Rocky (1976) UA/Drama RT: 120 minutes Rated PG (boxing violence, language, alcohol abuse) Director: John G. Avildsen Screenplay: Sylvester Stallone Music: Bill Conti Cinematography: James Crabe Release date: December 3, 1976 (US) Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Burt Young, Carl Weathers, Burgess Meredith, Thayer David, Joe Spinell, Tony Burton, Jimmy Gambina, Al Salvani, Jodi Letizia, Pedro Lovell, Joe Frazier. Box Office: $117 million (US)/$225 million (World)
The making and success of Rocky is a real life rags-to-riches story. Made on a budget of just over $1 million and shot in 28 days, the suits at United Artists didn’t expect it to take off the way it did. They wanted a more established star- e.g. James Caan, Ryan O’Neal or Robert Redford- to play the lead, but writer Sylvester Stallone insisted that he be given the opportunity to star. Like the eponymous character, the movie defied everybody’s expectation and became a smash hit. Not only did it gross $117 million domestically, it won three Oscars (Best Picture, Director and Editing). In an ironic twist, it covered the losses for Martin Scorsese’s musical bomb New York, New York which UA thought would be the year’s big moneymaker. Rocky was filmed right here in Philadelphia; it’s become a HUGE part of the city’s history. It’s interesting to watch the film now and see how much the City of Brotherly Love has changed since the mid-70s. But that’s not the only reason I think Rocky is an excellent film. The story of a down-and-out fighter that gets a shot at the big time is a story that’s been told a thousand times, mainly in the genre boxing movies of the 30s and 40s, but rarely has it been as emotionally involving as it is here. The characters and plot elements are all familiar, yet they feel fresh and alive under the sure-handed direction of John G. Avildsen (Joe, Save the Tiger) who strikes the perfect tone for the material. It’s well-written, perfectly cast and beautifully acted. Simply put, it’s great filmmaking.
Everybody thinks Rocky Balboa is a bum. At night, he’s a club fighter who’s lucky if he clears $40 a night. By day, he’s a collector for a local loan shark (Spinell, Maniac). He lives in a crappy apartment in a deserted area of Philly. Nobody respects him, least of all Mickey Goldmill (Meredith, Penguin from TV’s Batman), the crusty old trainer that manages the gym where Rocky works out. He despises that the young fighter with so much potential has wasted his life. On the outside, Rocky is a brute. On the inside, he’s tender enough to be in love with Adrian (Shire, The Godfather), the super-shy girl that works at the local pet shop. She also happens to be the sister of his best friend Paulie (Young, The Gambler), a loutish drunk filled with resentment and bitterness at having done nothing with his life. Rocky gets his shot at the heavyweight championship when he’s picked to fight Apollo Creed (Weathers, Action Jackson) in a special match honoring the Bicentennial. It’s basically a publicity stunt, but Rocky is determined to go the distance with the champ. Rocky trains like he never trained before, getting up at 4am and drinking raw eggs before he goes out for a run. After an angry confrontation, he accepts Mickey’s offer to be his trainer and manager. It all leads up to the climactic match between the champ and the underdog who will ultimately exceed everybody’s expectations.
Roger Ebert, at the time, described Stallone as “a young Marlon Brando”. I can see it. You know the classic line from On the Waterfront, “I coulda been a contender”? Rocky picks it up from there. Stallone takes a lot of grief from critics about his acting skills, but I think that’s unfair. Granted, he’s not (and never will be) one of those actors that do Shakespearean roles. He’s a different kind of actor. He’s absolutely great in Rocky. There’s a sadness, a sense of loneliness and isolation to his character. The part of Philly he lives in is a physical representation of his internal landscape. For all his roughness and lack of intelligence, he’s a good guy. In one scene, he walks a neighborhood girl home while explaining why she shouldn’t hang out with older boys in front of the corner store. It’s not an eloquent explanation, but he gets his point across. Stallone understands that Rocky Balboa is a product of his surroundings. All his life, he’s been put down and kept down. Now, he has a chance to change that. It’s a fairy tale premise, a total Hollywood story, but Stallone keeps his character real and, by extension, the film. His screenplay, while not entirely original, is solidly written. He understands the characters, the places, the situations and everything else. Thankfully, Avildsen has a firm enough grasp of film language that the audience understands these things too.
I mentioned already that Rocky is perfectly cast and I stand by that. Take the casting of Shire as Rocky’s love interest. The producers, Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff, didn’t want too pretty an actress for the part. After a dispute with original choice Carrie Snodgress, they went with Shire. She’s not conventionally beautiful making her ideal for an “ugly duckling” character. Adrian hides behind a pair of thick glasses and never looks Rocky in the eye when he speaks to her. She barely responds to him and when she does, it’s barely a whisper. One of the most romantic scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie is when Rocky takes off Adrian’s glasses revealing how attractive she really is. Her character blossoms over the course of the movie; in a sense, turning into a swan, one capable of speaking up for herself. Weather is excellent as a character inspired by Muhammad Ali with his enormous ego and all the trash-talk. Young and Meredith are also perfect in their respective parts. Even though the predictability factor is high, Rocky is truly exciting. The iconic scene where he runs up the steps of the Art Museum still sends chills. The climactic fight is thrilling to watch. The cinematography, some accomplished by new-at-the-time Steadicam, is smooth, slick and gritty, adding an even deeper sense of realism to the proceedings. The editing is flawless as well. And lest we forget, the Bill Conti score. I still love that theme song. Being from the Philly area, I loved seeing landmarks like the Frankford El, the Italian market and Pat’s Steaks on screen. Rocky rightly deserves all the recognition and accolades it has received over the years. It really is one of the best movies ever made.