YOU HAVE A RINGSIDE SEAT FOR THE BLOODIEST BICENTENNIAL IN HISTORY!
At the 1977 Academy Awards, Sylvester Stallone and Muhammad Ali staged a comic brawl as a way of showing that Ali had no ill feelings toward this fresh Hollywood star. When Stallone wrote Rocky and created a larger-than-life heavyweight champ, he was inspired by Ali’s famous theatrics. Stallone’s rapid rise to stardom mirrored that of his character Rocky Balboa; the actor was down on his luck when he wrote the script and knew what it was like to be a dirt-poor nobody.
He also knew that if a movie got made, he had to play the part of Rocky, no one else. It took some convincing, but everybody involved knew that the studio would support the project as long as the budget remained low. In the end, Rocky was successful beyond anyone’s dreams.
Working for a loan shark
Rocky Balboa (Stallone) is a boxer in Philadelphia who makes ends meet by working as a collector for a loan shark, even though he has too much heart for the job. He has a thing for his buddy Paulie’s (Burt Young) sister, Adrian (Talia Shire), a very shy girl who works at a pet store. Even though Paulie ends up getting jealous over their relationship, he initially encourages Rocky and Adrian to start dating. At the same time, heavyweight champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) is preparing to fight a challenger as part of the United States Bicentennial celebrations, but his opponent suddenly drops out. After a search, Creed’s team find Rocky and get excited about the idea of the champ meeting a local Philadelphia underdog. Rocky accepts what seems to be a hopeless challenge…
Rougher – and a bigger heart
Considering what was to come, looking back at this first chapter of the wildly popular franchise is interesting. The Rocky movies were always dominated by clichés and a formula, but it was more obvious and polished (by Stallone himself as director) in the third and fourth movies. This one is much rougher and has a much bigger heart. It’s impossible to imagine anyone else playing Rocky and this is easily Stallone’s career-best. He is utterly credible as the working-class hero who’s learned how to use his fists as a way of making a living. At the same time, he hasn’t allowed himself to become brutalized by the boxing or his collecting duties; there is a lot of sweetness between him and Shire, immensely delicate as the mousy Adrian.
Rocky faces challenges in his every-day life every step of the way; he has no money, no luck and everybody around him seems to be kicking him in various ways. That goes even for good old Paulie – not to mention Mickey (Burgess Meredith), the cranky, 75-year-old gym owner who first cheats him out of his locker and then, when he learns of the Creed fight, begs Rocky to let him train him. That particular sequence is touching, convincingly acted by both Stallone and Meredith, who’s riveting.
When the day of the fight finally comes, tension builds expertly in the ring thanks to the Oscar-winning editing and the way Bill Conti’s music is used. It’s a brutal, bloody stand-off that shows how you never can underestimate the opponent who has the most to lose.
Raging Bull (1980) may have dug deeper intellectually in its portrait of an aging boxer and his personal life, but Rocky irresistibly aimed straight for your heart. No other scene in the film symbolizes this more clearly than the training montage, set to “Gonna Fly Now”, where Rocky triumphantly runs up the stairs to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Now known as the Rocky Steps, they feature a statue of the iconic boxer at the bottom. Go back to this classic and it’ll almost be impossible not to raise your arms like a champ in your sofa.
Rocky 1976-U.S. 119 min. Color. Produced by Robert Chartoff, Irwin Winkler. Directed by John G. Avildsen. Screenplay: Sylvester Stallone. Cinematography: James Crabe. Music: Bill Conti. Editing: Scott Conrad, Richard Halsey. Song: “Gonna Fly Now” (Bill Conti, Carol Connors, Ayn Robbins). Cast: Sylvester Stallone (Rocky Balboa), Talia Shire (Adrian Pennino), Burt Young (Paulie Pennino), Carl Weathers (Apollo Creed), Burgess Meredith, Thayer David. Cameo: Joe Frazier.
Trivia: Followed by five sequels, starting with Rocky II (1979), and a spin-off movie, Creed (2015). Later a Broadway musical.
Oscars: Best Picture, Director, Film Editing. Golden Globe: Best Motion Picture (Drama).
Last word: ”There are certain parallels. Rocky had drive, and intelligence, and the talent to be a fighter, but nobody noticed him. Then when opportunity knocked, everybody said, ‘Hey, there’s Rocky, he’s good.’ That’s what happened to me. The fact that we both went the distance when we were finally given the opportunity, that’s the main parallel.’ It’s funny, there’s a great herd of people who were holding back compliments for years that are now coming forth and saying, ‘I like you.’ It happened to Rocky, too. I feel like saying to them, ‘Where were you when I was living in Hotel Barf, eating hot and cold running disease?’ They say, ‘Oh, we were holding it back, Sly, because we didn’t want you to get a swelled head.”’ (Stallone in 1976, The New York Times)