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Movie Review: Rocky

Directed by John G. Avildsen
Written by Sylvester Stallone
United Artists, 1976

One of the greatest underdog stories of all time was also, in real life, a tremendous underdog story.  Sylvester Stallone, a struggling actor at the time, met with producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler in a casting call for another movie and on the way out, mentioned he had a screenplay.  Winkler and Chartoff wanted to make the movie, but with Ryan O’Neal as Rocky.  Stallone would have gotten more money (six figures) for his script had he consented to O’Neal (James Caan was another name thrown around), but he took a gamble that the film would be a success and only agreed to sell the script if he himself could be in the role.

Rocky won Best Picture in 1976, Avildsen (who eight years later would make the similarly-themed Karate Kid) won Best Director, and Richard Halsey and Scott Conrad won for Best Editing.  It got nominated for seven other Oscars, including Stallone for both acting and writing (becoming the third to do this after Charlie Chaplin in 1940 for The Great Dictator and Orson Welles in 1941 for Citizen Kane), supporting actors (Burt Young and Burgess Meredith), lead actress (Talia Shire), sound, and the original song “Gonna Fly Now” from composer Bill Conti, Carol Conners, and Ayn Robbins.  Oddly enough, Conti’s famous score didn’t get nominated.

Stallone wrote the script after seeing a March 24, 1975 fight between Chuck “The Bayonne Bleeder” Wepner and Muhammad Ali.  Wepner, pretty much considered a nobody, went 15 rounds with Ali and even knocked the champ down in the ninth round, and nearly went the distance but got TKO’d in the 15th.

The original Rocky is so different from the Rocky movies that followed.  Made during the height of the seventies before studios got starved for blockbuster fare, this film actually focuses on character development most of the time before getting into the familiar training and fight sequences.  Rocky Balboa (Stallone) is a “bum from the neighborhood” in Philadelphia, trying to make ends meet with low-wage fights and acting as a lone shark’s muscle.  He has eyes for Adrian (Talia Shire) the librarian-looking pet shop worker who he can tell is really cute behind the glasses and her other cover-ups.  His best friend is her alcoholic roommate brother Paulie (Burt Young) who has been keeping her down and calling her a loser probably because he’s also lonely and never wants to see her leave.

As the Bicentennial approaches, the number one heavyweight fighter in the world, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), wants to set up a title fight in Philadelphia, but none of the contenders want to take the shot.  Creed’s idea is to find a local fighter and give him his chance, figuring an easy knockout in three rounds.  Looking through a register of fighters, he comes upon The Italian Stallion, sees the promotional and marketing opportunities, and it’s settled.  Creed will fight Rocky.

Rocky is offered managerial help from Mickey (the great Burgess Meredith), who has spent most of the movie looking down on Rocky because he feels that he’s wasted his boxing career, he could have been a contender.  The scene in Rocky’s apartment with Mickey pleading with him is pure gold.  You don’t see scenes like this anymore.  Of course Rocky eventually agrees to Mickey’s guidance.

It’s then that the film gets to its calling card, the underdog becoming a threat, through the training; the famous montage showing him struggling and then becoming a machine by the end, with that unforgettable image of him summiting the museum stairs.

Rocky beat out a formidable group of films in 1976 for Best Picture: All the President’s Men, Network, Hal Ashby’s Woody Guthrie biopic Bound for Glory, and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver.  But it’s not like the film was all spectacle and didn’t deserve it (my choice would have been All the President’s Men, but hey, I wasn’t even born yet), it’s a real drama with an exciting finish, and it’s likely lumped in with the action-oriented sequels if anyone expresses disdain over it’s Oscar win. 

Stallone took on the role of Cold War Action Star during the seventies and eighties (like Arnold Schwarzenegger), his mumbly voice and tabloid private life contributed in making him a punchline; but Stallone is fantastic in the role of Rocky, complex and entertaining.  We may have never seen him live up to that original promise, but some actors are better suited for certain roles, and that’s why he became such a big star later on.

Next: Rocky II


Comment from Jonathan Watkins
Time: December 3, 2006, 11:33 pm

1976 was a hell of a year for film, and since it was the year I was born, maybe that explains my freakish obsession with film. It’s still to this day “Rocky” won, but like you said it’s not like it’s not a hell of a film. I would have taken either “All the President’s Men” or “Network” over it, but at the same time I’ve probably watched “Rocky” easily ten times more than I’ve watched either of the other films. Oh, and I definately would have taken “Taxi Driver” over it as well, although I don’t think “Driver” has aged near as well as the other three. But that’s just me. So, are we going to see these kind of retrospectives a lot; I’m digging them. Next year we get a new “Die Hard,” and maybe even a new “Rambo.” Good stuff to look forward to.

Comment from The Projectionist
Time: December 4, 2006, 3:41 am

Yeah, I plan to do retrospectives for any well-known franchise, especially any that are entering their fourth or greater chapter. Die Hard is pretty much definite, and Rambo is certain as well. Next month, I plan to do something with the Oscars but I haven’t figured out what yet. Seeing every Best Picture since the Academy formed would be an unbelievable task.

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