By John H. Foote

(***)

Was it ever as good as people thought it was back in 1976?

Who can forget that Rocky won the Academy Award for Best Picture over masterpieces of modern cinema such as All the President’s Men, Network and Taxi Driver, all greater films in every way. 

I was 17 years old when I first saw Rocky in a packed theatre with my brothers. It was the first time I heard audiences cheering the events onscreen, so involved with Rocky that we felt every punch, every obstacle, and every small victory he gained on his journey to the championship fight.

Rocky Balboa was the creation of actor-writer Sylvester Stallone, a beefy B-movie player whose work had dried up by the mid-70s. Legend has it Stallone watched the famous Muhammad Ali-Wepner fight in 1975, and in three days scribbled the screenplay for Rocky, and began shopping it around to the major and minor studios. Everyone wanted it, but for another actor. Stallone believed he was the only man who could bring the character to life (which he proved), but the studios wanted Ryan O’Neal, James Caan, even Warren Beatty for the part of the pugilist who finds love while training for the fight of his life. The final offer for the script hit $150,000, and the actor turned it down. Keep in mind, at this point in his career and life he is flat broke with a wife and child. But he believed in himself. United Artists finally stepped up, allowing the actor to play the part and shoot his screenplay untouched. In addition, Stallone would design the choreography to all the fight scenes.

Gritty, kitchen-sink style director John G. Avildsen was tapped to direct the film, having brought Joe (1970) to the screen, and he assembled a strong cast of character actors, the best known being Talia Shire as Adrian, following her supporting actress nomination for The Godfather Part II (1974). Wily old character actor Burgess Meredith was cast as Rocky’s cranky trainer Mickey, the elderly actor enjoying a wave of popularity and Oscar attention, nominated for his superb work in The Day of the Locust (1975). Burt Young was cast as Paulie, Adrian’s opportunistic and jealous brother and Rocky’s friend. Carl Weathers, the former football star, got the plum role of Apollo Creed, a Muhammad Ali-style boxer and self-promoter. Cocky and arrogant like Ali, but also like him, a wonder with the press, and beloved by the fans, Creed offers an untested underdog a chance at the championship after his opponent cancels a fight. Scanning the boxing directory in Philadelphia he comes upon Rocky’s fighting name, The Italian Stallion, and chooses him for his opponent. Rocky will fight for the heavyweight championship of the world.

In an unforgettably moving scene, Mickey approaches Rocky to ask to be his trainer, to offer his years of experience to make up for Rocky’s greenness, hoping Rocky will forget Mickey’s earlier tongue-lashing and derogatory comments.  Rocky initially sends him away but then relents. Mickey will get the chance he never had to fight for the belt. Though unorthodox, the training will be exactly what Rocky needs. He trains him to take a furious punishment and knowing Rocky can punch with the best of them, teaches him to wait for an opening and then unleash hell with his powerful punch.

Rocky, now a somebody, finds the courage to ask Paulie’s sister Adrian, the mousy worker in the pet shop, out on a date. Together they blossom, Adrian dressing better, slowly evolving into a dark beauty as her confidence grows, even pushing back at her bully of a brother when he attempts to attack her. Their love story offers a contrasting backdrop to the gruelling intensity of Rocky’s training. 

We watch Apollo working on the fight, but not training terribly hard for the simple reason his ego does not allow him to believe a club fighter like Rocky can come close to defeating him. His trainer however watches Rocky pounding sides of beef, breaking the ribs as he pounds away, and realizes that Rocky believes in himself and is taking this challenge seriously. Apollo’s careless attitude will cost him dearly the night of the fight.

On the eve of the fight, Rocky visits the Spectrum Arena where the fight will take place and returns to Adrian telling her, “All I want to do is go the distance, no one’s ever gone the distance with Creed…that bell rings and I’m still standing, … I’m gonna know for the first time in my life, that I wasn’t just another bum from the neighbourhood.” All he wants is respect, and to know he once did something very special, that he stood up to a formidable opponent. Adrian believes in him, believes he can win, but she is one of the few.

From the first morning of training, downing raw eggs and running until his lungs are about to explode, we watch him evolve into a dangerous fighter, finally ending his run on those iconic steps leading up to the Philadelphia Museum of Art to the strains of “Gonna Fly Now”, bounding up the stairs that were initially insurmountable.

He is ready. Fight night arrives.

Sylvester Stallone and Burgess Meredith.

As Creed picks away with his dangerous jabs, Rocky proves adept at taking the punches and then quickly sees his opening, slamming Creed with a punch that knocks the fighter down. This is the first time in his career anyone has knocked the champ down. Rocky has made it clear he can hit, and that this will not be an easy win for Creed. They pound one another bloody, Rocky hurting the champ but paying dearly for any blows he lands. Cuts are opened, Rocky breaks the champ’s ribs, and both take a terrible beating. Round fifteen arrives and all Rocky must do is remain on his feet. The champ, bleeding internally, refuses to stop the fight, so they go to war for one more round. Apollo starts strong, but Rocky comes back going for the win, hoping to knock the champ out. Finally, the bell rings and Rocky has achieved his dream, to go the distance with the heavyweight champ of the world. They embrace with the champ declaring into Rocky’s ear, “Ain’t gonna be no rematch!” to which Rocky replies, “Don’t want one!” The judges stun the audience with a split decision, Apollo clearly ahead on points, but Rocky’s courage and guts have won them over. Tension mounts as they wait for the third judge. The decision comes and Apollo retains his crown. Meanwhile, Adrian, who has chosen not to watch, makes her way to the ring, finally throwing herself into Rocky’s arms and declaring her love for him. This is the moment made famous with Stallone’s cries of “Adrian!!!” He loses the fight but wins the girl and the respect of everyone in the stadium.

A classic underdog film, where Rocky got everything he wanted, captured the hearts of audiences and made the film a massive hit. Stallone was terrific as the guttural-voiced fighter, his massive slab of a body rippling with muscle, his hang-dog eyes and mumbling delivery won the sympathy of the audiences. Talia Shire was spectacular as Adrian, growing as a woman, becoming more confident and beautiful before our eyes. When her brother attempts to hurt Rocky, she lashes out and for the first time, declaring herself not a loser.

Burgess Meredith is brilliant as Mickey, the old manager whose advice and counsel continue to the last moment when Rocky climbs into the ring. Young is equally great as Paulie, a hapless, struggling loser who Rocky does not leave behind, endearing him more to us.

Much was made of the realistic boxing sequences in the film, and true enough they were savage, capturing the intensity in the ring unlike any film before it. However, four years later Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980) would make us forget the fight scenes in Rocky. The tender love story between Rocky and Adrian was what made the picture such a huge success. 

Film critics declared the film a Cinderella story with a great big heart and audiences lined up around the block to see the film, cheering Rocky on, savoring his victory as if it was their own. The phenomenon that was Rocky Balboa was just getting started. Buoyed by the incredible success of the first film, Stallone made another six films focused on the character, each with varying degrees of success, until Rocky IV (1985) put a ridiculous end to it. Stallone made Rocky Balboa (2006) as a farewell to the character, and the film was very good, and then he showed up training Apollo Creed’s son in Creed (2017) and Creed II (2019).

Rocky was nominated for 10 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director (Avildsen), Actor (Stallone), Actress (Shire), both Young and Meredith for Supporting Actor, Stallone again for Best Original Screenplay and Best Film Editing. On Oscar night, the movie stunned Hollywood, winning for Best Film Editing, Best Director and Best Film. Stallone was an overnight superstar. He got a little ahead of himself when he announced plans to remake A Streetcar Named Desire with him and Faye Dunaway. Fortunately cooler heads prevailed, realizing he did not have the gifts of a Marlon Brando. Two of his subsequent films flopped, the dreadful Paradise Alley (1978), which he insisted on directing, and F.I.S.T. (1978), a labour drama directed by Norman Jewison.

Stung from the reviews and reactions to his post-Rocky films, Stallone was sent scampering back to Rocky with Rocky II (1979), which dealt with the rematch neither man wanted. This time Rocky wins the championship of the world and his life is forever altered. It became clear that Stallone was a great physical actor who truly had two characters in him that he owned, Rocky and John Rambo, a former Vietnam veteran with the Special Forces. Any other attempt seemed doomed. When he was cast as Rocky again in Creed (2017), he went through a career rebirth and was again nominated for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor for his performance as the fighter, this time trainer to Apollo Creed’s son. While fighting cancer, he trains the angry kid to fight, but to respect his opponent. Stallone deserved the Oscar for Creed, no question.

Rocky came along at a critical point in American film history lighting up what had been a time of dark subject matter in modern film. Hope became something very new to filmgoers, and this fighter from Philadelphia offered hope and possibility, even a chance at true love. 

The stories of Rocky and Sylvester Stallone run a very close parallel, and each is a lovely Cinderella tale that reminds us dreams do come true. 

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