For 1 Year, 100 Movies, contributor/filmmaker Trey Hock is watching all of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list (compiled in 2007) in one year. His reactions to each film are recorded here twice a week until the year (and list) is up!
You can call this particular entry for 1 Year, 100 Movies a Thanksgiving gift from me, but I’m calling it a Thanksgiving miracle. I believe that with this post I may be back on track to finish the AFI 100 Years, 100 Movies list in one year.
I’m sure you’ve seen a ton of underdog or Cinderella stories — the films about the passed over loser who finally gets his big break — but very few are ever executed with the sincerity and power of “Rocky.” This film is so well made, so well written, and so well acted that it doesn’t matter that it’s almost completely unoriginal. Writer/actor Sylvester Stallone and director John G. Avildsen are able to make us believe that we’re seeing it all for the first time.
By 1976, Stallone had landed a handful of roles in low budget movies. He even had dabbled in the world of softcore porn, but he hadn’t really had his big break. So when Stallone sat down to write the screenplay for “Rocky,” this nearly 30-year-old actor knew what was at stake, both for himself and for his main character.
“Rocky” is of course the story of Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), a softhearted heavy in working class Philadelphia. He fights in the local boxing club, and though he’s always had potential, he’s never honed his skill and is now almost past his prime. Rocky falls for Adrian (Talia Shire), the local pet store clerk, and his friend Paulie’s (Burt Young) sister. When the current Heavyweight Champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), must find another opponent for his New Year’s Eve bout, he decides to look for an unranked, unknown fighter, and chooses Rocky because of his nickname — the Italian Stallion.
The relationship between Rocky and Adrian is not your typical Hollywood romance. Both of them are awkward, and as characters in their early thirties, both are considered past their primes as far as dating. Paulie, though unsure of why anyone would want to date his sister, sets up a date between Adrian and Rocky.
This scene is a great example of how one can use dialogue in film. Rocky talks all the time and though what he says if of little consequence, it’s the tone and how he says it that tells us everything. In his rambling conversation, there are buried nuggets of truth that shade his character. Adrian, on the other hand, is quiet and shy. It is a credit to Talia Shire’s acting that Adrian’s silence tells us as much or more about her character and this moment as Rocky’s unceasing prattle.
These two are great foils for one another. Rocky is strong, simple, but devoted and sweet. Adrian is shy, skeptical, but also wants to be loved. When Rocky and Adrian kiss later, it is tender, heartbreaking and wonderful.
Rocky fights in a boxing club run by the grizzled Mickey (Burgess Meredith). One would not describe Mickey as emotionally vulnerable or sensitive, but he holds particular animosity for Rocky. When Rocky loses his locker to a newcomer, he asks Mickey why he always gives him a hard time.
This scene shows how “Rocky” is not only the classic hero story, but also touches on struggles of class as well as the compromises one is willing to make to survive. Rocky’s not very bright, but he’s strong. He’s been able to turn that strength into a meager living as a heavy for the local loan shark, even though it doesn’t fit his personality. Mickey sees Rocky’s decision as a huge waste of his potential, and is why Mickey has never made Rocky a priority.
But Rocky’s ship may be about to come in. Rocky is called into Apollo Creed’s promoter’s office for an interesting offer. (Sound starts at 16 seconds.)
Rocky sees a clear distinction between himself and Apollo. He initially turns down the offer, because there is an understanding that this whole fight may be something of a setup. Still despite his hesitation, Rocky knows that what the promoter says is true. He can’t pass this opportunity by.
Now that Rocky has an important fight, Mickey comes offering his services as manager. (Sound starts at 4 seconds.)
Rocky is scared and out of his depth, but he’s also hurt because when he needed Mickey earlier in his life, Mickey wasn’t there. Mickey is a broken old version of Rocky, and though he approached Rocky for selfish reasons, he really could give Rocky the help he needs to hold his own against Apollo.
Burgess Meredith brings a weight to Mickey. He gives this broken old boxer life and heart in way that’s not trite or clichéd. This is a real, tough, vulnerable old man, and it is no surprise that Meredith got a nod from the Academy with a Best Supporting Actor nomination.
So with five weeks to the fight, Rocky gets to work, and lest you forget, even “Rocky” has a montage.
I’m sorry, but this montage is still one of the better and more tasteful of many of the sports montages. With the music and shots of Rocky working out and running, this sequence puts the viewer right where they need to be. Rocky has already been training and preparing for the fight. When these final few days of training arrive they are held up as a moment of personal victory. Rocky has already won a battle, with Mickey, with the steps, with himself. But more lies ahead. (Sound starts at 11 seconds.)
Rocky understands that he probably has little chance to win his fight against Creed, but that doesn’t matter. What does matter is that Rocky is able to face him. Rocky just wants to be able to last through to the final round. If he can do that, then he will have his victory. It’s easy to forget that Sylvester Stallone was once a pretty great actor. This scene can remind us.
Alright, so this is a boxing movie. Wanna see some of the fight? (Sound starts at 3 seconds.)
I picked this final moment, because there is a great and subtle exchange between Rocky and Apollo. The fight is over and both men are destroyed. Apollo says that there won’t be a rematch and Rocky responds that he doesn’t want one. This moment between these two characters is a moment of acceptance and solidarity. Apollo fended off this unexpected opponent, and Rocky made it through all the rounds. Both men stand bruised and victorious.
Though the films that followed in this franchise pale in comparison to the original, “Rocky” stills holds its own, and one can’t help but feel a little more hopeful after watching it.
Perhaps for this holiday season you should skip a bowl game or two, and instead spend sometime with Philly’s favorite leather-jacket-wearing boxer.
Next up #56 “Jaws” (1975)
For links to #60 – 69, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #60 Duck Soup (1933)
For links to #70 – 79, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #70 A Clockwork Orange (1971)
For links to #80 – 89, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #80 The Apartment (1960)
For links to #90 – 100, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #90 Swing Time (1936)