Before Mr. T. pitied the fool. Before Dolph Lundgren threatened to break you. And long before Michael B. Jordan proved he wasn’t a mistake. There was a little, low-budget movie about a Philadelphia boxer named Rocky Balboa. And it was pretty darn good.
The premise is simple but clear. Apollo Creed, the heavyweight boxing champion of the world, is scheduled to fight in Philadelphia on January 1, 1976. The title fight is promoted as the kickoff of the United States Bicentennial. But just after Thanksgiving he finds out his opponent has to cancel due to an injured hand. No matter what the promoter tries he can’t fight a replacement so Creed has one humdinger of an idea. He decides to give a local contender a chance at the title. The fighter he chooses is an aspiring southpaw named Rocky Balboa, otherwise known as “The Italian Stallion.”
“Rocky, it’s the chance of a lifetime.” – Promoter Miles Jergens
“What happened to you is freak luck.” – Mick
“A 50 to 1 underdog living a Cinderella story, and he’s captured people’s imaginations all over the world.” – Boxing announcer
It’s totally far-fetched in every imaginable way. It’s also utterly wonderful.
Rocky (Sylvester Stallone…duh) begins the story in the slums of Philadelphia working as a debt collector for a loan shark named Gazzo (Joe Spinell).
He’s the guy Gazzo sends to break thumbs if you’re late on the $200 you owe. But Rocky’s a kind-hearted goofball so he usually doesn’t end up breaking the thumbs. But Gazzo likes him so he doesn’t mind so much.
When he’s not collecting for Gazzo, Rocky is a small-time club boxer who trains at Mighty Mick’s Boxing Gym. The Mighty Mick in question is Mickey Goldmill (Burgess Meredith), a 76-year old ex-boxer who was successful but never had the same level of fame or financial success as his contemporaries like Jack Dempsey.
Mick sees potential in Rocky but doesn’t approve of his work for Gazzo. When Creed chooses Rocky as his opponent Mick sees it as an opportunity to help Rocky achieve the success that he never could.
It’s a great sports story. But in my opinion the heart of this film has nothing to do with boxing. It’s the love story between Rocky and Adrian.
Paulie: Do you really like her?
Rocky: Sure, I like her.
Paulie: I don’t see it. What’s the attraction?
Rocky: I don’t know. It fills gaps, I guess.
Paulie: What’s gaps?
Rocky: I don’t know. Gaps. She’s got gaps, I got gaps. Together, we fill gaps.
It feels a lot like Marty and Clara in the 1955 best picture winner Marty. Two lovable people that nobody ever gave much of a chance. Rocky and Adrian are a sweet, sweet couple. I love them together. And watching Talia Shire transform as the film goes on is a really effective but subtle touch. She begins as shy and timid but as the film goes on she begins to blossom into the beautiful woman she’s always been but nobody could see.
Talia Shire is a powerful presence in this film. I don’t think people give her the respect she deserves as an actress. I’m glad she was up for best actress. She didn’t win but she sure as hell deserved the nomination.
As the film progresses Stallone’s script does a fantastic job of really developing these characters. The film is semi-autobiographical. You can tell he knew all of these people inside and out.
The film lags a little bit as it gets into the second act. But once they pick him to fight Apollo Creed the story picks right back up again.
From there he trains, falls in love with Adrian, deals with her brother Paulie and fights his own doubts and insecurities to get inside the ring with the heavyweight champion of the world.
It all culminates with a fight. And I think this is where Stallone’s script does its most impressive work. The way he builds the fight round after round is outstanding.
This best picture winner pulled on my heartstrings more than any other. Yes, even more than the La Marseillaise scene in Casablanca.
If you don’t get chills when Rocky sprints through the shipping yards and up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art you oughtta check your pulse.
And if you don’t get at least a little misty-eyed* when Rocky screams for Adrian as she runs through the crowd and into Rocky’s arms after the fight you probably don’t have a soul.
“All I wanna do is go the distance. Nobody’s ever gone the distance with Creed. And if I can go that distance…see, if that bell rings and I’m still standin’…I’m gonna know for the first time in my life, you see, that I weren’t just another bum from the neighborhood.” – Rocky
I think a lot of the credit goes to director John G. Avildsen.
There have been directors who have won the Oscar only because their film won best picture.
- Leo McCarey (Going My Way)
- Vincente Minelli (Gigi)
- Tony Richardson (Tom Jones)
But John Avildsen is not one of those directors. His work in Rocky is fantastic. From the opening scene where Rocky fights Spider Rico (he’s a bum) you can see his smart and deliberate direction.
Avildsen was no fluke. He also guided Jack Lemmon to an Academy Award in 1973 for Save the Tiger and directed the first three Karate Kid films.
He just died of pancreatic cancer in June of this year. He was 81.
John G. Avildsen is the forgotten man in the legacy of Rocky Balboa.
“I owe just about everything to John Avildsen. His directing, his passion, his toughness and his heart — a great heart — is what made Rocky the film it became. He changed my life and I will be forever indebted to him. Nobody could have done it better than my friend John Avildsen. I will miss him.” – Sylvester Stallone**
But in 1976 he, and Rocky, were not forgotten by the Academy. Besides picture and director the film also won for its editing.
But Rocky wasn’t the champ of the ceremony that night. Network, along with All the President’s Men, were on top with four Oscars each.
Network became the second film (A Streetcar Named Desire) to win three acting Oscars. It’s also the last to receive five acting nominations and the 11th to receive nominations in all four acting categories.
There were also three notable firsts at the 49th Academy Awards.
#1 – Peter Finch became the first posthumous winner of an acting Oscar having died a little over 3 months before the ceremony.
#2 – Finch’s Network costar, Beatrice Straight, became the actor with shortest performance ever to win an Oscar. She appears in the film for only five minutes and two seconds. Granted, it’s a pretty ferocious 5 minutes. But I would’ve voted for 12-year old Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver.
#3 – Lina Wertmüller became the first woman nominated for best director for her film Seven Beauties. She knocked out Martin Scorsese who’s film Taxi Driver was up for four Oscars, including best picture but not director.
*I had to grab a Kleenex. No joke.
**The Hollywood Reporter, “John G. Avildsen, Oscar-Winning Director of ‘Rocky,’ Dies at 81” by Mike Barnes, 6/16/2017