Rocky (1976, John G. Avildsen)

!! CAUTION !!

In macho movie logic, what does a nice lady like Talia Shire’s long-suffering pet shop employee Adrian need after decades of being pushed around and belaguered by her brutish asshole brother? Clearly, for some oversharing lunatic to come into the pet shop, be incredibly juvenile and annoying, and sweep her off her feet, at which point he magically becomes a natural loverboy. Of course, Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) isn’t a bad bloke, he’s just kind of a big dumb lug, and pushy to boot. He’s likable enough, sure, and it’s easy enough to comprehend how this might translate to a crush on the part of the good-natured and somewhat meek Adrian, but at no point does he resemble an adult human being. His entire world is skewed oddly on his fixation toward amateur boxing, which in further macho movie logic somehow translates to his vying for a coveted championship title against one of the top fighters in the country. Right.

Rocky isn’t as silly a film as the bare facts of its story probably suggest, and there’s actually more here to discover if you bother to look at it a second time, as I did recently. For instance, I had neglected to notice how carefully Stallone (who also wrote the screenplay) cultivates Rocky’s humanizing characteristics until he very neatly coalesces his two narratives — love story and boxing odyssey — to provide a crowd-pleasing ending that actually dismisses its ostensible climax as a MacGuffin backdrop to the emotional quest that really matters. I don’t think the story or script are particularly good, nor do I think its characters are particularly full-bodied or believable, but certainly it’s an almost flawless exercise in the crafting of popular Hollywood entertainment. It’s nearly a bare embodiment of the emotional essence of the sports picture, the romance picture, the underdog picture — an unabashed throwback to the days of Frances Marion and Irving Thalberg.

But this also reaches down to the central problem of the movie: it has nothing unique to offer. Like The Sting before it, it generates popular acclaim through its rehashing of Screenwriting 101 tropes, right down to the mathematically ebbing and flowing rhythm (witness the way the climactic fight is preceded by a lengthy introspective sequence, and on and on before that), the artificial entrance of villainy, and a whole lot of the self-involved masculine brooding that American movies copyrighted. Most of Rocky‘s memorable sequences can be traced with little trouble all the way back to the silent era, including the lengthy and endlessly imitated training montage, the presence of the grizzled vet (a sadly wasted Burgess Meredith), and the wish fufillment of a champion arbitrarily deciding to fight a nobody. This is all competently directed by John G. Avildsen, who captures a few miracles in the early-morning light of Philadelphia but largely covers curiously sterile ground that lacks real atmosphere.

All right, then, if the movie is a giant clichĂ© in terms of its tackling of boxing, training, determination and all that, isn’t its romantic aspect what makes it special? After all, Rocky and Adrian are an unlikely couple and there seems genuine feeling between them. But not so fast — travel back twenty years and you discover that this is pretty much Paddy Chayefsky’s Marty, only now with a boxing subplot in place of hostile parentage. Even Joe Mantell’s character as Marty’s screwed up and perpetually negative best friend is matched up succinctly by Burt Young’s inhumanely annoying meatpacker Paulie. The pair of outsiders actually played by beautiful movie people (perhaps Ernest Borgnine didn’t qualify, but Rod Steiger certainly did at the time) matching up in a tender romance is a dead ringer, basic as the premise sounds. Two things this points up: Stallone cannot write dialogue as Chayefsky can by a longshot, with much of what’s here (especially Rocky’s own speeches and tangents) painfully on-the-nose (and I understand the sequels are worse in this regard); and it’s really alarming and insulting that the Academy would choose this over Chayefsky’s Network. But more on that in a moment. There’s also the sense in Marty that we’re seeing two people who really yearn to be in love, eventually with one another; the relationship of Rocky and Adrian seems more like a friendly camaraderie, with the romantic scenes nearly unwatchably awkward, as though Adrian were Rocky’s sister and not Paulie’s. Perhaps it’s a mismatch of performances; Shire is completely believable, whereas it’s hard to get a handle on what exactly her partner is trying to do.

It’s difficult to regard Stallone himself as an exceptionally good or bad actor — he’s mostly just an iconic one, and this is the vital character in creating that situation. It’s plain in his eyes that he’s passionate about this story and this man, but you get the feeling he’s seeing something in it all that no one else can. The conceit of being allowed to compete with the best and being stronger than you’re expected to be might have personal resonance for lots of people, but I can’t detect what Stallone was going for with the disaffected nonchalance of his performance here. It’s as if the events in Rocky’s life are happening more to us than to him. Again, I haven’t seen the sequels, but I wonder if having Stallone himself as director might have been a better idea from the beginning — it seems that his own ideas about the character and the inspirational elements of the story get loss in Avildsen’s constant pushing of an odd kind of bleakness and modern-day dread (although this might have made more sense when paired with Stallone’s supposedly darker original script).

Rocky is above all an exercise in populism and immediacy, and a case study in how to make an anticlimax popular with a mass audience. If you’re attuned to its sensibilities, if stories of its nature interest you in the abstract, I can sense that it would be a rollicking good time and a satisfying film. But it doesn’t sit well with me, mostly because of its absence of nuance. Viewing the Oscar-winning pictures in order, it’s fascinating to note how this is the first winner of the ’70s that is not a period piece (The French Connection took place in the mid-’60s, Cuckoo’s Nest in 1962; the others are more obvious) and yet its world still seems curiously artificial. It’s hard to escape the sense that this scrappy, low-budget effort was an engineered effort to do exactly what it did: get lots of money and widespread favor and launch a number of careers. If you like even a little bit of irony and self-awareness in your movies, this really isn’t for you — perhaps it’s unfair to fault it for that, but there’s such a thing as a film that shies so completely away from idiosyncrasy that it barely seems to hold much of a human element. The people occupying Rocky seem more archetypal tools (especially Mickey Goldmill, Meredith’s cigar-chewing trainer), programmed to say certain things, than characters.

Each year the Academy has a tendency to nominate in the Best Picture category at least one very popular, moneymaking film. In 1977, it was Rocky, which had received decent but not ecstatic reviews and acquired its legend from its audience — and for once, as befitting the subject matter of the film, the high-grossing potboiler won. Why did this happen? Simple: 1976 was one of the most artistically remarkable years in American film. There was no single popularly and critically beloved juggernaut like Cuckoo’s Nest to shut everything out. No, there were three — Network, All the President’s Men, and Taxi Driver. (I loathe Taxi Driver but would not deny that it’s a crucial film of its period; the other two are singular masterpieces.) Those first two deservedly cleaned up awards in all of the acting and writing categories. But for Picture, there was a split; dark horse Bound for Glory was doomed out of the gate, and Rocky became the beneficiary of the impossibility to choose between Network and ATPM. Sidney Lumet was still annoyed about this thirty years later. One assumes he then understood just how Apollo Creed felt.

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