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40th Anniversary of “Rocky”


40th Anniversary of “Rocky”

By writing the screenplay for “Rocky,” holding out to play the title character and then delivering the goods in a surprise monster hit that earned industry praise, Sylvester Stallone pulled off a miracle every bit as dramatic as his fictional alter-ego Rocky Balboa going the distance with Apollo Creed.

Stallone literally wrote his own ticket to stardom. When he made the deal to sell the script to United Artists on the condition he star in it, he was an obscure character actor with no real prospects for a feature career. Stallone, much like the character of Rocky himself, had nothing to lose. That’s why he could afford to decline big money offers to sell the material so that the studio could cast Ryan O’Neal, Burt Reynolds, James Caan, Robert Redford or some other established star as the lead. He was in a once-in-lifetime bargaining position to say, you either make the movie with me or I take it somewhere else. Of course, there was no guarantee UA or any other studio would want his script bad enough to accept his terms.

Rocky is an interesting property because it bridges old and new trends. On the one hand, it’s very much in the tradition of old Warner Bros. urban dramas with the requisite love story and comedic relief thrown in. On the other hand it’s very much in tune with the new humanistic, ultra realism of late ’60s-early ’70s cinema that’s stripped away of easy sentiment. Under John Avildsen’s direction, the story is anchored in that dour, gritty, work-a-day world truth yet, when called for, it’s carried away by delirious, romanticized sentiment. The movie even anticipates the flawed Marvel superheroes who would come to dominate the American cinema box office decades later. As over the top as the ending of “Rocky” gets, it somehow all works and I think it’s because of the cumulative weight of all that transpires before it and by how much we invest emotionally in the lovable loser characters Stallone created.

Stallone followed his heart,, passion and instinct in drawing on real life elements and populist themes to create an original script that had box office written all over it but that no one outside Stallone, producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler and director Avildsen believed he could carry. Sure, any number of actors could have played the role, but no one knew the character as well as Stallone because Rocky Balboa grew out of his own personal and professional struggles. Stallone tapped his own demons and aspirations to conceive this anti-hero and then he used all those emotions again to bring that character to life on the set and on the screen.

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Rocky hit at just the right time, too, in terms of the national zeitgeist. America was cynical and weary coming out of Watergate and Vietnam and so the moviegoing public was ready for an escapist, feel-good experience, Just as “American Graffiti” and “Jaws” had before it and just as “Star Wars” and “Superman” did after it, Rocky caught the wave of popcorn fare, only not relying on nostalgia or thrills or special effects like other blockbusters of that era, but on good old-fashioned storytelling and richly developed characters. Rocky was much closer in tone and content to, say, “On the Waterfront,” than to the other major boxing-themed movies of that period, John Huston’s “Fat City,” Martin Ritt’s “The Great White Hope” and Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull.” Which is to say that at the end of the day Rocky, like those other pictures, is not so much a boxing movie per se as it is a slice of life portrait of someone who just happens to be a boxer. “On the Waterfront” is essentially a crime film and morality play whose protagonist, Terry Malloy, is an ex-prizefighter. “Fat City” is a stark, nihilistic view of down-and-outers in skid-row Los Angeles, where a veteran club fighter mentors a new arrival. “The Great White Hope” profiles a black man, Jack Johnson, who refuses to live by the white man’s rules. “Raging Bull” is an expressionistic look at the demon’s that drove Jake LaMotta.

In my opinion, there are better movies about boxing than “Rocky,” such as “Creed,” “The Fighter,” “The Set-Up” “Ali,” and “Cinderella Man.” The fight scenes in “Rocky” are just too unrealistic for my tastes, though they mostly do work dramatically. But, again, “Rocky” transcends the boxing genre into something else again.

“Rocky” is a classic redemption story. In this first iteration of Rocky Balboa, Stallone gives us a man who could have been something as a fighter but has given up on himself just as others have given up on him. Then, he finds the love of a good woman and when presented with an extraordinary opportunity, he rededicates himself to his craft and rises to the challenge of facing the champ. Stallone was able to pour himself into the character in writing the script because he could so closely identify with the story of a guy everyone considers a loser who gets one chance to make things right. Art imitated life again when the studio relented and bankrolled his movie with him in the lead despite their grave reservations and he turned this million to one shot into the talk of the 1976 movie season and the catalyst for a career and, as it happened, for a four-decade long franchise.

In the sound era when has an actor been as responsible for his or her own star-making vehicle as Stallone was with Rocky? After all, he wrote the part that launched him into mega-stardom and gave him an enduring character he’s still playing 40 years later. The closest comparisons I can come up with are Orson Welles in “Citizen Kane,” which he co-wrote, directed and starred in, though that film didn’t really make him a star, and Matt Damon and Ben Affleck in “Good Will Hunting,” which “the boys” co-wrote and co-starred in, though Damon already had several major screen credits before Hunting.

Of course, in the silent era Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton wrote and directed pictures starring themselves and in the process created their own signature comic personas. In the early talkies era Mae West wrote the scripts for her own popular starring vehicles.

Surely other come-out-of-nowhere Hollywood stories have followed, but I doubt if any compare to what Stallone did with Rocky. First, there’s the enduring appeal of that original film that won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Editing. Everything had to come together to make Rocky work and it did. Stallone found the right producers in Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler and the right director in John Avildsen and the right supporting actors in Talia Shire, Burt Young, Burgess Meredith and Carl Weathers.

The authentic locations in Philadelphia brought a real sense of verisimilitude to the action.

Then there’s the fact that Rocky was hardly an isolated experience for Stallone. He has “screenplay” and “written by” credits on dozens of films. including some very good ones: “F.I.S.T.”; “Paradise Alley”; “Rocky II”; “First Blood”; “Rocky Balboa.” And his interpretations of Rocky in the franchise’s later movies, as the character’s moved into middle age (“Rocky Balboa”) and beyond (“Creed”) are richer and more nuanced, filled with the experience of a life lived. Even though I am not that big a fan of his work, I personally rooted for him to win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for “Creed” because I thought he gave a superb performance that totally anchored that very good movie. I actually think his work in “Paradise Alley”, as an actor. writer and director is among the best he’s ever done but that cult favorite remains little seen and appreciated and apparently the studio forced him to make cuts against his wishes. I also admired what he did as an actor in “Cop Land,” when he played against type, though I think the script and direction by James Mangold undercut the power of Stallone’s performance by making his character’s slow burn too gradual.

Now that Stallone has aged into character roles, I love that he’s playing a succession of mobsters in upcoming projects: “Scarpa”; “Omerta”; and “Idiot’s Eye”. He has the presence, the charisma and the chops to bring his own take to these familiar types and to perhaps make them new.

Stallone’s path after “Rocky” has followed the inevitable highs, lows, excesses, failures and comebacks that accompany anyone’s life and career over a long span of time. It’s been 40 years since he gave us “Rocky.” It’s a testament to the indelible figure of Rocky Balboa he created that the film, the character and the resulting franchise still resonate this many years later. The “Rocky” brand is still going strong alongside other movie franchises. But unlike the others, “Rocky” doesn’t rely on visual effects and superhuman conceits. Even with its occasional flights of fancy, the “Rocky” series is firmly rooted in reality. That’s saying something in today’s CGI cinema universe.

I had an idea for an anniversary screening of “Rocky” in Omaha with hometown world champ Terence “Bud” Crawford introducing the film and serving on a panel after the screening. Fellow panelists would have included Ron “The Bluffs Butcher” Stander and Bruce “The Mouse” Strauss. Sadly, I couldn’t get support for the project. Oh, well, maybe for the 50th.

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