A perfect screenplay, an eternal mask, the first sports movie to win an Oscar for Best Film. More than 40 years ago the audience met Rocky, and Sylvester Stallone conquered the world with a story of boxing and success. Or maybe not?
“At the time, I was looking for a breakthrough, but nothing happened.”
In 1975 Sylvester Stallone is a 29-year-old guy; he has appeared in a soft-porn film and has a fair amount of failures behind him. He has around a hundred dollars in his bank account and is forced to sell his dog.
Before resigning to working at the port, he decides to try one last audition for United Artists, where he meets Irwin Winkler and Rober Chartoff. Stallone is bright, friedly; the two producers find him interesting, though they are not totally convinced. He has a strange face and a hoarse voice, he almost seems to mumble. But he doesn’t want to give up.
“You know, I also enjoy writing.”
He has a screenplay with him. Its title: Paradise Tavern. It’s still a no, but Winkler and Chartoff are impressed with the young man’s writing and invite him to bring along more of his work. Sylvester understands he has his chance.
A few days earlier he had witnessed a boxing match between the great Mohamed Ali and a man nicknamed “The Bayonne Brawler”, Chuk Wepner ― an unequal match which resulted in Ali’s victory. The technical knockout, however, was declared only at the 15th round. Wepner showed an incredible resistance, even managing to knock the world champion down, albeit for a few seconds only.
Stallone comes home after the audition and still has this story in mind. He shuts himself away in his apartment and in just three days he writes a new script. And this time it’s a yes.
The protagonist (Rocky Marciano) shares his hero’s name, but the story is all his own. The budget is cut to the bone: $950.000, filming in a month. 25.000 $ for the soundtrack.
Exteriors were shot in Philadelphia, interiors in Hollywood. Limited time and means force the operator Garreth Brown to build a bizarre armor by himself.
Thus, the Steadicam is born, allowing director John G. Avildsen to limit the use of expensive dolls, obtaining more agile but equally stable shots. Hurriedly edited, it takes more than a year for the film to come out in theatres. The preview takes place on November 21st, 1976 in the Big Apple. And the New York Times tears it to pieces:
““A presumptuous production. A criminal waste of characters. Stallone’s Rocky is more a performance than an interpretation.”
Viewers, however, fall in love with it. And so does the Academy: the movie won three Oscars in 1977 (Best Film, Best Director and Best Editing). Stallone fails to obtain the Best Actor award, but his success soars.
Indeed, Rocky perfectly immortalizes the narrative archetype of the losing hero, a redemption-parable which ultimately reaches its fulfillment not in victory (which does not come), but in acknowledging the individual’s right to exist (and resist).
The world is represented as a hostile, gloomy and even cruel place, a prison in which even the most desperate souls may, however, find the strength to fight for their bright spot.
Clothes (which, given the lack of budget, came from the actors’ wardrobes) thus assume the role of “armors”; this is especially true for Rocky Balboa and his beloved Adriana. In fact, the entire first half of the film shows the protagonist wearing a black leather jacket, dark jeans, woolen sweaters and a cotton trilby on his head.
Fingerless gloves warm Stallone’s hands, clearly referring to the bandages used by boxers. Rocky fights every day. Even outside the boxing ring.
“Look at this face. Is that a face you can trust or what? They ought to stick this face on a stamp!”
The same goes for Adriana; but whereas Rocky defends himself by wearing the bad-boy-mask, she prefers to hide under a heavy coat wielding her bag like a shield, and never lets go of it on their first date, keeping it close at hand even when Rocky invites her to get into his house.
Flirting and romance aside, the scene is the heart of the entire film. Protected by the walls of his hovel, Rocky shows himself for what he truly is, wearing his “gaping-holed” vest.
He approaches Adriana; she removes her funny green woollen hat and thick glasses. Now they seem “mirrored”. All barriers fall, and they melt into a kiss.
Here lies the true soul of the film. Not in the gaudy outfits exhibited by Apollo Creed nor in the glittery robe The Italian Stallion, which in the end replaces the old one from the film’s very first scenes.
Stallone’s on to something other than boxing. And if life is made up of the encounters of little solitudes, Rocky is among the films that have told these solitudes’ stories at best.