History, Legacy & Showmanship

A Million to One: Remembering “Rocky” on its 40th Anniversary

December 22, 2016 - 4:00 pm   |   By 

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Coate: Of all the roles Sylvester Stallone has played in his career, where does Rocky Balboa rank (and in particular his performance in the original movie)?

Grindon: Clearly this was his performance of a lifetime in a film in which he is more genuinely the author, as screenwriter, lead actor, and inspirational source, rather than Avildsen. And, of course, he takes the role into a whole series of sequels. But maybe, as Creed and Rocky demonstrate, Stallone gives his best performances when directed by another.

Gross: He may have made an impression with Rambo, but he left his mark with Rocky. His performance as Rocky in that first film was so strong that it immediately convinced pretty much everyone that that’s who Stallone was. Obviously not the case — let’s not forget he wrote all six films in the series and directed four of them. Relatively speaking it was “easy” for him to slip back into the part for the first four sequels, but look at the nuance of his performance in Rocky Balboa and, then, in Creed. How do you not come away from all of that with great respect for the man and his skills? 

Lichtenfeld: Rocky Balboa is Stallone’s greatest role, partly because it is (or became) his most personal. And his portrayal of Rocky in the original film is the best performance he ever gave or ever will. That’s because the character more than just the righteous underdog of the sequels. Again, most of Rocky is not about that. The movie — and Stallone’s performance in it — is really about a guy who wants to connect with people more than he knows how to, about someone who just wants other people to really see him. There’s a sweetness and a biting loneliness that are mixed together inside Rocky, and Stallone brings it all out…. And then there’s Stallone’s sniffling! It’s a subtle device, but it’s really effective at getting you to sense the coldness of late-fall Philadelphia. Don’t discount that. It’s always special when movies make you feel their weather.

Stephenson: Rocky is Stallone. If he did nothing else in his career, he’ll be remembered forever as Rocky Balboa. The interesting thing about Stallone is that he’s the only actor in history to portray the same character in films spanning five consecutive decades. Stallone was also smart in that Rocky’s journey is a mirror for Stallone’s — Rocky: Young, hungry up and comer looking to escape his struggles and make his mark. Rocky II: Trying to deal with newfound fame and success. Rocky III: Getting a bit too absorbed and lost in your own hype. Rocky IV: Becoming a global icon. Rocky V: Trying to recover from that global explosion and strip it back to basics. Rocky Balboa: Finding relevance in a world that’s moved beyond you. Creed: Passing the baton and grooming the next generation. If you look at the films, they’re really metaphors for Stallone’s life and career at those points. I truly believe that what you see in Rocky is a pretty accurate representation of who Stallone was through those films. The original film had the benefit of Stallone being a relative unknown and therefore free of the baggage he brought into the later films. But, again, that baggage is what helped shape those other films.

A still from Rocky (1977)

Coate: The year 1976 was arguably a very strong one for the film industry. Did Rocky deserve to win the Oscar for Best Picture? If yes, why? If not, which film do you believe was the best from 1976?

Grindon: I think Rocky was a deserving picture with a well-organized plot and excellent performances. It also touched audiences intensely. From the perspective of 40 years later its commercial success and enormous influence is obvious. In my experience teaching the film contemporary audiences still enjoy the film immensely. Personally I prefer Taxi Driver among the nominees for “Best Picture” that year, but Rocky was an excellent film.

Gross: At another time, maybe not. The competition included Taxi Driver, Network and All the President’s Men. It was a pretty dark time in America, possibly best represented that year by All the President’s Men and its subject matter. America needed an escape from reality; it needed to believe again and Rocky provided them the opportunity to do so.

Lichtenfeld: If you’re asking about Network (since that was the movie that was really slugging it out with Rocky at the Oscars), then I think Rocky definitely deserved it. They’re different movies — Network is mainly a subversive, satirical look at a societal ill; Rocky is about people in their environments and in their lives as they live them. Personally, I think Network strays beyond satire and into parody; it’s a less consistent movie, and I’m always struck by how much more I’m invested I am in the first half than the second. But with Rocky, I’m engaged in everything equally…. Taxi Driver could also have been a contender (so to speak). And with its own use of locations, a wandering main character, and a plot that doesn’t fully announce itself until relatively late, it has a lot in common with Rocky. So between Rocky and Taxi Driver, which one deserved the Oscar for Best Picture? That’s easy — whichever one I’ve seen more recently!

Stephenson: On one hand I say no. I could make the argument that all four of the other nominees that year were as good or better movies in the broader sense, but with the exception of Taxi Driver, none of those other films have endured anywhere close to the same degree that Rocky has. So is the Best Picture the one that strikes the zeitgeist in the moment or the one that resonates and leaves ripples of influence far beyond the awards season? If you consider the best picture the one we’re still talking about and celebrating its title character now 40 years later... I don’t know if there is a better picture than Rocky for that or most any year. 

Coate: Compare and contrast the original “Rocky” with its sequels and spin-offs.

Grindon: Rocky is by far the best of the series. Creed from last year was a surprisingly strong film and probably the runner up to the original Rocky from among the series.

Gross: Rocky gets the credit for being the original, by packing such power on a low budget and by the conviction of everyone in front of and behind the camera…. Rocky II deserves kudos for feeling like a natural continuation and next chapter in the character’s life, though the schmaltz factor went up a bit there with Adrian’s coma…. Rocky III began to enter cartoon territory, but what a glorious “cartoon” it was. Pure entertainment with some heart, and a solid story for the Italian Stallion as he has to rediscover who he was while dealing with the death of Mickey…. Rocky IV is full-blown cartoon, cut like an MTV video, and for the most part lacks the heart of its predecessors. It’s also a ridiculous (especially in hindsight) tool of propaganda. The Russians wrap the American flag around Rocky’s shoulders? C’mon!.... Rocky V — the second you hear that Paulie was given power of attorney, it’s over. There is zero credibility…. Rocky Balboa is a return to the qualities of the original, Stallone pretty much making you believe that Rocky could successfully take this one last shot. Or so we thought…. Creed, while branching off from the main franchise, manages to maintain and modernize the elements that worked so well in the original, while introducing audiences to a new character to identify with.

Lichtenfeld: I never saw Creed in its finished form, so it wouldn’t be fair for me to judge. As for the others, Rocky II is a surprisingly credible sequel. Sure, it’s more melodramatic than the original and it has a much flatter visual style. (I attribute the latter to Stallone, as director and star, wanting to make sure there’s no ambiguity about where the viewer’s eye should be.) But Rocky II is moving and funny and feels like a natural extension of what came before. It satisfies the most basic criterion I have for a sequel: that it tells a believable story about what happened next to these people…. Rocky III is a grotesque freakshow of racism, narcissism, and redemption fantasies. Luckily, there is nothing — absolutely nothing, not a single solitary thing — going on in America’s current political life that should make that feel at all familiar. I mean, Rocky III is a movie where the villain is made to embody the most vile clichés of the stereotypical savage black man, and wear the iconography of the stereotypical savage Indian. And then the white hero vanquishes him while essentially wearing the American flag. This is a movie that should be on Steve Bannon’s Top Ten, right under Schindler’s List (selected scenes)…. Rocky IV is Rocky IV, and always will be. If you were to put a movie in a time capsule that captured the mainstream filmmaking and pop-culture vogues of the mid-1980s, Rocky IV would be a great choice based on its politics, depictions of conspicuous consumerism and excess, heightened style, and threadbare story. (It takes something special to kick off three music video sequences within ten minutes or so, the first set to a song called Burning Heart and the last set to a song called Heart’s on Fire.) It’s actually a little bizarre how Rocky and Rocky IV are so utterly different yet fundamentally connected. The fact that they belong to the same series could support the theory of a multiverse…. Thinking of Rocky V makes me feel a little wistful, but not because of anything in the movie. It’s because I remember how striking it was in 1990 to see a Rocky movie fail to connect with the public, and how strange it was to feel like the times had left this institution behind. It was the first time I felt that something from my youth had become irrelevant in the world and was now suddenly anachronistic…. Rocky Balboa was a great comeback. It captured the original’s heart and intimacy and sense of place much more than most of the other sequels had. To put Rocky Balboa in context, it belongs to a rash of real reboots: franchises that Hollywood dusted off and/or re-envisioned. After James Bond and Rocky in late 2006, there would be Die Hard, Rambo, Indiana Jones, Star Trek, and even The X-Files, all within a few years. But Rocky Balboa was one of the first into the pool, and had to prove that it had credibility. Which it does. I loved seeing how Rocky Balboa won people back from their assumptions about how ridiculous it was going to be, and how ridiculous it was to have made it.

Stephenson: Rocky II carries all the same DNA as the original and it’s understandable that so many consider it a worthy sequel. It continues Rocky’s story while giving audiences the completely uplifting ending they were denied in the original. Rocky III is really the Mason/Dixon (coincidentally also a Rocky “villain”) line in the series. Rocky and Rocky II both have a small, almost indie dramatic spirit. Rocky III begins to diverge into the popcorn spectacles that they were for a while. You would be hard-pressed to find the connective dramatic tissue between the original film and Rocky IV, with its robots delivering birthday cakes and MTV score and editing. Well, that connective tissue is Rocky III. I talked to Stallone about Rocky III one afternoon and he acknowledged that there’s just something about why Rocky III works so well that he can’t quite explain. I can’t say it’s the best one, but it’s my favorite and if I had to choose only one to watch, it’d be Rocky III, although Rocky Balboa is up there as well. Rocky IV moves away from the dramatic tension contained in the first three to become a full-blown, kinetic, crowd-pleasing experience. It’s a 90-minute music video that is all sensory overload... it’s Montage: The Movie. Some people think Rocky IV is a bad movie. Wrong! It’s a great movie that does exactly what it sets out to do extremely well; it’s just not a great Rocky movie. In many ways it exists in its own universe. Rocky V is an ambitious misfire. It took risks that were admirable, but really misunderstood what audiences wanted. Watching Rocky go from rags to riches only to lose it all was angering for many (myself included). Audiences had traveled too far and invested too much emotion in Rocky Balboa only to see everything stripped away from him. It doesn’t help that the late Tommy Morrison wasn’t a very good actor and that Rocky doesn’t actually box in the film. A street fight set to hip hop is possibly even a bigger departure from the series than anything seen in Rocky IV. But... without Rocky V we don’t get Rocky Balboa and Rocky Balboa is the best, most pure Rocky since the original. This is Stallone hungry and ready to prove himself all over again. There’s a million reasons why Rocky Balboa shouldn’t work and Stallone doesn’t allow any of those to infest his film. Creed is perhaps the most intriguing because it’s not a story created by Stallone (the only instance of that). It’s pretty insane that Creed director Ryan Coogler had the balls to take a character and universe that wasn’t his and, not only want to expand it, but get the creator to go along as a tourist. The thing to know about Sly is that he’s not a passive figure. If you’re a director working with Stallone, you better have a concrete vision with purpose because he’ll eat you up if you don’t. If you’re a director and you know exactly what you want in the film, Sly respects and responds to that. The fact that Coogler even had the courage to push the idea at all was probably one of the things Stallone responded to most. At its core, Creed is just a loose remake of the original, but it’s done with such heart and respect that I think it surprised almost everyone with how great it is, myself included.

Cliff Stephenson & Sylvester Stallone

Coate: What is the legacy of Rocky?

Grindon: Rocky has a rich legacy and certainly no boxing film can be made without looking over its shoulder to Rocky. Even Raging Bull (1980), in my view the greatest of all boxing films, is a reaction to Rocky, the antithesis to the Rocky thesis. There is also the legacy of the low budget, breakthrough “sleeper” hit that Rocky represents. It is a comeback movie, a comeback against the expensive film extravaganza that continues to dominate Hollywood. So that is an important part of its legacy as well. For more of my thoughts on Rocky, see pages 215 to 225 in my book, Knockout: The Boxer and Boxing in American Cinema.

Gross: Its inspirational quality. Whether you want to go the distance, gain the eye of the tiger, or prove that it ain’t about how hard you hit, it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward, it’s a message that has spanned 40 years and will likely keep on going.

Lichtenfeld: One part of its legacy is all the people it’s inspired. Just think of the ritual of running up those art museum steps. Rocky came out during the centennial year of the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s original charter, but, arguably, what Rocky has made people feel made the steps into an even greater institution…. Another big part of its legacy is Sylvester Stallone, just as a big part of his legacy will always be Rocky. The movie may be the ultimate fusion of star, character, and persona — especially considering how Stallone wrote all of the movies and directed most of them…. The legacy of Rocky is also its status as the ultimate underdog story, which is a little ironic since it’s also much more than that. That’s why I think one more part of Rocky’s legacy is — or should be — how it marked a transition between the New Hollywood movies of the 1960s and ‘70s and Star Wars. Star Wars is often seen as “redeeming” the ambiguity, ambivalence, and genre-bending of the New Hollywood movement for mass audiences ready to simply escape and feel good. Rocky has the angst of the former and sends you out of the theater with a feeling of triumph and exultation like the latter. But even Rocky’s triumph is not uncomplicated or pure…. So in a way, I think the legacy of the original Rocky is a lot like the character himself: inherently great but still not often seen for all it really is.

Stephenson: We talk about legacy in terms of “what will this leave behind” but in the case of Rocky, it feels so present still that I don’t even know that legacy is the right word. It’s sort of like Star Wars in that it’s ultimately ascended above legacy to iconography. It isn’t this thing that “was”... it’s just this thing that “is.” Legacy feels like something we remember, but Rocky is still on-going. There’s only been a handful of films throughout the medium that have achieved that level of total icon status. Commercials use the theme to this day. “Yo Adrian” needs no explanation. It joins a short list of films including Psycho, Jaws, Star Wars, Wizard of Oz, The Exorcist, The Godfather, 2001, and a few others that are on a different plane. It sounds silly to position Rocky up against those other titles, until you really stop and think about how ingrained in our society Rocky really is. I don’t even think about it in terms of pop culture, but simply the culture at large…. But I think the real legacy of Rocky is Sylvester Stallone. If Rocky never hit or if Stallone had been tempted by the bigger paycheck he was offered to not star, I think the movies throughout the 80s, 90s, and 2000s would look very different. 

Coate: Thank you — Leger, Edward, Eric, and Cliff — for participating and sharing your thoughts on Rocky on the occasion of its 40th anniversary.

A still from Rocky (1977)

 

SOURCES/REFERENCES

Primary references for this project included promotional material published in numerous daily newspapers archived digitally and/or on microfilm plus articles published in film industry trade publications Billboard, Boxoffice, The Hollywood Reporter, and Variety, and the books Epics, Spectacles, and Blockbusters: A Hollywood History by Sheldon Hall and Steve Neale (Wayne State University Press, 2010), George Lucas’s Blockbusting: A Decade-by-Decade Survey of Timeless Movies Including Untold Secrets of Their Financial and Cultural Success edited by Alex Ben Block and Lucy Autrey Wilson (George Lucas Books/HarperCollins, 2010), and The Hollywood Reporter Book of Box Office Hits by Susan Sackett (Billboard, 1996),

All figures and data included in this article pertain to the United States and Canada except where stated otherwise.

 

SPECIAL THANKS

Jerry Alexander, Al Alvarez, Jim Barg, Don Beelik, Deb Bier, Laura Blair, Timothy Bulger, Raymond Caple, John Cork, Bill Cronauer, Beth Curran, Kimberly Diebolt, Nick DiMaggio, Heather R. Edwards, Lunden England, Laura Fazekas, Leger Grindon, Edward Gross, Christine Hadlow, Wendy Hall, Kathy Harger, Khalilah Hayes, John Hazelton, Blaine Holloway, Thomas Hutchens, William Inge, Bill Kretzel, Ronald A. Lee, Mark Lensenmayer, Eric Lichtenfeld, Sam Lollar, Stan Malone, Andrew Miller, Alexis Neapolitan, Gabriel Neeb, Tim O’Neill, Edwina Parks, Kristi Robb, Desiree Sharland, Daniel Sheahan, Grant Smith, Tim Spindle, Cliff Stephenson, John Stewart, John Tegel, Mike Thomason, Shannon Tippit, Robert Tucker, Kat Stone Underwood, Troy Valos, Jessica Wakefield, Vince Young, Kellyn Younggren; and to all of the librarians who helped with the research for this project, and to the California State Library and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Margaret Herrick Library and Fairbanks Center for Motion Picture Study.

A still from Rocky (1977)

 

SELECTED IMAGES

Copyright/courtesy 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, CBS-Fox Home Video, MGM Home Entertainment, United Artists Corporation. Home-video cover-art collage designed by Cliff Stephenson.

 

IN MEMORIAM

  • Harry W. Tetrick (Sound), 1911-1977
  • David Thayer (“Jergens”), 1927-1978
  • Butkus Stallone (“Rocky’s Dog”), 1969-1981
  • Bill Baldwin (“Fight Announcer”), 1913-1982
  • James Crabe (Director of Photography), 1931-1989
  • Joe Spinell (“Gazzo”), 1936-1989
  • Burgess Meredith (“Mickey”), 1907-1997
  • Stu Nahan (“Fight Commentator”), 1926-2007
  • William L. McCaughey (Sound), 1929-2000
  • Lyle J. Burbridge (Sound), 1922-2006
  • Frank Stallone (“Timekeeper”), 1919-2011
  • Joe Frazier (himself), 1944-2011
  • Bert Schoenfeld (Post-Production Sound), 1920-2013
  • B. Eugene Ashbrook (Sound Mixer), 19??-2014
  • Robert Chartoff (Producer), 1933-2015
  • Tony Burton (“Apollo’s Trainer”), 1937-2016
  • Ray Alba (Post-Production Sound), 1926-2016

 

- Michael Coate

Michael Coate can be reached via e-mail through this link.

     Rocky on home video over the years


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