago, he decided to make a
documentary about his secret passion,
which he admits not even his wife or his
two teenage children understand. The
finished film, "Beyond the Mat" (which
opens Friday nationwide) made the
preliminary list of nominees for the
best documentary Oscar and earned
Blaustein a nomination from the
Directors Guild of America. It's a
potent piece of work, full of unresolved
arguments and emotions. It leaves you in
a state of visceral confusion toward
intelligent, capable men who get paid
for being bashed.

The film's hero is Mick Foley, aka
Mankind, a sane, humorous family guy and
the bestselling autobiographer of "Have
a Nice Day: A Tale of Blood and
Sweatsocks." Blaustein considers his
Long Island homeboy the most normal
wrestler he's ever met. But you feel
like prosecuting Foley for child abuse
when he allows his pint-size son and
daughter to watch his friendly rival,
the Rock, beat him mercilessly around
the ring.

That sequence is typical of the jolts in
"Beyond the Mat," which range from the
sublime to the ludicrous -- from hearing
a teacher-turned-wrestler talk
Shakespeare while blood pours down his
face to seeing McMahon audition a
wrestler and dub him "Puke" because he
can throw up on demand.

You mostly see Blaustein from the back
of his gray-blond head, but there's no
confusion about where he stands. From
beginning to end, he's solidly
pro-wrestling. He likes it, though he
can't tell exactly why.

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Which makes it all the more ironic that
the film has put him at loggerheads with
McMahon.

"When I approached Vince, wrestling was
not as big as it is now," Blaustein
recalled during a recent visit to San
Francisco. "And Vince was getting a
strong challenge from Ted Turner's
wrestling group, World Championship
Wrestling. I told Vince I wanted to do a
movie to show why I like wrestling and
to give non-fans an appreciation of what
these guys go through. Not everybody can
do what they do -- can go through the
pain and still be these extraordinary
performers -- and I thought they should
be treated with respect. Usually,
everything about wrestling is either
negative or condescending. I promised
Vince that this wouldn't be either."

McMahon didn't merely cooperate with
Blaustein, he offered to triple his
budget. Blaustein said no -- he wanted
to maintain journalistic independence.
Still, McMahon kept bidding to buy the
movie. Michael Rosenberg, the president
of the film's production company,
Imagine, says, "During the three years
of production on 'Beyond the Mat,' the
WWF, through its owner, Vince McMahon,
continued to try and convince Imagine to
allow him to be an investor in the
film." According to Blaustein, when
McMahon saw the movie, he called Imagine
and said, "Name your price." But Imagine
turned him down.

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The rebuff was apparently not what the
scrappy WWF kingpin -- a bad-boy
wrestling icon himself -- wanted to
hear. Blaustein says, "Vince told me
it's not the film he would have made: 'I
like to put smiles on people's faces,'
he said, 'but I think you did a great
job, and I have no regrets knowing you.
I'm just not going to do anything that
would help you promote it.'"

He didn't want his wrestlers to promote
it, either. "Six weeks ago, Mick Foley
appeared on 'Good Morning, America' with
me; Diane Sawyer said she'd never been a
fan of wrestling but the film made her
look on it as a different thing. Vince
was very unhappy about that. He said,
'If any of these guys appear on any
other programs with you, they do so at
career risk. And if you care so much
about Mick -- if he's your friend, as
you claim him to be -- then you'll have
him do nothing else.'"

McMahon's hardball tactics escalated.
Lions Gate contends that the magnate is
performing a pile driver on its ad
campaign by vetoing TV spots for the
film during the WWF wrestling shows "Raw
is War," "Sunday Night Heat" and
"SmackDown." (The company has retaliated
by putting them on the Web.

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Blaustein believes that McMahon went
further. "He put pressure on UPN and USA
not to run any commercials for the movie
on any USA program or on any UPN
program," Blaustein says.

Jim Byrne, senior vice president for
marketing at the WWF, says that the
company stands by its "longstanding
policy" not to accept advertising for
its TV shows from what he called
"third-party wrestling product --
anything that isn't owned, controlled or
managed by WWF Entertainment, Inc." He
says there's "no truth" to the charge
that the WWF pressured UPN and USA
networks to decline advertising for
"Beyond the Mat" on shows not produced
by the WWF. And he chalks up the tangled
relations between Blaustein and the WWF
to misrepresentation on the filmmaker's
part.

Says Byrne: "It was originally
characterized as an art-house film, done
as a major labor of love in 1997." But
in the eyes of the WWF the film now
appears to be "not an art-house film,
but a major motion picture backed by
major Hollywood players and a highly
commercial venture." According to Byrne,
WWF executives expected it to be shot
and completed in 1997; McMahon continued
to give Blaustein access precisely
because he thought it was "an art-house
film and labor of love. When we
expressed interest, going back a year
ago, for some financial stake in the
film, [it was because] it uses our
likenesses, trademarks and characters."
But when the WWF honchos did take a look
at the movie, in December, "We lost all
emotional attachment to it. It just
wasn't entertaining."

When I mentioned to Byrne that "Beyond
the Mat" is only opening in 175
theaters, and that Lions Gate is
primarily an art-house distributor, he
countered, with a laugh: "We all know
about 'Blair Witch Project'!" That
comparison, at least, should make
Blaustein happy.

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UPN says, "No comment;" the USA network
did not offer a response.

But Blaustein insists, "These
broadcasters are bowing down to Vince.
It's a frightening precedent. This movie
is not negative toward Vince and the
WWF. I think Vince's attitude is, if I
can't have the film, I'm not going to
let anybody else know about it."

Astonishingly, major newspapers by and
large ignored this story. "They say, 'Oh
it's just business.' But no it's not,
guys, there's a civil liberties issue
here. It doesn't matter if we have 600
TV stations -- if they are all owned by
the same people, there's no freedom of
choice. This is the nightmare scenario
of synergy and of vertical integration."

As if to prove Blaustein's point, a week
after we talked, the lead story on the
New York Times' business page was about
the "struggle for ownership" at UPN,
which is complicated by the pending
merger of UPN's co-owner, Viacom, and
CBS. The story does not mention "Beyond
the Mat," but it does emphasize the
weight McMahon carries with Viacom and
how valuable McMahon's WWF is to CBS,
which reportedly wants Viacom to buy the
rest of UPN from Chris-Craft Industries.

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"I don't like what Vince is doing," says
Blaustein, "but from a promoting
standpoint and an entrepreneurial
standpoint you have to step back and
say, 'He's good at it.' And I have seen
a softer side of the guy on occasion. I
think he's been playing an SOB in the
ring for so long he feels he's got to
act that way outside of it all the time.
I like to think the best of all people,
so I hope Vince knows somewhere that
what he's doing is ultimately wrong."

Blaustein says that when he went to the
New York Times to rouse interest in his
tale, he got turned down: "They say,
'Our readers don't watch wrestling.'
Well, you'd be surprised who watches
wrestling. The demographics of wrestling
are higher than the demographics of
Major League Baseball.

"Ironically," Blaustein continues, "The
WCW, Ted Turner's outfit, didn't sign a
release [to have its own wrestlers
appear in 'Beyond the Mat.']. They
wanted to have some sort of editorial
control, so they're not in the movie.
But when the movie had its Academy
Award-qualifying run in L.A., a couple
of WCW guys were in town and saw it.
They called me up -- the person who
wouldn't sign the release is no longer
there -- and said, 'Boy, you've done
something wonderful for the industry, we
really regret not being in it.' They're
running the ads, even though they have
their own movie coming out a month from
now! And not only are they running ads
for my picture, they're having their
guys talk about it on the air! They
don't have problems at all."

Blaustein believes that if more
mainstream media covered wrestling the
way he does in his film -- or the way
Meltzer does in his online newsletter
and others do on Internet "dirt sheets"
that treat wrestling as a business --
more people would be drawn into its
strange amalgam of sport and
entertainment. "You've got to understand
wrestling fans are a lot more
knowledgeable about what's going on than
non-wrestling fans. They suspend their
disbelief -- it's like going to a
movie."

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"Beyond the Mat" starts with you
saying that you can't explain why you
like wrestling. But at some point you
must have come to grips with it. Is that
statement a kind of posture, so that we
in the audience know we're going to see
wrestlers without a lot of external
editorializing? Or is it totally true?

It's totally true. At one time I thought
I was going to analyze why I like it.
Essentially it came down to, I just do.
I knew I loved the theatricality. I knew
I loved the in-your-face element. At one
time I thought I was going to analyze
why I like it. [He laughs derisively.]
Is it the repressed homosexuality? Is it
because I didn't challenge a kid to a
fight in seventh grade? And I realized
that after all these years, I just don't
know why. At the beginning I wanted to
state that this is not "a study of
wrestling as a popular social phenomenon
and the effect it has on people." It's a
view of the wrestling world from the
perspective of a guy who likes it. He's
embarrassed he likes it, and up until
recently he would never tell another
human being he likes it. To this day,
I'm not proud I like it. But the only
thing that makes me wonder why I like it
now is that it's become so mainstream
and so popular, it's lost that tainted,
dirty feeling, which I enjoy so much. Up
till now, it's been something you're not
supposed to like, which gives you more
reason to like it.

You include a clip of Max Von Sydow
saying, 'Can you imagine the level of a
mind that watches wrestling?'

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That's from "Hannah and Her Sisters" --
Woody Allen! It's the first time Woody
Allen has lent a clip out to anything.
And I was real excited because now I
have a framed contract, a release,
between me and Woody Allen. But I was
more excited because at the end of the
movie I was able to put in "Personal
thanks to Woody Allen and to Afa the
Wild Samoan" one after the other -- a
great combination.

Hasn't wrestling changed tremendously
since you started watching it 30 years
ago?

Yeah, it's changed, but there are more
similarities than differences. It's just
more hyped. Like movies today --
everything is amped up more. The
characters and the violence are more
extreme. But the same essential
theatricality was always prevalent. I
like the outrageousness of it and the
political incorrectness of it.

Of course, there are things that make me
uncomfortable. I met a lot of midget
wrestlers -- I'm not going to say
"vertically challenged wrestlers." There
are not many of them left; they are
almost always older guys. They're always
the big comedy act. I never thought I
minded it, but I remember even as a kid
I thought it was humiliating when a ref
picked up a midget wrestler and spanked
him. I always thought, "Was that really
needed?" And I asked them, "Was this
really going too far?" And they said,
"No, it was part of the show and we were
getting paid good money."

For non-fans like myself, what's
shocking about your movie is how much
real punishment these guys take. We all
grow up thinking it's choreographed and
thus harmless.

It is choreographed, but these are huge
bodies! When they get hit with a chair,
people think, "Oh, it's a fake chair." I
don't even know what the concept of a
fake chair is. They are getting hit over
the head with real metal chairs, and
when they land on concrete, they land on
concrete. The rings are not that padded
and the ropes are really hard -- that
was the big shocker to me. And when you
see blood, it's real blood -- it's not
capsules, it's blood, whether it's
self-inflicted or not.

Vince McMahon said to me once -- when we
were talking -- "It's funny. In the past
the industry would go, 'It's real, it's
real, it's real, it's real, it's real,
it's real,' but it was just pulled
muscles and stuff, not life-threatening.
Now everyone goes, 'It's sports
entertainment, it's fake, it's fake,
it's fake,' and the reality is guys are
really brutalizing themselves in the
ring."

Unfortunately, you have fans who go, "OK
-- you exploded yourself this time, what
can you do next? How are you going to
top that?" That's why I am glad Mick
Foley is retired and out of wrestling; I
think it is going to stick longer than
most wrestling retirements. He retired
two or three weeks ago; ironically, the
day after Vince started pulling ads.

Since you bring him up -- let's jump
ahead to the climax of the movie. You
present Mick Foley as a prince, but then
you show him bringing his little kids to
a match where he ends up with a bandaged
head.

Mick was going to bring his kids
regardless. The WWF had wanted his wife
at that match; they wanted to showcase
him having a decent, regular wife and
family, though they backed away from it
the day before. The kids wanted to be
there, but I said, "Mick, you know, I
think this is a bad decision. As a
father, I think this is bad." And Mick
was like, "But the kids really want to
go, they'll be prepared." And Mick did
ask the kids if they really wanted to
go, and did try to keep them from being
scared. He did tell them that the Rock
is his friend. As you see in the movie,
the Rock goes to meet them and is really
good with the kids. But the reality is
no matter how well you prepare them,
they're still seeing Daddy being
brutalized.

Mick spoke to me about two weeks
afterward and asked how the footage of
the kids watching the match turned out.
I said, "Mick, it's horrendous, it's
absolutely horrendous." And he said,
"You know, the kids seemed fine
backstage afterwards." And you know,
even if Mick was bleeding, the kids were
kind of fine -- he never let go of his
daughter or his son's hand. So I wanted
to show Mick this footage for two
reasons: First, he needed to see it.
Second, from an editorial standpoint, I
didn't want the last image of Mick to be
that he's a terrible human being and
father. Because I've been around him
long enough to know that he's a
wonderful father. He made a mistake in
judgment. I'm a parent -- we make
mistakes in judgment. That happens. And
you like to be accountable, particularly
when you make bad ones. I thought part
of what was happening was that when
you're in this lifestyle for so long,
you lose all perspective on everything.

My editor was against me showing it to
Mick. My wife warned me, "You like Mick
a lot. And although he has no editorial
control whatsoever, he's going to want
it out of the movie. And you're not
going to want to take it out." So I
brought it with me when I went to shoot
the footage of him playing with his
kids. Before he saw it, he kept saying,
"I don't think it was so bad -- the kids
got a trip to Disneyland." Finally, when
I decided to show it to him, I had
someone take the kids out for ice cream,
because I didn't want them to see it or
see the reaction Mick would have. And it
was hard -- like really punching someone
who dares you to hit him in the stomach.
It was devastating to him. But actually,
as I was leaving he said, "You know, it
doesn't make me look particularly
wonderful, but I think you should keep
it in the film, because it's important."
I was going to keep it in anyway, but I
appreciated that.

One thing I kept saying to my editor,
Jeff Werner, who did a terrific job, is
that rather than keep going back to what
the footage shows, we should go back to
the way I felt about these people when I
was there. Because let's face it,
footage isn't holy -- you can manipulate
it any way you want. That's why I
desperately wanted to get Mick's
reaction to the footage and put it in
the film. Because if people would see
how he reacts and still think he's an
awful human being -- well, so be it, I
guess that's their prerogative. When
Mick saw the final film, he felt really
proud to be in it. But he asked whether
his son, Dewey, was in it as much as
Noelle. He just wanted to be sure that
one child wasn't favored over the other,
and that sums him up.

That's what's so befuddling!

It is confusing, but it's not a
black-and-white world we live in. It's
all grays, man.

Is there a kind of mental and
emotional as well as physical numbing
you need to go through to participate in
this sport?

Very much so. And I think that's one of
the reasons Mick has stopped; he
realized he can't go on like this any
more.

You always like Mick, even when he
errs. But then there's Jake the Snake
Roberts, a charismatic loner who has
demons, who does crack, and who spends
five minutes with his daughter when he
first meets her after a four-year
absence. Your feelings about him must
have changed continuously.

That's one of the things I hope to
capture in the film. Jake would remind
me of Sam Elliott; he would look great
on camera, and had this great voice.
There are times when he's very charming
and you feel sorry for him. And there
are times like after he left his
daughter when I would want to throw him
out of the car and I would think, this
is the most disgusting human being.

It would be interesting to do a
fictional treatment of Jake. Wrestlers
had told me to be careful around him:
They warned me, "You'll really think he
likes you, and then you'll be stuck in
the middle of nowhere because he'll take
your car." And I remember when we were
driving, I think through Kansas -- on
the third or fourth day we made a stop,
and Jake said, "It's kind of cold, why
don't you give me the keys to the car
and I'll meet you inside?" And I said,
"Jake, I'm not going to give you the
keys to the car and let you leave me
here." And then he smiles that devilish
smile and says, "Barry, I would never do
that to you."

Terry Funk, the aging happy warrior,
is the opposite of Jake. You say that
Funk was your favorite wrestler growing
up -- and at the end of the film he is
still one of your favorites.

In seven days with Jake he ultimately
bad-mouthed everybody, except Terry
Funk. I tried to goad him, and say,
"Don't you have anything bad to say
about Terry?" And he would say [in
Jake's gravelly voice], "Terry's good;
Terry's one of the few good ones. The
only good one. Well, there are a few
others."

Terry is about to become a grandfather
and he's wrestling again, despite his
lousy knees and everything. Terry is
wonderful. There would be no movie
without Terry Funk. Terry is respected
in the wrestling business, as a wrestler
and as a person, as a man of principle,
the way Lou Gehrig was in baseball.
Terry signed on early and opened doors
for me. He would call up other wrestlers
and vouch for me. In the course of the
film he announced his retirement, and I
went to cover his retirement match. Then
he went back to wrestling. And I got
calls saying, "He went back to wrestle
again, this is going to ruin the film!"
I went, "Please, I'm not that naive."
Because when we started it was like, [in
Terry's soft Texas accent] "I'm going to
do my last match." Then it was like,
"I'm going to do my last match in the
United States." Then towards the end it
was like, "I'm going to do my last match
in Amarillo." Terry has had more
retirements than fill-in-the-blank has
had facelifts.

There's a sweet quality to Terry's part
of the movie. My favorite part of that
is his relationship with Dennis Stamp,
who is the guy who hasn't made it. As
much of a noodge as Dennis can be,
overbearing and ungrateful, especially
with Terry, I think he exemplifies
something everybody has. Everybody has
this desire to belong, to be part of the
group, no matter what they do.

Do the up-and-comers know what
they're getting into?

They know and they can't wait. Look: The
up-and-coming part is the struggle. The
least savory people you meet are on the
lower levels. Originally the film was
going to be about following young guys.
I must have seen about 150 young guys.
The problem is, because they're young,
their stories are not as interesting.
There was one guy I was going to follow,
who by the time I got my cameras and
everything actually made it. He's in the
picture, Matt Hyson; he's got his own
kind of charisma.

He's the former third-grade teacher
-- the English major. There's an odd
moment when someone off camera asks him
to wipe off some of his blood.

It's so bizarre. I'm squeamish around
blood. But after a while you come to
accept it. Matter of fact, when you talk
to people, and blood is squirting from
their heads, you're just having a
regular conversation. But with Matt, we
had to cut around it -- because I'm
laughing. I was thinking to myself,
"This is like a Monty Python sketch!
Blood's shooting out everywhere!" And I
think that's the absurdity of it that I
like.

Is there any relationship between
your love for wrestling and your comedy
work?

I like to say I did this film so I could
prove to Hollywood that I could work
with white people! I gave Eddie Murphy a
video and he said, "Wow, I saw it four
times over the weekend. It's great."
Eddie's got a real quick mimic's memory;
he was blown away by the Jake stuff.

Does that mean wrestling, in your
experience, is still almost exclusively
white?

Well, it is mostly white, and there
aren't many women either. In the ring,
most women are used as sex objects. But
some women do go to the matches and like
wrestling. And Chyna is different, she
isn't lumped together with the rest of
the women wrestlers.

In her black leather hot pants, boots
and halter, she has a Wonder Woman thing
going.

Yeah, almost. Chyna has gone through
life having to hear people say she
looked like a man or she must be a
lesbian, but she sees herself as a
figure to empower women. In the movie I
say she had her jaw restructured to
enhance her femininity. She's recently
got her breasts enlarged. I know she's
conflicted about it, but it's a business
decision, and if you're going to sell
out you might as well go all the way.
Her following is still predominantly
male, but she feels great when little
girls go up to her in a mall and say,
"Wow, you're great -- you're someone to
look up to, a woman who'll stand up for
herself." She's Chyna: She fights the
guys.

But to get back to the relationship
between Eddie Murphy comedies and
wrestling ...

Well, wrestlers are outsiders and
Sherman Klump is an outsider in a weird
way, because of his weight and his
appearance. In the first "Nutty
Professor" movie Eddie played all the
characters but the family was only in
two scenes. In -- I think it's now
called, "Nutty II: The Klumps" -- there
are only three scenes we shot where he
wasn't at least two characters in it.
Mama and Papa are having problems,
marital problems; after all, Papa's
getting older, so he's having
performance problems and psychological
problems. Granny has a fantasy love
scene with Buddy Love [Sherman's slick
alter ego] that we have to edit down to
get a PG-13 rating. I think Eddie feels
very close to these characters, all of
them, and I think he gives an even
better performance. What's amazing is
that it never feels like "Here's a guy
in makeup." I hope people respond to him
in the role because Sherman is such a
decent person. He has everything going
for him except for his weight.

I think studios are always pushing Eddie
into playing the Black Guy. The Black
Guy in a White World. The Black Guy that
Really Outsmarts White People. And you
know what? As a white person, we're not
always going to get tricked. But in the
Nutty Professor films the characters are
very close to him. He talks about the
mother being based on his grandmother.
For me, looking at Granny is just like
looking at my own grandmother -- same
look, kind of freaky. It's a real
collaboration between Eddie, and me and
David Sheffield.

As for wrestling, the worst thing for me
is when they do comedy; it makes me
cringe. Whenever I told people I was
making a movie about wrestling, they'd
say it was going to be funny. I said,
"No, it's a serious film." Recently, I
took my daughter to an art theater in
downtown L.A. to see some documentary
about inner-city kids. There were only
six people there. But I remember saying
with pride, "This is what it's going to
be like when my movie opens. I'm going
to be opening in art-house theaters.
Enough of these big openings! I'm
finally going to do an obscure movie!"


Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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