HBO’s deep dive into the larger-than-life existence of André Roussimoff – aka wrestling legend Andre the Giant – hit all the right notes, delivering both on the icon’s soaring highs and crumbling lows.
No matter your level of wrestling fandom – ranging from heavy to some to none at all – this inside look into the traveling carnival-style world Andre chose to embrace as his home is a fascinating journey of an artform’s evolution from niche to mainstream. Andre was there, in all his hulking glory, to bridge the gap between pro-wrestling as an outlying stigma-riddled sideshow to a sweeping national phenomenon. And the way his story, as a personal tale of triumph and eventual decline, mirrored the biggest traditional period in the history of the business made for quite the “truth is stranger than fiction” ride.
The push and pull of Andre’s over-the-top life is what drove this well-executed doc, as we saw a young man afflicted with acromegaly (which he wouldn’t discover until later in life) decide to purposefully make a spectacle of himself in order to, basically, cash in on his size. To escape his small French country town and “be somebody.” Then, as he lived for years uncomfortably traveling all over the world as wrestling’s greatest draw and attraction, he slowly began to yearn for a small town country life of anonymity and quiet. And he wasn’t quite able to live in both worlds because of his mammoth size and well-established fame. It was the sad case of a prodigal son who, for all intents and purposes, couldn’t go home.
Long-standing luminaries of the business, such as Vince McMahon, Rick Flair, and Jerry Lawler mixed well here, as talking heads, with industry journalists such as Dave Meltzer and David Shoemaker, giving us the insider take vs. the outsider perspective. Both Daves told us what the business was like during the times being discussed and how Andre impacted, and eventually helped change, the world of wrestling while Flair and Lawler could speak to partying escapades and private pain.
It’s both McMahon and former referee Tim White, Andre’s close friend, who became the vulnerable for the cameras though, with regards to Andre’s passing in 1993. Both provided powerful moments that helped further humanize a performer who left the business on a bitter note, as a villain with very limited physical abilities.
The wrestling nerd in me also thoroughly enjoyed the third act dissection of the WrestleMania III main event between Hulk Hogan and Andre. Andre, as a person, sort of vanished during this portion of the piece since it was more about the rise of wrestling’s popularity while the giant was out with an injury, so it may have jarred some viewers who relied on Andre as a tether to this world, but hearing all the nuts and bolts of the storytelling design was really cool. And, yes, if you’re a fan like me than you’ve read or heard a lot of this stuff already, but part of the fun then became knowing that other people, non-fans, were discovering it as well. And hopefully find it just as fascinating.
Lurking behind the stories of how large Andre was, how much he could drink, and the way he kept other “big men” in wrestling in line, was the dark cloud of his refusal for medical treatment. It’s uncertain that, by the time he found out what his true condition was, anything could have been effectively done to prolong his life, but the fact that he made the choice to ignore various possibilities of a better life because it’d mean leaving the bizarre family and career he’d cultivated is the dire tragedy of Andre.
As the business remains strong and stalwart today, we’re faced with more and more wrestlers retiring due to injury and having to drop the adrenaline rush and stardom that comes with he business in exchange for a different path. It was far less common back in Andre’s days. You just kept going until you couldn’t physically go anymore. Rip Flair, who’s since learned better, famously said that he’d probably die in the ring, never being able to imagine himself as someone who could do anything else – especially if that something else was “nothing.” Now the wear and tear of wrestling, and the shelf-life of a performer, is a much more open discussion. It’s just sad that Andre so much saw the respect and status he’d garnered in the business as something he needed to be connected to constantly.