By Marc S. Sanders

Rocky is a story about a bunch of losers.  It really is. It’s actually a film that does not represent or follow the standard ho hum formula that so many other well-recognized sports films that are so familiar, since it premiered on screens in 1976. 

If you examine Rocky, what you’ll find is a story about a boxer by the name of Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone in a role that broke through everything for him), who is not shown doing much boxing or even training.  Instead, the southpaw boxer known as The Italian Stallion, is displayed as a heavy collector for a loan shark in and around the south side of a dirty Philadelphia.  Early on in the film, Rocky delivers monies to the loan shark and his driver asks Rocky “Did ya get the license plate?”  Rocky asks for what, and the driver snaps back with “For the truck that ran over your face.”  It’s delivered with a little humor but it’s also sad.  Is there anyone to uplift poor Rocky’s spirits?  His one-time trainer, Mickey (Burgess Meredith), kicks him out of the gym because he’s tired of Rocky at age 30 wasting his life with the scum of the streets.  Rocky lives in a filthy apartment barely making scratch from underground fights.  About the only redeeming quality Rocky seems to show is his tender loving care for his two turtles, Cuff and Link.  So, it is surprisingly charming when he sweet talks a mousy, petite woman named Adrian (Talia Shire, truly in an underrated performance) for a date. 

Adrian is also a loser, or at least she’s treated like one by her brother, Paulie (Burt Young).  He’s constantly putting her down for her looks and lack of men in her life and any other opportune moment he can find.  It’s the only way that Paulie can build confidence in himself; by putting his sister down.  Beyond that, all he has going for him is his job in the meat locker.  His one dream is for Rocky to give him a job working for the loan shark.  Such aspirations.

By luck, Rocky is called upon by the Heavyweight Champion of the World, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), to fight him in the ring.  Anyone else would jump at this chance.  For Rocky, it’s just a way to earn a fast $150,000 and use his face as a punching bag for Creed on live television.

All of these characters within this circle come out of their shells once Rocky is given the opportunity of a lifetime.  The first win for Rocky is when he wins over Adrian on an adoring, near penniless date when he takes her ice skating on Thanksgiving night.  They’re only given ten minutes to skate together.  The transition thereafter is quite revealing.  Director John G. Avildsen transforms Adrian’s appearance by removing her ugly glasses and hat.  Rocky is pleasantly surprised by the red winter coat she wears later in the picture.  Adrian becomes more talkative and expressive.  Initially, she couldn’t even look Rocky in the eye.  When Rocky gives her a shout out at a press conference on TV, Adrian laughs and cuddles up next to Rocky.  Someone has finally treasured her and she adores it so appreciatingly.  Shire really demonstrates a nice character arc, where she comes out from under the strong arm of her brother to find her independence and make choices for herself.  An amazing scene occurs near the end between Shire and Young.  The pent-up frustration the siblings have for one another finally boils over.  This scene is what won both of these actors their Oscar nominations.  It’s a moment in all of the Rocky films that doesn’t get enough recognition.

Mickey is the one who gives tough love to Rocky.  He shares with Rocky his own battles in the ring during the first half of his near 50 years in boxing.  All of the blood and sweat didn’t amount to much beyond the gym he has for the local fighters.  What he earned as a fighter was a cauliflower ear and no family except the poor kids who go in and out of his southside gym.  Now he has a chance at the big time and he has to win over Rocky’s affections so that he can train him properly for the fight that’s coming up.

The biggest loser of course is the title character.  Credit must first go to Stallone for an outstanding insightful script that looks much deeper than any of the numerous sequels that followed this film.  The original Rocky is not about punches.  The script eventually transitions into determination with Rocky giving a sorrowful monologue to Adrian acknowledging he’s a loser with no chance at beating Creed.  At the very least, all he wants to do is settle for going the full 15 rounds with the champion and never falling down on the mat for a count of 10.  Only then can Rocky triumph with a personal victory.

Rocky won the Oscar for Best Picture and Avildsen won Best Director in 1976, beating out incredible films like Network, Taxi Driver and All The President’s Men.  I’ve thought about this endlessly over the years.  Why did it win?  I mean look at the competition it had.  The script for Network is one of the most admired and amazing scripts in Hollywood history; now it’s regarded for how prophetic it has become.  The other two films gave brutally honest, yet cynical portraits of the lack of innocence in the United States.  These other films rightfully question if America is the greatest and most thriving country in the world.  Just writing this, I think I answered my own question, though I will endlessly ponder anyway.  Rocky is the one positive entry of nominated films that year.  Rocky Balboa put aside the differences he had with others and overcame the adversity of those that would antagonize and guide him down the wrong paths. 

It’s totally cliché now to say this but Avildsen’s film, Rocky, is an awe-inspiring triumph.  It’s still okay to identify the picture as such, because it was the first to do what only so many imitations thereafter tried to duplicate.  The outcome of the fight within the film was not about winning the belt and the fortunes of money.  It was a breakthrough from a wasted life – the life of a loser; the lives Rocky, Adrian, Paulie and Mickey were all sadly living before the chance opportunity of supporting one another came to pass.  As Bill Conti’s unforgettable soundtrack closes out the picture, you are not just crying for Rocky and Adrian as they profess their love for one another in the middle of a crowded boxing ring.  You are crying because you realize you can believe in changing your life with will, stamina, endurance, personal strength, confidence and then…finally…love.

2 thoughts on “ROCKY”

    1. An unexpected phenomenon. To think the other films it beat to win Best Picture. “All The President’s Men,” “Network,” “Taxi Driver.” It’s a winning underdog story within and outside of the film.

      Liked by 1 person

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