' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Rocky (1976)

Friday, December 04, 2015

Friday's Old Fashioned: Rocky (1976)

Here’s some trivia you probably already know…titles like The Italian Stallion and Hell’s Kitchen and Pepper Alley were all considered before all interested parties settled on the spartan “Rocky”, and why not? It’s just right. Yes, yes, the story of 1976’s Best Picture winner is wholly formulaic, yet writer Sylvester Stallone and director John G. Avildsen knew full well that the film was not as much about the story as the character, about Rocky. They created a presence, a person, and set a fiercely sentimentalized story around him. If it was just any old lug, it wouldn’t have done; but because it was Rocky, this likable lug, this guy who still has enough joy left in his disposition despite his otherwise miserable lot in life to name his goldfish Moby Dick, whose first real conversation in the film is talking to that fish, this familiar tale of a down-on-his-luck boxer who gets one shot at the title rung out for generation.

“Rocky’s” Best Picture win in 1976 will often turn up on those dreadfully reductive Best Pictures That Shouldn’t Have Won Best Picture listicles of Internet excrement. And it’s not that these lists are technically incorrect. “Rocky” probably isn’t as “good” as “All the President’s Men” or “Taxi Driver” or “The Outlaw Josey Wales”, which wasn’t even nominated, but whatever. The Oscars, as I have come to understand more and more over the years, are about, to paraphrase William Goldman, the story; as in, the off-screen story, the tale of moviemaking triumph, how they got there. And “Rocky” got there in one helluva way, an off screen story that matched up perfectly to the one taking place on screen.

The producer credits for Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler appear over a trash-strewn Philadelphia street, minus musical accompaniment, a perhaps unintentional touch that nonetheless emblemizes the hardscrabble nature of the production. Avildsen had to work fast, shooting in twenty-eight days, and the picture looks like it, as if it was almost all grab and go, and sometimes it was, like in the immortal ice rink scene in which the absence of funds to afford extras functioned as divine intervention. Maybe it was. After all, the film opens with an image of Jesus, plastered on the wall of the boxing ring where we first meet our hero. It’s a moment that could play laughably shameless, and probably does, but could also play like director, producers and star metaphorically lighting a votive candle

Stallone, of course, wrote the script in a single three day burst and then refused to sell it unless the contract stipulated that he played the title role. It was a million-to-one shot, really, which, as it happens, became the film’s tag line. It makes it virtually impossible not to see Rocky as Stallone. Indeed, there is a moment early in the film, when we’re still getting to know Rocky, when he pauses at his mirror to stare down himself as an adolescent boy in a black and white photo stuck to his mirror. It’s another on-the-nose sequence, but it still works, blurring that line between silver screen and movie set, Stallone staring himself down, as if wondering if he really has the resilience to make this work.

Stallone’s actual performance is something of a marvel, endearing if occasionally enervating, like the kind of guy who prattles on and on and on like that relative at Thanksgiving dinner whose company you generally enjoy even if you wish he’d just power down for a few minutes. Stallone has always possessed an immense neediness, educed in his never-ending returning to franchises where he gets to play the hero, where even in a movie like “Copland” in which his character is supposed to be hopeless he’s nonetheless the only hope, and that neediness informs the first-movie “Rocky” in a way it never has since. He wants so desperately to be liked, to be viewed as something approaching a philosopher of the streets, so to speak, which is why the film's funniest moment is still the young girl he gives unwanted council calling him a “creepo!” and running away. The moments where Rocky tries to get the beloved Adrian (Talia Shire, so withdrawn she practically vanishes in certain frames) to sit down with him on the couch would probably play different in a thousand other movies; here he just means what he says. There is no menacing subtext with Rocky Balboa.

Perhaps the film's most enduring sequence is the triumphant ascendance of the “Rocky Steps” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art set to Bill Conti's immortal “Gonna Fly Now.” I confess, I've always preferred the first ascendance of the “Rocky Steps”, the one in the quiet pre-dawn hours, heralding the start of his training for the big fight, where he’s hopelessly huffing and puffing and clutching his side, about to keel over and vomit. The second ascendance is good, no doubt, but it’s only earned because of the first. And it’s earned, in fact, to such a degree that re-watching “Rocky” in anticipation of “Creed” (review arriving on your local interwebs next week), I almost could not help but feel that the big fight between Rocky and Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) was, in a certain sense, anti-climactic.

I occasionally fantasize about different end, one more akin to Mickey Rourke's “The Wrestler”, with a fade-out just prior to the big fight. Yes, yes, Rocky has his memorable speech about needing to go the fifteen rounds to prove t himself that he isn’t a bum. But Rocky, you want to say, buddy, you’ve already proven it.

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