Saturday, July 9, 2016
(November 1976, U.S.)
Over the course of this summer, I've been keeping up with the original CNN documentary series THE EIGHTIES. The most recent episode focused on the tech boom of that decade and the origins of what would eventually become the modern day 21st Century marvels (or should I say addictions??) of personal computers, telephones and movie watching and collecting. It's astounding to look back on something as it once was during another time and consider just how it got to where it is today. So what's that got to do with the movie ROCKY? Well, in the world of motion picture franchises, ROCKY is one of the few that began in another decade and is still active today (STAR WARS, James Bond and Indiana Jones being a few other examples - yes, there's a fifth Indy film on the way!). To look back at ROCKY as it was in the year 1976 and fully realize the journey it took to eventually become CREED (2015) is interesting, if not puzzling. To even look back on who Sylvester Stallone was way back then requires a moment of pause. If you watch the original trailer for ROCKY, the voice-over declares that "newcomer" Sylvester Stallone has been compared to Paul Newman, Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro and Marlon Brando. There might have been some truth to that in the late 1970s, but when you consider much of the mindless crap that Stallone has made throughout his career, those early comparisons are very easily dismissed.
Anyway, allow me now to tell you my own personal story of me and ROCKY...
Believe it or not, ROCKY started out as a small film, with only a limited theatrical release (I think it may have only been in two Manhattan theaters in the beginning). I recall seeing the newspaper ads for the movie as nothing more than the movie's title in simple white letters against a black background, just like the film's opening side crawl. From the perspective of my nine year-old mind at the time, I had no idea what ROCKY was about. In fact, the only time I'd ever heard the name "Rocky" before was in a Bugs Bunny cartoon from a character that was supposed to be modeled after Edward G. Robinson in LITTLE CAESAR (1931). So, needless, to say, I didn't focus too much of my attention on finding out more about this film. Besides, I had the new KING KONG movie to look forward to more!
Many months later, my life was considerably different. I was ten years-old now, my parents had gotten back together and we'd just moved into a massive apartment complex which featured, among many other amenities, a private 400 seat, second run movie theater! In June 1977, after already having won the best picture Oscar for 1976 (though I didn't know that at the time), ROCKY came to that private movie theater and my father took me and my little brother to see it. By that time, I'd learned that ROCKY was a love story about a boxer, but nothing more, really. Still, I loved going to the movies (any movie!) so who was I to complain about anything? When the film started, I recall immediately being taken in by the prospect of the rags-to-riches American Dream story of this man called Rocky Balboa, an uneducated but kind-hearted working class "Italian Stallion" working as a debt collector for a loan shark in the slums of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Rocky starting as a small-time club fighter who later gets a shot at the world heavyweight championship was gripping for me because I'd already spent the past few years watching the fights of the late Muhammad Ali on ABC's Wide World of Sports with my father and felt a certain child's connection to the boxer. I felt puzzled, though, as to why he found such a shy, four-eyed recluse like Adrian so attractive and appealing, but still felt happy for the man when the two of them hooked up so quickly. I was repelled by such a mean character as Paulie and could never fathom why a good man like Rocky would continue to be friends with him, even if he was dating his sister. Still, the human dramas that were taking place up on the screen before me hardly felt boring, even to a ten year-old kid who appreciated a little more action in the movies he watched.
Then came the film's first pivotal moment for me - the training sequence to "Gonna Fly Now". I'd heard that song on the radio for months already, but had no idea until that very moment in my theater seat that it belonged to ROCKY. My eyes lit up and I was amazed! I actually whispered to my father sitting next to me, "I didn't know this song was from this movie!" The familiarity of it just made the entire sequence, particularly Rocky triumphant climb up the museum steps, all the more exciting. By this time, I can only say that I couldn't wait for the big championship fight to begin. My heart was already racing and I was sure that Rocky was going to win! I mean, really, how else could this movie end?? Watching the fight was a spectacular, if not bloody and violent, moment for my young moviegoing eyes. Not until now was I fully realizing the great spirit of the man behind the story. Rocky Balboa was clearly a great champion and the fight wasn't even over yet. He'd already knocked down the champ Apollo Creed and he was about to fulfill his lifelong dream of going the distance of fifteen rounds with the heavyweight champion of the world. Still, that wasn't enough for me! Rocky had to win the fight! He'd beaten the ever-loving crap out of Apollo, so how could he not?? When it was all over and that final bell rang, there was so much pandemonium on the screen accompanied by Bill Conti's music, I couldn't hear or tell what was going on or what the outcome of the fight was. I had to ask my father what a "split decision" was. Then it happened, the moment I'll never forget because I can only remember a horrible sense of disappointment and loss - Apollo Creed raised his arms in victory and I knew what had just happened! I wanted to cry "FOUL!", I wanted to shout out, "NO FAIR!", I wanted my father's ticket money back right now! How could Rocky Balboa have possibly lost this fight?? Was somebody not watching the ass-kicking that Rocky had just administered?? No, this wasn't right! Something had to be done! I asked my father for some sort of clarity and understanding of how something so unjust could take place. I remember his simple response to me was, "They're probably making another Rocky movie and he'll win the re-match." Okay, that may have been all well and good (I was too young to understand the political and moneymaking tactics of Hollywood), but it still didn't erase the enormous feeling I had that such a good man as Rocky Balboa had been royally screwed, and I along with him!
Anyway, that ends my personal story of how I came to know Rocky Balboa.
Many of us very likely know the story of how Sylvester Stallone wrote the screenplay for ROCKY in just three days and lobbied with producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler for himself to star as the title character. He certainly wasn't writing anything too original, however. One only need watch many other boxing films made before ROCKY, particularly SOMEBODY UP THERE LIKES ME (1956) with Paul Newman as Rocky Graziano to know what I'm talking about. Still, there's an undeniable charm in a character like Rocky Balboa at the time of his screen infancy (what the character turned into later is highly questionable!). What he represents for us is the all-American winner, even if he doesn't actually win in the end. There is victory in much of what Rocky does even before the fight. Victory in winning over the girl he fancies, victory in trying to play father figure to a street girl like Marie so doesn't end up as "just another whore on the corner", victory in maintaining his humanity and goodness in his relationship with a man like Paulie and a hard case like Mickey, victory in the freak luck of the championship opportunity that falls in his lap, and the ultimate of victory of giving it his all to strive for excellence. In the end after fifteen rounds, "split decision" or not, Rocky is a winner and it's that wonderful feeling that movie audiences (myself included) took with them right up until the very last frame of the film that ended with the simple, glorious words of, "I love you!" Even today, forty years later, when I watch the film, I am still faced with the feeling of shock and disbelief when Rocky loses the fight. It still just doesn't feel right, despite the necessity of the plot's outcome in order to generate more ROCKY movies! Clearly, I may never get over this one!
ROCKY won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1976. For many years, I'm sure I agreed with that high honor. However, as I've gotten older and my cinematic tastes have matured, I have to say that as much as I love and treasure ROCKY, it's Martin Scorsese's TAXI DRIVER that I think should have taken home the great statue.
By the way, let me conclude this post by sharing an interesting picture with you that I recently found on the web. This was a single screen movie theater called the Playhouse in Great Neck, Long Island, the town I grew up in and currently live in now. This picture was likely taken in the spring of 1977, just after ROCKY won the best picture Oscar and before my family actually moved to Great Neck. The theater was closed and razed in 1982. I still miss it...
Favorite line or dialogue:
Tony Evers: "He doesn't know it's a damn show! He thinks it's a damn fight! Now finish this bum and let's go home!"