Friday, November 20, 2015

The Rocky Road: Rocky (1976)

"His whole life was a million-to-one shot"

So proclaims the poster for 1976's Rocky, but when you think about it, it was as much a million-to-one shot for its lead actor as it was for its lead character. No one had any expectations that the micro-budgeted million dollar production would do much of anything when it hit a handful of theaters in the closing weeks of 1976, but the film's out-of-nowhere success not only transformed writer/star Sylvester Stallone into an overnight household name, it also turned Rocky Balboa, the indomitable southpaw from Philadelphia, into one of the most enduring and iconic screen characters of all time -- one who's poised to return yet again in next week's Creed.

Of course, what's amazing to realize nearly four decades out is how none of this would have happened at all were it not for Stallone -- then a working actor in his late twenties trying to make the rent with bit parts while waiting for his big break -- catching part of a boxing match between then-champ Muhammad Ali and challenger Chuck Wepner, nicknamed "The Bayonne Bleeder." Seeing the hopelessly outmatched Wepner hold his own against Ali, and even briefly knock him down, lit a creative spark in Stallone, who turned that inspiration into a script about a down-on-his-luck boxer who gets the chance to square off against the reigning heavyweight champion.

Energized, Stallone hunkered down for three days, and after twenty hours of nonstop writing he cranked out a script that was damn good. Suddenly, after years of struggling to make it as an actor, Hollywood had finally come calling -- but the catch was that they wanted to buy the script and cast someone else to play the lead character. Knowing he'd never forgive himself if he let the role of a lifetime -- one he tailored specifically for himself -- pass into someone else's hands, Stallone stood firm: The only way he was going to let Rocky go was if he was the guy who played Rocky. 

The strength of both Stallone's convictions and script was enough to convince producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler to back the actor, and through their overall deal with United Artists they were able to finagle a deal and an eventual greenlight. From there, things very quickly things moved into place, with Chartoff and Winkler locking in John G. Avildsen, a dependable director who'd previously found acclaim with 1975's Jack Lemmon starrer Save the Tiger, to helm. And just like that, after years of struggle, Rocky was about to become a reality.

By now the story is a familiar one even to those who've never seen it: Robert "Rocky" Balboa is a washed-up prizefighter in Philadelphia. When he's not picking up nothing fights for nothing money, he makes his living as an enforcer for a loanshark. However, a fluke of scheduling has left heavyweight champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) without an opponent for highly-hyped impending match. Rolling the dice on Balboa thanks to his flashy nickname, the Italian Stallion, Creed gives Rocky something that few boxers could even dream of: a shot at the title.

This many decades later, with the Rocky sequels, songs, and other assorted iconography so thoroughly embedded in our pop culture collective, what stands out about that first film is how deceptively simple the whole thing is. Stallone zeroed in on the fact that, at its core, his script isn't about boxing at all. It's about a little guy being given a big opportunity. Even more than that, though, it's a love story about two broken people who make each other whole. It's Rocky's relationship with shy pet shop worker Adrian (Talia Shire) that gives this fable its beating heart.

Just as it's hard to imagine anyone but Stallone playing the title character, it's equally difficult to think of anyone else opposite him other than Shire (this despite the fact that both Stallone and Avildsen heavily pursued actress Carrie Snodgrass for the role initially). The two have a warmth and easy chemistry that makes us buy into their growing romance. Also adding valuable texture to the cast are Burt Young as Rocky's friend (and Adrian's brother) Paulie, a well-meaning ne'er-do-well, and Burgess Meredith as Mickey, the crusty trainer who starts out having a combative relationship with Rocky, but eventually becomes his most valuable asset in the ring.

What the filmmakers do most masterfully is to work within the limitations of their budget (it was just over $1 million when all was said and done), shooting on Philly streets, and narrowing their focus to our main character's central emotional arc. Helping things along here is composer Bill Conti's score, understated when it needs to be, bombastic when it has to be. Thanks to Conti's unforgettable "Gonna Fly Now" training music, by the time Rocky runs up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art in one of the single most indelible moments in all of cinema, we feel like we've been with him every step of the way.

With all that said, it's not like the climactic battle is any less impressive. As the larger-than-life Creed (whose preening and showmanship is clearly modeled on Muhammad Ali), Weathers imbues Apollo with exactly the right degree of warmth to make us recognize that although this character is the antagonist, he's not the villain. And while the obvious budgetary restrictions do make the crowd at the much-ballyhooed "Superfight" seem a little less than super, it still works thanks to the actors giving it their all, and some terrific makeup appliances by Michael Westmore (who'd go on to become the go-to alien-maker for TV's Star Trek: The Next Generation). 

Before he goes off to face Apollo, Rocky tells Adrian, "All I wanna do is go the distance," explaining that if he's still standing when the final bell rings, "I'm gonna know for the first time in my life that I weren't just another bum from the neighborhood." In many ways, that could've applies just as much to Stallone as it did to his alter ego. After years being "that guy" in various bit parts, the actor threw everything he had into his once-in-a-lifetime opportunity -- and it paid off big. Critics praised both the script and the star, who drew favorable comparisons to James Dean and Robert De Niro.

In the end, after fifteen bone-crunching rounds, Rocky doesn't win the win the title, but he is still standing. More importantly, he's won the girl, his self respect, and proved to himself that he could go the distance. Rocky the movie, however, would end up doing a lot more than going the distance, becoming a true champion. Grossing an eye-popping $225 million at the global box office (making it one of the most profitable productions of all time), Rocky also snagged Best Actor and Best Screenplay nominations for Stallone (not to mention acting noms for most of the supporting cast), and ultimately won Best Picture and Best Director at the 1977 Academy Awards. 

For Stallone, Rocky began a stratospheric rise that remains almost unequaled in Hollywood history to this very day. With a single project, all those years of hustling and trying to make ends meet went away forever, and he quickly set about using his new clout to put some passion projects into production. And while the ending of Rocky sure didn't make a sequel seem like a foregone conclusion, it turned out that the public's appetite for more Balboa was too powerful to be curbed. Despite both Rocky and Apollo proclaiming to one another at the close of their fight that there would be no rematch, that's exactly what was coming in just three short years. 

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