Funky to Fuzzy: The Evolution of Mark Wahlberg

Tomorrow the feature-length debut from Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane, Ted, will hit theaters. Mark Wahlberg stars as a working-class Bostonian who shares an apartment with a talking teddy bear named Ted (voiced by MacFarlane). But Ted does more than say a few phrases a la that other Ted, Teddy Ruxpin. He smokes pot, tokes on a bong and even brings over the occasional hooker, or two, or three – okay, four.

The movie’s concept looks derivative – childhood wish sees inanimate bear come to life – but the comedy is shaping up to be one of the better mainstream offerings this summer. Seth MacFarlane’s Ted character may be the selling point, but don’t sell Wahlberg short – the guy is funny.

Actually, it is with the arrival of Ted that made me want to go back and see how Mark Wahlberg got to this point. Not just working alongside a talking bear, but his status as a leading man. It was back in January with the release of Contraband that I started to see his name get attached to a number of high-profile projects, which include starring alongside Russell Crowe (Broken City), Dwayne Johnson (Pain and Gain), and Denzel Washington (2 Guns) in the coming years.

To think, it was a little more than twenty years ago that he was telling everyone to “feel the vibration” when he led the hip-hop group Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch. Now he’s working with Maximus, The Rock, and Malcolm X.

Three years after the number one hit single “Good Vibrations” and dropping his pants for Calvin Klein, Wahlberg made his feature film debut in Renaissance Man, directed by Penny Marshall. It was one of those mild comedy/inspirational teacher movies in the vein of Stand and Deliver. Only instead of Wahlberg having to pass an AP Calculus exam, he was delivering lines of Shakespeare while playing a low achieving private in the U.S. Army. Hey, if Keanu Reeves can be in a Kenneth Branagh adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing, why not have Wahlberg play King Claudius? A year later he gained the attention of critics as Leonardo DiCaprio’s best friend, Mickey, in The Basketball Diaries. It was a small supporting role but one that caught the attention of a young filmmaker named Paul Thomas Anderson.

With one film under his belt (Sydney aka Hard Eight), P.T. Anderson’s next feature would be a 1970s period drama centered on the porn industry. Boogie Nights is considered Wahlberg’s breakthrough performance as an actor and for good reason: Anderson makes him into a star, a star, a star. A big, bright shining star. From nightclub dishwasher to porno idol, the film chronicles Dirk Diggler’s (Wahlberg) rise and fall during the Golden Age of Porn. At the time of its release Boogie Nights just didn’t click for me. Then I watched it again and had a fresh perspective. A steady diet of Robert Altman films beforehand probably helped, but also realizing the film followed the construct of a soap opera with its multiple storylines and character arcs. Plus the world is a much better place for having Wahlberg do a cover of Stan Bush’s “The Touch.”   

With the breakthrough push Wahlberg’s visibility would grow over the next few years, working with Hong Kong star Chow Yun-Fat (The Corrupter) and George Clooney (The Perfect Storm), and directors such as James Gray (The Yards) and David O. Russell (Three Kings). It was during Wahlberg’s and Russell’s first pairing that they would form an actor-director relationship bond that would help bolster both careers a decade later. But before that could happen, Wahlberg would have to pay his dues and take on roles that did little to help his career as a star.

This included the headlining role for Planet of the Apes – a headscratcher if you ask me. The film would signal Tim Burton’s downward trend as a filmmaker. There was a time when he was one of the most exciting directors in Hollywood, taking Pee-Wee Herman on a Big Adventure; making us consider hiring a bio-exorcist (Beetlejuice); and why one should never let a guy with scissors for hands sleep on a water bed (Edward Scissorhands). Wahlberg’s decision to headline Apes instead of working with Clooney again on Ocean’s Eleven would be a costly one as the actor would have to watch Matt Damon take his supporting role and be part of two successful franchises (the other being the Jason Bourne series).

Undaunted, Wahlberg would go on to star in the remake of 1969 British film The Italian Job. The 2003 heist film would go on to gross over $100 million, making it the second Wahlberg-starring release to eclipse that mark. The other was the maligned Planet of the Apes, a film that, despite grossing more than $360 million worldwide, did not get the go ahead for a sequel. The Italian Job arrived during a period where caper and con artist films were popular for a stretch. The success of the Wahlberg-less Ocean’s Eleven was a major reason why. Its success gave us such films as Catch Me If You Can, Matchstick Men, Confidence, and The Good Thief.

The Italian Job was the first starring vehicle where it felt like Wahlberg was actually comfortable as a leading man. Maybe it’s because there wasn’t any heightened expectation, especially after a pair of dismal failures (Rock Star and The Truth About Charlie). Here he got to work with a talented ensemble. Edward Norton may have been phoning in his villainous performance, but Wahlberg showed a commanding presence alongside Charlize Theron (who later that year would win an Oscar for her lead performance in Monster), Jason Statham, Mos Def and Seth Green.

The following year, Wahlberg would resign himself to supporting duties as he re-teamed with director David O. Russell on I Heart Huckabees. The philosophical comedy was a mixed bag with critics but most agreed that Wahlberg was one of the acting standouts in the film. He plays Tommy Corn, an obsessively anti-petroleum firefighter, who tries to work out the meaning of his existence with help from a pair of existential detectives (played by Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin).

2004 would also be an important year for Wahlberg on the small screen. That summer Entourage debuted on HBO. Loosely based on his experiences as an up-and-coming film star, the comedy would include many celebrity cameos over its eight-year run and also see Jeremy Piven go from being that guy in a lot of John Cusack movies to winning a number of supporting actor awards for his movie agent character Ari Gold. The series was Wahlberg’s first major producing credit and he would follow that up with executive producer credits on three more HBO series: In Treatment, How to Make It in America and Boardwalk Empire.

We are a decade into Mark Wahlberg’s career and his top three moments thus far have been 1) Boogie Nights, 2) his relationship with director David O. Russell, and 3) the success of HBO’s Entourage.

In 2005, he would go back to being a headliner in John Singleton’s crime-revenge flick Four Brothers. Inspired by the western The Sons of Katie Elder starring John Wayne and Dean Martin, the film was transplanted from its western setting to frigid Detroit. It also offered Wahlberg a form of payback; Matt Damon was originally offered the role that he would play. A year later he would star in Invincible, a sports drama based on the story of Vince Papale, a 30-year-old bartender from South Philadelphia who overcame long odds to play for coach Dick Vermeil and the Philadelphia Eagles in 1976. It may not be Rudy, but the film continued Buena Vista’s streak of well-performing sports dramas (including Remember the Titans, The Rookie, and Miracle).

Moving to October 2006 sees the release of a film that would help Mark Wahlberg break through that glass ceiling as a Hollywood star. The film was Martin Scorsese’s The Departed. Based on the 2002 Hong Kong release Infernal Affairs, the film’s setting has been relocated to Boston and now involves the Irish Mob. With an all-star cast that includes Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Matt Damon – finally the two appear in the same movie together – the film would see Wahlberg score his first Oscar nomination. He was the only member of the cast to get nominated for an Academy Award. Martin Scorsese would finally get that Best Director trophy that has eluded him ever since he received his first nomination back in 1980 for Raging Bull. Even with the likes of DiCaprio and Damon, Wahlberg was a scene-stealer, verbally upstaging both of them with his didn’t-meet-a-cussword-he-didn’t-like Boston brogue.

Though he would ultimately lose the Oscar to Alan Arkin (Little Miss Sunshine), the nomination was good enough to fill his inbox with movie offers. Regrettably, he didn’t pick the best of scripts. To his credit, though, he didn’t suffer an Oscar hangover like Cuba Gooding Jr., who went from Jerry Maguire to finding himself on a “gays only” cruise liner in Boat Trip. No, Wahlberg made decisions that would help bolster his status as an action lead, starring in Antoine Fuqua’s Shooter and the videogame adaptation Max Payne. But in between those features he starred in a film billed as M. Night Shyamalan’s first Rated-R movie, with a tagline that read, “We’ve Sensed It. We’ve Seen The Signs. Now… It’s Happening.” The Happening was more than just Wahlberg being miscast as a high school science teacher; Shyamalan’s writing was horrible with little emotional resonance. He had an interesting idea, about plants getting back at the human populace of Earth by releasing a neurotoxin that when inhaled causes people to kill themselves, but failed at being scary, or entertaining for that matter. And the acting ranged from “Fire my agent!” to wondering “Was Nicolas Cage not available?” Shyamalan’s attempt at making a B-movie misfired horribly and his career has yet to recover. A few years later he would make The Last Airbender and produce Devil, the latter of which forced the studio to remove his credit from the advertisements to quiet the groans of audiences.

Mark Wahlberg was able to walk away from the project pretty much unscathed, with critics sacking Shyamalan foremost. Actually, Wahlberg must be made of Teflon, as he has been able to withstand starring in some not-so-great features and still see his career progress. It may have taken longer, with a new set of obstacles in his way, yet a majority of his films seem to become bigger hits on home video – and studios notice that, always thinking about their bottom line.

On the heels of The Happening the actor would work with renowned director Peter Jackson on a film adaptation of the best-selling novel The Lovely Bones. Ultimately getting a part that was originally going to be played by Ryan Gosling, Wahlberg starred as Jack Salmon, the bereaved father of Susie Salmon (played by Saoirse Ronan), who now obsesses over just who killed his daughter. It was an interesting role for the actor who had been in action-mode (mostly) since his Oscar nomination. But Jackson’s adaptation of the Alice Sebold novel was a failure from the filmmaker perspective; the acting overall is solid, especially from Ronan and supporting star Stanley Tucci.

2010 would be a banner year for Wahlberg. He would appear in three films that year that would gross over $100 million each. The first was a small supporting role in Date Night starring Steve Carell and Tina Fey. Despite having less than fifteen minutes of screen time, Wahlberg once again upstages his co-stars. It was his first legit mainstream comedy, and his first of any kind since 2004’s I Heart Huckabees. He would follow that with another comedy, The Other Guys, the latest from Adam McKay and Will Ferrell. If I had to guess what convinced him to want to team with Ferrell on a comedy that spoofs the buddy-cop genre, I’m sure it was the scene early on where his Terry Hoitz character accidentally shoots Derek Jeter in the leg. With Wahlberg being from Boston and Jeter being a Yankee, his actions get him that much closer to being blessed as a Red Sox deity.

In December he would see his passion project The Fighter get released. The film once again paired the actor with director David O. Russell. Wahlberg had signed on to the project as far back as 2005, due to his friendship with boxer “Irish” Micky Ward, and production was going to start during summer 2007. Darren Aronofsky was originally going to direct but bowed out to work on a RoboCop remake that went nowhere before making Black Swan. Brad Pitt was slated to play Mickey’s older brother, Dick “Dicky” Eklund, but had to drop out because of schedule conflicts. Enter Christian Bale, who goes “full Dicky,” in his dedication in getting to know all he can about the real Dicky Eklund. The film was well received by critics and audiences alike, and would go on to be nominated for seven Oscars, winning two for Supporting Actor (Bale) and Supporting Actress (Melissa Leo). Wahlberg also picked up his second nomination, but it wasn’t for his portrayal as Micky Ward; it was for his work behind the camera as one of the producers.

The success of The Fighter both financially and prestige-wise further cemented Mark Wahlberg’s status as an actor. He’s now one of Hollywood’s elite leading men, on a list that also includes his Departed co-stars, Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon. He’s also succeeded in producing movie vehicles that he would headline. This year’s Contraband was again another success, even though in my review I wrote, “it doesn’t carry nearly enough thrills or excitement to compensate for its 110-minute run time.”

It’s been an amazing twenty years for Mark Wahlberg. From having a number one record and selling underwear for Calvin Klein to picking up two Oscar nominations and making Forbes list of highest paid actors, Wahlberg has found himself in a very lucrative position. And he doesn’t look to be slowing down any time soon. Ted looks to be THE raunchy comedy of summer (unlike Adam Sandler’s abysmal That’s My Boy) and his projects in the coming years show a lot of potential. I guess you could say that Mark Wahlberg’s red-not career is a lot like that Timbuk 3 song. His future’s so bright, he’s gotta wear shades.


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