ROCKY (1976)

  • Director: John G. Avildsen
  • Writer: Sylvester Stallone
  • Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Burt Young, Carl Weathers, Burgess Meredith, Thayer David, and Joe Spinell
  • Accolades: 2007 AFI Top 100 list (#58), 3 Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director – John G. Avildsen, Best Film Editing), 7 additional Oscar nominations (Best Actor – Sylvester Stallone, Best Actress – Talia Shire, Best Supporting Actor – Burgess Meredith, Best Supporting Actor – Burt Young, Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Song – “Gonna Fly Now,” Best Sound)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on HBO Max, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

There is a large number of people who think of Rocky as the ultimate inspirational story, a little guy who works hard and makes good. There are certainly multiple scenes that retain a very specific kind of elemental power, like when Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) sprints along the Schuylkill River and to the top of the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, as the music soars. “Gonna fly now!” the choir sings, and Rocky raises his hands in the air. Today those steps are fairly universally known as “the Rocky Steps,” and the statue of Stallone raising his arms sitting outside the museum is probably better known to the public than the many priceless works of art inside.

Those scenes work for me, of course, it would be a lie to say that they didn’t. But large sections of this movie are not that, they are Rocky’s extremely awkward romance with Adrian (Talia Shire), who other men think is “retarded,” while Rocky keeps insisting “she’s just shy!” He turns out to be right, but that does not make their inexorably long and awkward Thanksgiving date any more watchable from my perspective. I do like that the people involved in this movie are not, for the most part, your typical movie people. Stallone seems to have had good instincts when it comes to how likable it would make his character to me that he likes to talk to his turtles. But that does not make those other parts of this movie I mentioned actually work for me.

The underdog story of Rocky as a movie mirrored that of Rocky the boxer. Stallone, a complete unknown, wrote the script in a few days, reportedly afterwatching Muhammad Ali fight Chuck Wepner on TV from the old Richfield (Ohio) Coliseum (the greatest arena ever built in a cornfield). Many studios expressed interest, but Stallone refused to sell it to anyone who wouldn’t also let him star in it. Over the years, Stallone’s ego has become legendary, but apparently it pre-dated his actual stardom. In any case, in this instance it served him well. Two producers at United Artists eventually agreed to make the movie, as long as the budget could be kept tiny. The small budget led directly to many of the weird touches in the movie. The movie creates an elaborate justification involving Rocky bribing a rink worker on Thanksgiving for him and Adrian to go skating alone, because the producers didn’t want to hire extras. There’s a later weird moment where Rocky points out a banner of him being hung before his big fight, and notes that it’s wrong: he’s wearing white shorts with red, not red shorts with white. The mistake had actually been made by the prop department, and the producers didn’t want to pay for another banner, so the dialogue was added so that viewers wouldn’t think it was a mistake.

They needn’t have worried about penny pinching. Rocky went on to make $225 million at the box office on a $1 million budget and became a cultural touchstone during America’s Bicentennial year of 1976. It also became an upset Best Picture winner (over All the President’s Men, Network, and Taxi Driver), and has spawned a total of eight sequels to date. A ninth, Creed III (following Michael B. Jordan as the son of Rocky’s opponent in this movie, Apollo Creed), will hit theaters next year, becoming the first installment in the franchise not to star Stallone in any capacity. Rocky launched Stallone into immediate superstardom, despite his immediately apparent dearth of range. He would go on to direct the second, third, fourth, sixth, and seventh installments of the series, in addition to writing them, but would be best known as a big-muscled 1980s action star.

This is a boxing movie, certainly, but there are really only two boxing matches, a quick one at the very beginning and the climactic fight between Rocky and the vaguely Muhammad Ali-inspired Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers). Instead it enjoys spending most of its run-time following Rocky in his daily life, pursuing Adrian, adopting a ridiculously large, drooly dog named “Butkus,” doing some light mob enforcement (he gets in trouble for not breaking enough thumbs), beating up slabs of meat, and having a tumultuous relationship with his crotchety trainer (Burgess Meredith). The latter is perhaps the movie’s most memorable character outside of Rocky himself, aggressively growling lines like, “When I’m through with you, you’re gonna eat lightning and crap thunder!” Even Rocky, who is a very ridiculous person, thinks this guy is ridiculous.

I would say that as a movie Rocky mostly resists critical analysis. There is perhaps something to be said about its depiction of lower-class life at a certain point in history, like the teenagers who hang out on the corner singing and occasionally passing Rocky their bottle of wine. I don’t think I’d go see it in a theater, but if I’m allowed to mute like twenty minutes of it and only kind of pay attention, I really enjoy the rest of it.

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