‘Rocky’: The Ultimate Underdog Story

It is the first film I remember audiences standing and cheering in the theatre. They had gone with this club fighter Rocky Balboa for ninety minutes, and now he was in the fight of his life against the heavyweight champion of the world, Apollo Creed. Balboa is given no chance to win, but he knows that, and all he wants to do is go the distance, go the full fifteen rounds, because that will show he was “not just another bum from the neighborhood”.

And of course he does.

Sylvester Stallone was an out of work actor, his wife was expecting and they were behind on the rent. after watching the Ali-Wepner fight on TV he got an idea for a movie about a snow white underdog who is given a shot at the title and alters the course of his life. The actor wrote the script in three days and began shopping it around to the major and minor studios, all who wanted it, but on his terms, that he portray Rocky. He held his ground and eventually United Artists took a chance and gave him a shot, he could play the part, he had a million dollar budget, a journeyman director in John G. Avildsen, and twenty eight days to make the film.

They filled the cast with well known character actors, Burgess Meredith as the cranky old trainer, Burt Young as Rocky’s friend, Talia Shire, likely best known being Francis Ford Coppola’s sister and cast as Connie Corleone in The Godfather films, and for the other fighter, Apollo Creed, modeled on Ali, they found a former football player Carl Weathers to go into the ring against Stallone.

Shot on location in Philadelphia, the film had a naturalistic look to it, real, gritty, and honest. Audiences had never seen anyone like Stallone, a beefy, bass voiced actor with a hang dog expression and sad eyes that bore right through us. His life was lousy, and he wanted so much. Above all he wanted love and begins seeing Adrien (Shire) a rather plain mousy clerk in the local pet shop, his best friend Paulie’s (Burt Young) sister. When the number one contender is sidelined with an injury the champ decides to make the New Years fight a novelty, a gimmick giving a local fighter a chance at the title. Because he likes the nick name The Italian Stallion Rocky invented for himself, he chooses him, and just like that, Rocky’s life changes. Ancient Mickey (Meredith) trains him, using Rocky’s great strength and ability to take a hit to turn him into a warrior. He cannot match the speed or sheer skill of Creed, but he has heart, and power the champ does not expect.

Rocky and Adrien fall in love, he is recognized in the street, and the entire city seems behind him, but Rocky does not kid himself. He knows what he is up against, he knows he cannot beat Apollo, but he thinks he can last fifteen rounds with him.

The fight is extraordinary, as fine a battle as put on the screen until Raging Bull (1980) took it to a new level in realism. Rocky is pummeled in round after round, but gives as good as he gets knocking the champ down for the first time and breaking his ribs. Apollo thinks many times he has won only to see Rocky stand back up and invite him to come at him again, the champion cannot believe that this is the fight of his life too.

In the end of course, Rocky does not win, but he does get the girl and what he wants more than anything, respect.

When the film began previewing in 1976 the critics were stunned by the little movie, realizing United Artists had lightning in a bottle. The reviews were strong but no expected the juggernaut the film became with audiences as lines formed around the block to see the film, cheering was common in the cinemas, and the Cinderella story, instantly and I mean instantly, became part of pop culture. Audiences loved the story, of a down and outer who gets a chance at the keys to the kingdom and even if he does not get them, his foot is in the door.

The film was dubbed a “feel good” movie and would usher in a new type of movie in the seventies, one that was realistic, yet one where that filled the audience with hope. At a time when films were dark, the subject matter bleak, Rocky (1976) was like a cool rain. Kind of like La La Land this year, something refreshing and new.

Stallone caught the imagination of both audiences and critics and his entire life changed with Rocky (1976). He so identified himself with the character he would bring Rocky-esque characteristics to his subsequent films, earning the wrath of director Norma Jewison in F.I.S.T. (1978) a decent labor film that could have been a lot better had the actor trusted his director.

Rocky (1976) was nominated for a whopping ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Actor (Stallone), Actress (Shire), Supporting Actor (Meredith, Young), Director (Avildsen) and Stallone again for screenplay. The film was nominated for Best Picture with some of the finest movies of the decade, All the President’s Men (1976), Network (1976), Taxi Driver (1976) and Bound for Glory (1976) and no one thought it really had a chance. But on Oscar night it prevailed winning Best Film Editing (still cannot believe that), Best Director and in a stunner, Best Picture. Now let’s be clear, not for a moment do I believe Rocky (1976) was the years best film, but I understand that it caught audiences and critics at the right time. It came along at a time when audiences were in need of hope, and Rocky Balboa provided that hope for them. They liked him, they believed in him.

In the immediate years Stallone was hailed as the next great American actor, which he was not, and never was. There were ridiculous ideas floated, one of them being a remake of A Streetcar Named Desire with Stallone in the Brando role and Faye Dunaway as Blanche. Thank God they came to their senses. In the end he went back to what he did best, Rocky in Rocky II (1979), and a slew of sequels, ending we thought with Rocky V (1990). Years later he came back with Rocky Balboa (2006) a very good film that seemed to be the last, but then in a novel idea he was cast in a supporting role in Creed (2015), sought out to train Apollo Creed’s son. Wildly praised the film earned Stallone his second Oscar nomination as Rocky, this time for supporting actor, and while he should have won, he did not.

Forty years, hard to believe. I was seventeen when I saw the film for the first time and have seen it and the sequels many times since. Stallone is immortal as Rocky, and as a movie character filling audiences with hope Rocky is equally immortal.

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