Looking Back: Rocky
18.01.06 - By Craig Parrish: With the sixth installment of the “Rocky” series, “Rocky Balboa” currently filming, I wanted to look back at the one that started them all, “Rocky”. The original film is arguably the best boxing film ever, and by far the finest film of the career of its writer and star, Sylvester Stallone.
Article posted on 19.01.2006
The making of the film is now legendary. Stallone was a struggling actor when he watched the Chuck Wepner / Muhammad Ali fight, a bout in which the club fighter Wepner knocked Ali in the 9th round (a cause of much debate) and nearly went the distance. So inspired was Stallone by the performance of the “Bayonne Bleeder” that he cranked out the script for “Rocky” in a couple of weeks. Once the script was written, Stallone had a hard time selling it as he insisted the only way he would sell was if he starred as Balboa.
The studios wanted James Caan, Ryan O’Neal, or possibly Burt Reynolds as Rocky. It is hard to imagine anyone else in the role now. Certainly Burt Reynolds would have made an “interesting” Rocky! However, Stallone eventually won out and the studio agreed to produce the film on a shoestring budget directed by John G. Avildsen, who would go on to win an Oscar for his work on the picture.
The film itself is an inspiring story, and boxing is certainly one of the main themes of the picture. But what makes the film so outstanding is that the personal stories of the characters would be almost as fascinating if there were no boxing at all. Unlike the later sequels, with their video montages and massive fight scenes, “Rocky” is a small picture, a character study of desperate people yearning for something, anything, better. The characters are so well-written and developed that you find yourself pulling for all of them, not just the guy who has to get in the ring at the end.
As the film opens, we see Rocky fighting another “pug” in a smoky club setting. We soon learn that fighting is simply something that Rocky does for a few extra bucks, as his day job is working as a “collector” for a local loan shark. Rocky’s heart is not in his work however, as we witness in a scene where he lets a borrower go instead of breaking his thumb, as he had been ordered. He’s 30 years old, his life is going nowhere, and he spends his spare time in his broken down apartment caring for his two turtles “cuff” and “link”. He also plots how he is going to win the heart of his friend Paulie’s spinster
Sister, who works at the pet shop.
Paulie and his Sister, Adrian, are down and out as well. Paulie works at a meat-packing plant and aspires to someday work for the same cheap loan shark that employs Rocky. Adrian is painfully shy and emotionally distant, filling her days with work at the pet shop and waiting hand and foot on the boozy Paulie. The other key characters are Mickey, the owner of the gym where Rocky occasionally trains, and Apollo Creed, the flamboyant Heavyweight Champ that is obviously based on Ali.
Mickey has given up on Rocky, and is disgusted with his choice of profession. We learn during the film that Mickey too was once a fighter and has lived a life of betrayal and disappointment. He is getting near the end and is desperate for one shot to make it all worth while. It seems as if all the characters at this point are careening towards
something, as their downward spiral can’t continue.
Then, the film takes a twist. Set in 1976, it is the bicentennial of the United States. Creed has decided to commemorate the event he is going to give a complete unknown a shot at the title, a chance for the “American Dream”. As they flip through listings of fighters, Creed is drawn to Rocky’s nickname, “The Italian Stallion” and decides that he will be the man to get the shot. Rocky is called in for the offer and, although reluctant at first, agrees to fight the Champ.
Stallone is remarkable in many of these small scenes, as we learn more and more about the character of Rocky. He is kind, a bit shy, awkward, not very bright, and has a huge respect for the Champ. He has a penchant for corny jokes and is a noble person, even though he is flawed. It is a wonderful, underplayed performance, fully fleshed out and true. It is obvious that this character had deep meaning for Stallone, as most of his other performances have paled in comparison. The other actors are equally as good, one can almost sense that the performers knew that they were working on something special and they all instilled their characters with the same naturalistic quality as Stallone. As Paulie, Burt Young totally inhabits the spirit of a man, who deep down is not a bad guy, but is completely self-absorbed and self-loathing. As Adrian, Talia Shire is wonderful as she transforms the mousy, bespectacled, Adrian into a strong woman who is fierce in her devotion to Rocky.
Burgess Meredith brings a whole new level to the word “grizzled” in his portrayal of Mickey, fierce, loud, abrasive, yet wounded. In a scene where he comes to Rocky’s apartment to ask him to let him manage him for the big fight, he initially
comes off as a leech and then becomes a heartbreaking figure of lost potential and regret. It is a terrific performance.
All four of these actors were nominated for Academy awards for these performances, and sadly, none of them received the prize. With all of these acclaimed performances, it is easy to see how Carl Weather’s portrayal of Apollo Creed was swept aside. However, I have always felt that Weathers has not gotten enough acclaim for the acting job this exjock pulled off (he played in the NFL). In my opinion, I think it is the best acting job from any ex-jock that I have ever seen. Granted, the character is a bit one-dimensional, but Weathers gives Apollo just the right amount of brashness, ego, and in brief moments,
fear, that really pushes this performance. Let’s see how Antonio Tarver does in the new
film as the Heavyweight Champ.
Now, back to the movie. Rocky has accepted the fight, Mickey is training him and the stage is set. There are training sequences, and all seems to go well. Rocky and Adrian are bonding and Mickey believes that they really might have a shot to pull a huge upset, given Rocky’s concrete chin. The fight is approaching. And then……There is a scene where Rocky and Adrian are lying in bed the night before the fight. Rocky can’t sleep. He gets up and goes to the arena where the fight will take place. The enormousness of the place and the scope of the event overwhelm Rocky. He returns to the apartment and gets back in bed with Adrian. It has all crashed down. He tells Adrian that he can’t do it, that he is kidding himself. He is just a bum from the neighborhood and he’s fighting the Heavyweight Champion of the World. It’s a joke. He can never, ever win. But he wants to go the distance. If he can only go the distance, that will be good enough for him. That alone will make him special.
It’s a terrific little scene, and one that nearly didn’t make it to the film. Stallone has said that they had told him that they had no money to shoot the scene, and it would have to be cut. “It’s the whole movie”! Stallone argued. Finally, they agreed to give him ONE take. Stallone drank a pint of cheap wine to give him that tired, punchy feel and did the scene. It is terrific, and Stallone was right, it is the core scene of the whole movie. It is what makes “Rocky” so great. Not everyone can be the Champ. 99% of the people that are born in this world don’t have what it takes to be the Champ. But if you can just get in there, stand toe-to-toe with the man and make it to the final bell, even if you get your ass kicked, you’ve done better than 99% of the people in this world. That’s what Rocky wants. He can’t even comprehend winning. It is out of the question. This brings the film such a wonderful, real quality it is amazingly powerful.
WARNING: THE REST OF THIS PIECE IS A SPOILER. IF YOU HAVEN”T SEEN “ROCKY” YOU MAY NOT WANT TO CONTINUE, THE ENDING OF THE MOVIE IS REVEALED.
The rest is history. Rocky fights Apollo, does incredibly well and scores a knockdown (ala Wepner), but loses a split decision in the end. It is a brutal fight and at the end, the amazing thing is that Rocky could care less about the outcome. He is calling for Adrian, for she means much more to him than any fight, or title, could ever mean. It is incredibly touching, and there has never been a film in history where you feel so good, even though the main character “lost”. To me, “Rocky” is so much more than a boxing film. The fight itself is symbolic of the fights that all of us have to make every day to become complete people. Even though he loses, the fight gives Rocky completion. He realizes all of the small dreams that he has by pursuing the big dream that is given to him.
It is a film about small people in a hard place, who just want what we all want. Love, home, and family. Self-respect. And something to come home to besides a couple of turtles. Not too much to ask for, huh? If you haven’t seen “Rocky”, obviously I recommend it highly. Hopefully, Mr. Stallone can capture some of it’s magic again in “Rocky Balboa”, although the real, original feel of the piece has been gone since “Rocky II”. And even if he doesn’t, “Rocky” is a great film. Mr. Stallone has made a cinema classic that will be enjoyed for generations to come. And that’s more than 99% of us have done.
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