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He was special. – Vince McMahon
Legends breed legends. Not genetically or through reproduction, or not often anyway, but without question in generated stories. When someone becomes a folk hero, a Paul Bunyan we’ve actually seen either in person or through the magic of television, our imaginations run wild. HBO’s Andre the Giant, a collaborative documentary between The Ringer and WWE, brought emotion and entertainment, and also came equipped with its share of half-truths and yarns.
But, that’s par for the course.
It makes sense. Andre Rene Roussimoff was born in a small French farming town, wasn’t quite seven feet tall, but was billed at 7’4″ from the French Alps. Professional wrestling, when executed at its best, is adept at telling a story that’s plausible, with enough exaggeration to crank a normal volume to earsplitting levels. He was a lovable giant, the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” and sold out virtually every house he performed in front of throughout his career.
Very few entertainers become attractions the way Andre did, and that’s what made him unique. It’s what separated him from everyone else in entertainment. If his picture adorned your poster, you were going to make big money, and if you were an attendee, you likely had the best wrestling ticket in the world that night. He had to keep moving, as the RARITY of Andre was the biggest draw. Vince McMahon Sr. would lend him out to other promotions for short runs, to make sure the novelty reached everyone, and also because absence would make the heart grow fonder when it came to Andre. The fond heart led to the open wallet.
Not every word or story contained in the documentary was true, but it was accurate (enough) more than it wasn’t. WWE’s inclusion and closeness to the project meant it was going to be told the way the company wanted it told. The story would be the one they wanted us to hear. While Andre the Giant isn’t perfect, it was a great story, and regardless of accuracy on some fronts, its subject remains relentlessly captivating.
The two major takeaways from the Jason Herir directed project, which featured Bill Simmons and WWE’s Kevin Dunn as executive producers, are first that Andre was incredibly well-respected, and to some extent feared as he had the potential to make or break an opponent unlike anyone to that point in history, and that his life was filled with sadness and discomfort. The latter, of course, was due to the acromegaly that allowed him to make a living, but also often made his life miserable.
Neither of these two conclusions are revelations, in fact they’re expected and fairly well-documented, but the way the film lays them out is effective and not overdone. The movie runs just shy of 90 minutes, and at first glance you might wish there were more, but when it ends, you’ve seen what you needed to see. Sure, we could have spent an hour meticulously going through match after match after match, but instead we get the story of Hulk Hogan vs. Andre in Detroit at WrestleMania III in great detail, and we get an untrue or hugely exaggerated story of how Andre nearly killed Big John Studd for disrespecting him. Studd, by the way, credits Andre for almost his entire career, or certainly for all his notoriety.
Through it all, we hear from many who dealt with Andre, from Hogan and Vince McMahon to his longtime handler, also a former WWE referee and official, Tim White, who recounted Andre’s death through tears, still upset he wasn’t there to be with the man when he passed away alone in a Paris hotel room. We get all the drinking stories, which again are legendary, with Ric Flair, Gene Okerlund, and others telling their versions of Andre’s propensity to imbibe to comical degrees. How much of the amounts of alcohol consumed were true, who knows, but it makes for a good story. It’s easy for a case of beer to become 50 when you’re talking about someone like Andre the Giant.
Long known for his love of sophomoric, low-brow humor, Vince McMahon was able to get a lot of flatulence content into Andre the Giant. Hogan did his part as well, telling of Andre’s favorite trick to lure unsuspecting colleagues into an elevator and delivering a growling 30-second piece of gas that would nearly asphyxiate them. Was there too much of this? You can be the judge, but so much of the documentary is somber in tone that it was almost welcomed to be able to laugh.
This was a man that lived in a world that wasn’t made for him. Never was there an airplane seat that fit him, never was there a hotel bed that could hold him, never was there a rental car he could use, and while everyone wanted to take pictures with him, many of those same folks that marveled at his size would jeer and mock him in public while he was simply trying to live his life. His size was his living, but it became as much a curse as a blessing. He told many individuals, including a few that talk about it within the documentary, that he wished he could have one day a week as them, rather than always waking up a giant. Okerlund quotes Andre as saying to him once, “Boss, sometimes they laugh at me. They point at me. They hurt my feelings.”
It was something he had to deal with every day, without fail, and that’s not to speak of how tough it was on his health. Andre the Giant goes into his injuries, his ankles, his bad knees, his back, the way his body grew and his organs stopped growing, and how he realized he wasn’t going to live long. Doctors, once he finally agreed to see one in the wake of his first major injury, said he wouldn’t make it out of his 40s. They were right, and after losing to Hogan and passing the torch of the business to him, he started to lose much of his will to live. His depression grew, and the only place he enjoyed spending time was the small town of Ellerbe, North Carolina, where he bought a ranch and befriended a family that took care of it for him while he was on the road.
In that one place, he was left alone. He could go into a store and buy groceries and no one asked him for an autograph or a photo. He was gracious with everyone, but he was so happy just to be like everybody else. Imagine being as big as he was, but looking in the mirror and still knowing your brain, and thus your emotions and your feelings, weren’t special. You were a human being, but people treated you as either deity of freak show. It wore on him.
Although, as we find out, women LOVED him. They were blown away by him and so curious about him. Ric Flair jokes about the size of his fingers and feet and then says, “Need I say more?” There are many photos of Andre covered in lovely young women in public. They sought him out everywhere he went, so at times being Andre the Giant from the French Alps had its benefits. Plus, he had a wonderful sense of humor and was warm and approachable.
Vince, when discussing his later years, remarked that he had to convince Andre to have the back surgery that might prolong his career a little longer, not just for the sake of Andre’s livelihood, but “to give him a reason to live and not to die.” That’s sobering to say the least. Without WWE, without pro wrestling, what did Andre Roussimoff have? It’s all he ever knew. The documentary shows footage of him at a very young age when he first began. He never had the chance to have a truly normal life. Even his parents had to craft a special chair just for their son to sit properly at the family dinner table.
A particular highlight of Andre the Giant is the segment devoted to his work in the big screen adaptation of The Princess Bride. Interviewed are director Rob Reiner and stars Cary Elwes, Robin Wright, and Billy Crystal. Here, we hear Robin tell us how she was lowered into Andre’s arms on cables because he had become too weak to catch her. It had to be done in a way where no weight was placed on him, because he was in so much pain he had lost all his strength. But, they loved him. He was great on the set, he just wanted to be one of them, again his desire as the most abnormal figure in entertainment at the time was simply to be normal. What made him unique and made him money also made him miserable.
What was striking about this portion of the documentary was the genuine nature of the conversations with the Hollywood stars. This wasn’t phoned in. Reiner and Crystal couldn’t help but smile as they talked about working with and interacting with Andre, and there was clearly a quiet affinity from Wright to her co-star as well. Elwes was as classy and affable as ever, and seemed to have love in his heart for his time with Andre on set as well.
The discussion, largely from Hogan and Vince, about WrestleMania III was the most informative in some ways for the non-wrestling audience, because it shows how “scripted” can go wrong if someone doesn’t want to do business. Had Andre wanted to do so, he could have torpedoed Hogan, given him the thumbs down, and been selfish, but instead, after ribbing Hulk relentlessly to the point the CEO of Hulkamania had no idea what would happen hours before the match, he was gracious even when he could barely move. His pain was to a degree most wouldn’t have even competed, yet Andre was there.
Hogan’s plan for the match was to keep Andre upright, even during the bear hug, and do his best to keep him as safe as possible. This was a bout where Hogan had to work around Andre’s limitations. The big man couldn’t even really walk, and Hulk almost had to treat him like an obstacle to be overcome in a factual, not just a fictional manner. And they pulled it off. The body slam heard round the world, and the story and psychology of the bout were sound, even if the technique was lacking in some areas. It was a different era, and the match didn’t disappoint.
Andre the Giant is very well-done, though it moves on a fast timeline and doesn’t stay in the same place for too long, which sometimes makes it feel a bit rushed. Interviewed on camera are Vince and Shane McMahon, Hulk Hogan, Jerry Lawler, Gene Okerlund, Ric Flair, Tim White, Pat Patterson, and the preeminent pro wrestling journalist in history, Dave Meltzer. Patrick Laprade, who is currently working on an Andre book and is a well-known wrestling historian, is featured prominently in the film’s early stages and also holds a producer credit.
The Ringer’s David Shoemaker, a pro wrestling columnist that used to write for Deadspin and released an excellent book three years ago gets the most face time of any of the reporters. Much of what he says lands, although some is a bit hyperbolic to say the least. Again, it’s to be expected with this project, and it’s not comically ridiculous. His comments just build the Andre aura through superlatives, which makes sense. Hogan and Vince even mention during the film how easy it was to make people believe anything they ever claimed about Andre.
Some members of the Roussimoff family are featured, including Andre’s daughter, who never had a life with her dad, something he always wanted but couldn’t make happen.
Finally, his friends in Ellerbe that took care of his property and spent time with him tell the OTHER story of Andre, the one none of us ever saw, where he was able to ride ATVs and chill on the couch and just be a human being.
Hogan, in particular, stands out in a positive way. The timing couldn’t be better for him, as he continues to try and overcome his recent past and find his way back to WWE. He’s incredibly likable in Andre the Giant, and it’s clear even when he might be exaggerating he loved Andre and knows how instrumental the big man was to his own career. Vince makes it clear when he says if you were to ask Hogan about his legacy, Andre would be the first thing he’d mention, even today in 2018.
Jason Hehir’s documentary paints a portrait of a legend that often just wanted to be a man, but found it impossible because he inhabited a world not meant for his size and stature. The historical wrestling timeline that accompanies Andre’s story adds depth and context to the proceedings, and generally the effort succeeds in every way. If you liked Andre, grew up marveling at him, or are curious about his life, there’s no reason not to watch this. It’s highly recommended, entertaining, and emotionally gripping.
The only real critique might come, surprisingly, from the hardcore wrestling fan audience, who aren’t going to learn much, and will hear far less “new” than the mainstream crowd that watches the film. It’s more about this man’s life and the challenges he encountered along with the victories than it is the professional wrestling. There’s not a lot of inside information here, not a lot of meat on the sports entertainment bone. It’s more Cliff’s Notes than some might want, and admittedly, it sometimes left me with that impression as well. With that said, it’s extremely strong, just like the Roussimoff himself in his prime.
There’s absolutely no better way to spend your Tuesday night (and perhaps others on a re-watch) experiencing Andre the Giant. It’s largely a triumph, even if wrestling fans might feel a little emptier than others when it’s over.