Time has robbed Rocky of one of its most important attributes: it has become hard to conceive of Sylvester Stallone or Rocky Balboa as underdogs. Yes, most of us remember Rocky fondly – we remember the visceral impact of the final fight, or a few lines of dialogue, or that famous run up the steps of the Art Museum that most of us attempt when we visit Philadelphia.
But how many of us have actually sat down and watched the film lately? Until a few days ago, I hadn’t seen it in well over a decade, with my affectionate memories no doubt tempered by the increasingly ridiculous sequels. (I know I’ve seen Rocky IV, in which the Philly underdog was inexplicably bringing down the Soviet Empire, many more times than I’ve seen the original). Rocky came one year after Jaws and one year before Star Wars, and following American cinema’s artistic renaissance in the early ‘70s, the sequels would come to symbolize the worst excesses of the “blockbuster”/Reagan ‘80s. Fairly or unfairly, Rocky’s Best Picture win at the 1977 Oscars, against the unusually strong lineup of Taxi Driver, All the President’s Men, Network, and Bound for Glory, seems in retrospect like a symbolic transition.
For me, revisiting Rocky is a revelation: I’m struck not only by how unlike most of Stallone’s subsequent movies it is, but also by the sweetness and vulnerability of Stallone’s starmaking central performance. By this point, Stallone had seen some recognition for his work in Lords of Flatbush, but not a lot, and in 1999 he told James Lipton on Inside the Actors Studio, “I thought if I could somehow compound, put together, all my frustrations in life, and my inability to be recognized as an actor, in the embodiment of a fighter… it might translate.”
“I went to the fights,” Stallone continued, “and I saw this Chuck Wepner character, who was called ‘the Bayonne Bleeder,’ who was this fighter of very, very little skill, but kinda like a real American working-class stiff who takes it on the chin and comes back… He was fighting Muhammad Ali, who was the perfect fighter, and he knocked him down. And that validated his entire life. He didn’t expect to win – he knocked him down.”
It’s incredible to think that Stallone reportedly turned down a $350,000 offer for the Rocky screenplay on the grounds that only he could star – not so much because of all the money at stake, but more because Rocky Balboa would seem unthinkable played by anyone other than Stallone. In the early scenes, Rocky is a 30-year-old amateur boxer/small-time loan shark enforcer, by now much more the latter than the former. Burt Reynolds, Robert Redford, and Gene Hackman were apparently considered for the role, but they would have all been just playing Rocky. When Stallone shows up, mumbling his words and looking like a slab of meat in a beaten-up leather jacket, we somehow instinctively know that there is no protective distance between character and actor.
The conflict is, to put it charitably, contrived. Undefeated heavyweight champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) needs to select a new opponent for the World Heavyweight Championship when his original challenger is injured. He decides to give an unknown Philly fighter a shot, staging a “land of opportunity” show while also giving himself an easy victory. He stumbles finds Rocky a book of local fighters. “It’s the name, man – ‘the Italian Stallion.’ Now, who discovered America? An Italian, right? What would be better than to get it on with one of his descendants?” (Sure enough, when the fight rolls around, Apollo arrives in the ring dressed as George Washington, before putting on an Uncle Sam hat and hooting, “I want YOU!” We will unpack the Rocky series’ uncomfortable relationship with race when we make it to Part III).
No, it’s not very convincing, but much more than in the later Rocky films, the fight here seems more like a MacGuffin. Actually, Rocky doesn’t even get recruited for the fight until around the 50-minute mark. Until then, Stallone and director John G. Avildsen take their time establishing Rocky’s lower-lower-middle-class Philadelphia world, with its grimy gyms and littered streets and perpetually overcast weather. Stallone and Avildsen give us long scenes in which Rocky simply walks around, interacting with his environment, sometimes even pausing for seemingly irrelevant moments, like an interlude where Rocky lectures a foul-mouthed teenage girl to little avail.
Certain characters are transparent archetypes, but work thanks to improbably convincing performances – like Stallone, Burt Young, Burgess Meredith, and Talia Shire as the screwup friend, the old trainer, and the demure girlfriend all seem like they might have spent their entire lives in the Pittsburgh slums. We spend so much time with Rocky in his world that by the time he gets a shot at the title, he’s become our lunkheaded friend. Of course, Rocky has those iconic moments – the eggs, the meat, “Yo Adrian!” – but I’ve been spending so many years seeing that clip of Rocky running up those steps that I forgot what a wallop it packs in its proper context.
Rocky marks the beginning of the modern Stallone era, but it retrospect, it also feels a little like the end of something. Considering his remarkable performances here and in Lords of Flatbush, it is a melancholy fact that Stallone’s subsequent career would give us more movies that were “awesome” than good. Mind you, I feel a little hypocritical saying this – if you’re writing a column on Sylvester Stallone, odds are you enjoy watching that Mr. T crap whenever it comes on AMC. And, to be fair to Stallone, Rocky’s special magic was a one-off thing by its very nature. Once you’ve gone overnight from nothing to something, how can you possible remain “just another bum from the neighborhood”?