Rocky: “I’m dumb, and you’re shy.”
I hadn’t seen “Rocky” (1976) since it first came out. I saw all the sequels, including the spin-off of the series, Ryan Coogler’s “Creed” (2015). I had forgotten how tender and poignant the original film is. It has this very humble scope and despite the fact that you know where this Cinderella story is going to go, the honesty in it disarms you. The relationship between Rocky, the small-time boxer whose career seems to be going nowhere and Adrian, the painfully shy pet shop worker with the alcoholic brother is one of the most beautifully delineated romances. He perseveres in convincing her to go on a first date on Thanksgiving day, and takes her to an ice-skating rink that’s closed — yet he talks the manager to let them go in. She awkwardly moves on the ice and he keeps up by her side without skates on, the camera on a long shot ahead of them. He tells her his dad had told him, “You weren’t born with much of a brain, “so you better start using your body.” Her mother had told her the opposite she admits, “You weren’t born with much of a body, “so you better develop your brain.” Later he urges her to come back to his apartment and takes off his sweatshirt to reveal his physique in a tank-top, recalling Marlon Brando’s peacocking in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” He grabs an exposed pipe on the ceiling. He’s this vulnerable gentle brute. “Will you do me a favor?,” he gently asks. “Take off these glasses…I always knew you was pretty.” Two lonely, broken souls find each other.
There are aspects of “Rocky” that have become so ingrained into our movie-going experience that we’ve come to take them for granted. It’s now expected to have a montage, an editing passage with interconnected moments showcasing the propulsive preparation of our main character as he/she overcomes every obstacle to defy all odds. It will all climax into a cathartic inspirational moment of triumph. Director John G. Avildsen, who received a best director Oscar for his work in his film and became known as the “King of the Underdogs,” created an iconic sequence, perhaps the most famous training progression in cinema, in which he traces Rocky’s journey from a has-been to major contender. Allegedly it was all done on the fly, guerrilla style. Novice inventor Garrett Brown who’d just built a mounting system that took out the shakiness out of handheld camera shooting joined the production. As the now famous training moment starts, Rocky runs early in the morning through a dilapidated landscape of rubble and industrial decay that mirrors his current emotional state. Rocky runs towards us. Then we see him from behind following railroad tracks, and running on them. Emotionally we connect with him as a locomotive moving forward. And then there’s a cut to him running towards the camera again, without breaks but this time around he’s jogging through a market. A market owner tosses him an orange and without camera interruption, Rocky catches the fruit seamlessly. All of a sudden, we’re inside the gym and watching him perform one handed push-ups, driving his body to the max, and boxing with sides of beef in Paulie’s meat locker. Then we cut to him running through docks and gaining speed as he passes a boat. It all culminates with him running and leaping up the stairs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Rocky holds his hands up in victory.
In 2016 while being honored at SBIFF, Sylvester Stallone recalled writing the script in three days. He attempted selling it to several studios. Some of them wanted it as a vehicle for Robert Redford or Burt Reynolds. Sly stood his ground: it should be him as Rocky Balboa. At the 1977 Academy Awards the film was nominated for 10 awards including Best Actor and Screenplay for Stallone. Besides Avildsen’s win, “Rocky” won Best Picture and a deserving Editing trophy. His performance is electric and charismatic, embodying the alienation in all of us who wish to be given a chance to prove our mettle. Talia Shire was nominated for Best Actress as a wounded being who grows in strength with the unexpected arrival of love. Burgess Meredith — as Mickey the coach who underestimated Rocky’s possibilities yet humbly grovels for the chance to train him and make a difference — mixes brittleness, desperation, and warmth. “You’re gonna eat lightnin’ and you’re gonna crap thunder!” he gnarls in this performance that earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination. And so did Burt Young as Adrian’s abusive brother. Carl Weathers as Apollo Creed is worth noting. Bill Conti’s score is instantly recognizable, an anthem of perseverance and powering through.
It’s a rag to riches story. Underdog boxer Rocky Balboa is given a one in a million chance to get toe to toe with boxing champ Creed, appropriately in the City of Brotherly Love on our Bicentennial. He takes the challenge understanding that he knows nothing better than how to keep on moving. For any of us who have ever felt that we’re about to give up, Rocky Balboa is an inspiration.
Rocky: “I was nobody. But that don’t matter either, you know? ‘Cause I was thinkin’, it really don’t matter if I lose this fight. It really don’t matter if this guy opens my head, either. ‘Cause all I wanna do is go the distance. Nobody’s ever gone the distance with Creed, and if I can go that distance, you see, and that bell rings and I’m still standin’, I’m gonna know for the first time in my life, see, that I weren’t just another bum from the neighborhood.”
Available to stream on HBO Max and HBO NOW and to rent on Amazon Prime, Microsoft, Google Play, YouTube, iTunes, Vudu, Apple TV+, Redbox, DIRECTV and AMC Theatres on Demand.
Written by Sylvester Stallone
Directed by John G. Avildsen
Starring Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Burt Young, Carl Weathers, Burgess Meredith, Thayer David, Joe Spinell
Writer and Actor Sylvester Stallone on the Inspiration Behind “Rocky”
“Through fate or whatever, I ended up at the Muhammad Ali-Chuck Wepner fight. Wepner, a battling bruising type of club fighter who had never really made the big, big time, was now having his shot. But the fight was not regarded as a serious battle. It was called a public joke. He would barely go three rounds, most of the predictions said. Well, the history books will read that he went 15 rounds and established himself as one of the few men who had ever gone the distance with Muhammad Ali, and he can hold his head up high forever no matter what happens. I am sure that moment meant more to Wepner than any money he could ever receive from fighting because now he had run the complete circle. This is why he had been training for 34 years. That night I went home and I had the beginning of my character. I had him now. I was going to make a creation called Rocky Balboa, a man from the streets, a walking cliché of sorts, the all-American tragedy, a man who didn’t have much mentality but had incredible emotion and patriotism and spirituality and good nature even though nature had not been good to him. All he required from life was a warm bed and some food and maybe a laugh during the day. He was a man of simple tastes. The second ingredient had to be my particular story, my inability to be recognized. I felt Rocky to be the vehicle for that kind of sensibility. So I took my story and injected it into the body of Rocky Balboa because no one, I felt, would be interested in listening to or watching or reading a story about a down-and-out, struggling actor/writer. It just didn’t conjure up waves of empathy even from me and I was sure it wouldn’t do it from an audience either. But Rocky Balboa was different. He was America’s child. He was to the ’70s what Chaplin’s Little Tramp was to the ’20s.” (espn.com)
Bringing “Rocky” to the Screen
In the early 70s, Sylvester Stallone was an unknown actor trying to make it in New York. He had some minor success in the movie “The Lords Of Flatbush” but he was still broke. “After The Lords Of Flatbush, I decided it was time to come to California, so I moved to California and things weren’t going so well there. As a matter a fact, I actually had to go out and try to sell my dog because it was either that or he wasn’t going to be very well fed around the house.” said Stallone in an interview with Michael Watson. “And then one night, I went out to see Muhammad Ali fight Chuck Wepner. And what I saw was pretty extraordinary. I saw a man called ‘The Bayonne Bleeder’ fight the greatest fighter who ever lived. And for one brief moment, this supposed stumblebum turned out to be magnificent. And he lasted and knocked the champ down. I thought if this isn’t a metaphor for life.” That was the catalyst for his idea: A man who was going to stand up to life, take a shot, and go the distance. He started writing and in three days had the script done. It was only 90 pages, and only about a third of it was used in the movie, but it was done. Later, he was on a casting call for an acting role and quickly realized that he wasn’t right for the part. On the way out he told the producers about the story he was writing. They told them to bring it by later. They read the script and loved it, except for one thing: They didn’t want to have Sylvester Stallone play the main character, Rocky. You can’t blame them. Stallone was an unknown actor at the time and other Hollywood types would be a much safer bet at the box office. They were looking at Ryan O’Neil, Burt Reynolds, and others to play Rocky Balboa.
They offered Stallone $360,000 for the script, with the condition that he wouldn’t play Rocky. Remember that he had no car, $106 in the bank, and sold his dog to pay the bills. Stallone said, “I thought, ‘You know what? You’ve got this poverty thing down. You really don’t need much to live on.’ I sort of figured it out. I was in no way used to the good life. So I knew in the back of my mind that if I sell this script. and it does very very well, I’m going to jump off a building if I’m not in it. There’s no doubt in my mind. I’m going to be very, very upset. Laughs. So this is one of those things, when you just roll the dice and fly by the proverbial seat of your pants and you just say, ‘I’ve got to try it. I’ve just got to do it. I may be totally wrong, and I’m going to take a lot of people down with me, but I just believe in it.’” The producers eventually relented and gave Stallone one million dollars to make the movie, starring himself. They came in under budget by using family and friends in the cast, handheld cameras, and only using one take to film most of the footage. One million dollars was an extremely low budget for a film, even in the 1970s. When the movie started getting screened around Hollywood, it started to get a positive reaction from the crowd. But the real test was when it was screened at The Director’s Guild, in front of 900 industry types. The theater was packed but the movie was playing terrible. Stallone told Michael Watson, “The laughs weren’t coming where they were supposed to. The fight scenes seemed to be listless, as the response was. And I just sat there, as everyone left the theatre, and I couldn’t believe it. I really blew it. I was humiliated and saddened by it. So I walked down three flights of stairs out of the theatre and everyone from the theatre were standing there waiting for me. And they started to applaud. I mean truly applaud. I’ll never experience a moment like that again.” “Rocky” went on to receive nine Oscar nominations and got three wins, including Best Picture and grossed over $200 million. (forbes.com)
Sylvester Stallone on the Making of “Rocky”
“The training montage was something that I had been building toward for six months. I knew I would have to do what every fighter must to get himself in peak condition, but I wanted to do it in even a more exaggerated form. So when it got to the part of throwing the medicine ball, I had the trainer heaving the ball so hard that I expected my liver to come out and fall to my feet — and so did everyone else. But I think that kind of pain was necessary for it to register as real. We transferred the camera into the ring to film the pushups. It had been written as “Rocky does several two-handed pushups.” But something crazy happens every time that camera rolls and before I knew it, I was flying from one hand to another doing an exercise that no boxer in his right mind would ever do; and I continued to do it. The next day I wished my shoulders belonged to someone else because I think I inflamed every joint in my body. It was worth it, but I never did it before or after.
Moving into the meat house for the pounding of the slabs of beef I felt to be a real challenge. The beef was used simply as a metaphor for the fighter’s point of view while training. In other words, his opponents become nameless meat — indifferent, meaningless, dangerous meat. We spent approximately 14 hours in the meat house. The trainer taped my hands in such a fashion that I thought it would protect me against any broken bones while hitting the carcasses. But after eight hours, the cold penetrated the bandages and hitting the meat finally caused a cracked knuckle and drove it back into the middle of my hand. To this day, I still haven’t seen it. But again, it was worth it. Hell, I’ve still got nine other knuckles. Many people have mentioned to me that the most exciting part of the training montage is the sprint along the pier culminating in the ascent up the steps. The sprint along the pier was done while in Philadelphia. It was just before the shin splints set in, and I felt as though I couldn’t give this particular run the burst of speed required to make it as dynamic as I had hoped it would be. But as I’ve related before, amazing things happen when that camera begins to roll, and I felt my feet moving so fast that I thought I was going to topple forward. I actually felt myself losing control, losing balance. But after several trial runs, my body fell into the rhythm of the sprint pattern and we didn’t have any trouble.” (espn.com)
About Writer and Actor Sylvester Stallone
Sylvester Stallone (full name: Sylvester Enzio Stallone) has established worldwide recognition as an actor, writer and director since he played the title role in his own screenplay of “Rocky,” which won the Academy Award in 1976 for Best Picture. Since that seminal motion picture, “Rocky” grew to a franchise of five sequels and in 2006 Stallone concluded the series with “Rocky Balboa,” a critical and audience success which resolutely confirmed both Stallone and Rocky as iconic cultural symbols. In addition, to commemorate a character which has become as real as any living person to film-going audiences around the world, a statue of Rocky Balboa was placed at the foot of the now-famous steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum at a dedication ceremony presided over by the Mayor. In more recent times, Stallone wrote, directed and starred in “Rambo,” which continued the saga of Vietnam vet John Rambo twenty five years after the debut of First Blood. For this latest installment, Stallone took the company on location to the inner jungles of Burma basing the compelling story in a country where crimes against humanity, civil war and genocide have existed for over 60 years – and no one is doing anything about it. Stallone then released his most ambitious project to date, the action thriller “The Expendables,” which he wrote, directed and starred in, and for which he hired an all star cast including Jason Statham, Mickey Rourke, Jet Li, Eric Roberts, Dolph Lungren and Steve Austin – as well as Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger. The film opened at number one at the box office – making him the only actor to open a number one film across five decades. Sly took the company on location to the interior of Brazil and the city streets New Orleans, filming over just a few short months. Born in New York City, Stallone attended school in suburban Philadelphia where he first started acting and also became a star football player. He then spent two years instructing at the American College of Switzerland in Geneva. Returning to the United States, he enrolled as a drama major at the University of Miami and also began to write. Stallone left college to pursue an acting career in New York City, but the jobs did not come easily. By 1973, Stallone had auditioned for almost every casting agent in New York and had gone on thousands of acting calls, with little success. During this period, he turned more and more to writing, churning out numerous screenplays while waiting for his acting break. The opportunity first came in 1974 when he was cast as one of the leads in “The Lords of Flatbush.” He also received his first writing credit for additional dialogue on this film. With the money earned from that film, Stallone left New York for Hollywood. He again began to make the rounds of studios and casting agents, managing to get a few small roles in television and movies. He also continued to pursue writing. Prize fighter Rocky Balboa was born and given life in a script Stallone wrote in longhand. Several producers offered to buy the screenplay, wanting to cast a name star in the title role, which Stallone insisted on playing himself. Although his bank balance was barely $100, Stallone held fast with his perseverance finally paying off in a big way. In addition to “Rocky Balboa” and “Rambo,” Stallone’s credits as actor/writer/director are “Rocky II” and “Paradise Alley.” As actor and co-writer, Stallone filmed “F.I.S.T,” “First Blood,” “Rambo: First Blood Part II,” “Rhinestone “and “Rambo III.” He co-wrote, directed and produced “Staying Alive” and starred in “Nighthawks,” “Victory,” “Tango & “Cash” and “Lock Up.” “Rocky V,” starring and written by Stallone and directed by John Avildsen, opened in 1990. He also starred in Demolition Man, which set box-office records for its Fall 1993 release and in the films “The Specialist,” “Assassins” and “Daylight.” Stallone starred in the challenging and unique role of Freddy Heflin, in the Miramax feature film “Cop Land,” which has garnered him further international critical and audience acclaim.
He had the starring role in “Get Carter” for Warner Brothers co-starring Michael Caine, which opened in the Fall of 2000. Stallone wrote and starred in the number one box office race-car thriller “Driven,” co-starring Burt Reynolds and Christian de la Fuente. In addition, he filmed Avenging Angelo, co-starring Madeline Stowe. Both films were for the Warner Bros. He also starred in the role of “The Toymaker” for director Robert Rodriguez in the hit film “Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over,” the final installment of that successful film franchise. He was associated with “The Contender,” a powerful and action-packed unscripted series which aired on the NBC Television Network and then ESPN. In 2002 Stallone was honored by the Video Dealers Software Association when he was presented with the “Action Star of the Millennium Award” at the Organization’s 21st Annual Convention. In addition, Stallone’s influence and appreciation are acknowledged worldwide. In 2008 The Zurich Film Festival presented him with the Festival’s Inaugural Golden Icon Award, which recognized his achievements as a great American Actor and Filmmaker and In 2009, The Venice Film Festival honored Stallone with their Glory to the Filmmaker Award. For the release of “The Expendables,” Stallone was honored at the Spike TV’s Guy’s Choice Awards with the coveted GuyCon Award, presented by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. He was also feted at the 2010 Los Angeles Film Festival as the event’s Honored Guest and received the Visionary Award at the Hollywood Reporter Key Arts 2010 Event. At the 2010 Comicon Convention, he was the first inductee into the IGN Action Hero Hall of Fame. “The Expendables 2,” the highly-anticipated sequel opened to Number One at the Box Office. Shot on location in Bulgaria, Stallone wrote and starred in the film along with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Jason Statham and the original “Expendables” cast. Liam Hemsworth, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Chuck Norris also starred. Stallone appeared in “Bullet To the Head” for director Walter Hill and producer Joel Silver for Warner Bros. Studios and “Escape Plan” co-starring with Arnold Schwarzenegger for Summit Pictures. He also starred with Robert DeNiro in “Grudge Match.” Most recently, he starred in “The Expendables 3” with many of the original cast as well as with Mel Gibson, Harrison Ford and Antonio Banderas. The film was shot on location in Bulgaria. In March, 2014 “Rocky: the Musical “opened at The Winter Garden on Broadway. The musical is based on the original film written by Stallone with music by Stephen Flaherty and Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. Ahrens and earned a Best Actor Tony nomination for the play’s star, Andy Karl. 2015’s “Creed” was shot on location in Philadelphia for director Ryan Coogler, and featured Stallone reprising his role as Rocky Balboa opposite actor Michael B. Jordan. The role earned Stallone an Academy Award nomination in 2016. In addition to his extensive film career, Stallone is an accomplished artist, completing paintings on canvas as well as sculpture work. He has had impressive exhibitions at Art Basil, The Russian State Museum and most recently at the Nice Museum of Contemporary Art in France. (sylvesterstallone.com) Stallone’s recent projects include “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” (2017), “Escape Plan 2: Hades” (2018), “Creed II” (2018), “Backtrace” (2018), “Escape Plan: The Extractors” (2019) “Rambo: Last Blood” (2019) and most recently “The Suicide Squad” and “Samaritan” in 2021.
About Director John G. Avildsen
John Guilbert Avildsen was born on Dec. 21, 1935, in Oak Park, Ill. Early in his career he worked as a cinematographer, editor, assistant director and producer on films like Arthur Penn’s “Mickey One” (1965) and Otto Preminger’s “Hurry Sundown” (1967). Mr. Avildsen returned to the “Rocky” franchise with “Rocky V” in 1990. (The second, third and fourth films in the series had been directed by Mr. Stallone.) Among his other memorable films was “Joe” (1970), starring Peter Boyle as a factory worker who goes on an anti-hippie rampage. The title of a new documentary about Mr. Avildsen tips its hat to his reputation for telling rags-to-riches tales. The film, which includes interviews with Mr. Stallone, the director Martin Scorsese and the “Karate Kid” star Ralph Macchio, is called “John G. Avildsen: King of the Underdogs.” …Mr. Avildsen’s 1973 drama, “Save the Tiger,” earned Jack Lemmon a best-actor Oscar for his performance as a clothing executive dealing with a failing business and moral conflict. And his 1982 short documentary, “Traveling Hopefully,” was nominated for an Academy Award. “The Karate Kid,” which had its premiere in 1984, is the story of a teenager who outwits bullies and becomes a karate champion with the help of his martial arts mentor. Like “Rocky,” it culminates in an all-out fight scene. In fact, when Mr. Avildsen first read the script for “The Karate Kid,” he called it “The KaRocky Kid,” according to The New York Times, because of its similarities to “Rocky.” Mr. Avildsen went on to direct the second and third “Karate Kid” movies. Mr. Avilden’s acclaimed “Lean on Me” (1989), starring Morgan Freeman as Joe Clark, a principal who fought to bring order to his New Jersey high school, was his first film based on a real person. “My thoughts were, whether they’re real or fictional, you’ve got to keep the people awake in the theater and try to make the characters as dramatic and effective as possible,” he told The Times in 1989. But, he said, he wished that movie had been a bigger hit. “I wish more white people would go see it,” he said. “I think it’s as successful as it is because people find the character an admirable one, and they’re pulling for him. They know that his intentions are correct and what he wants, he wants with great passion.” Avildsen passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2017. (nytimes.com)