The sequels were so lame that it is easy to forget how strong of a punch the original “Rocky” packed.
Playing Friday and Saturday at Hoquiam’s 7th Street Theatre, the 1976 boxing drama won three Academy Awards, including one for Best Picture. It’s one of the all-time feel-good movies, but it also has the authenticity and unpretentious storyline that most sequels lacked.
Art also mirrored life in its rags-to-riches saga.
Sylvester Stallone had been making movies since 1969 (making his film debut as an restaurant patron in the Robert Redford ski classic “Downhill Racer”), but had barely graduated from bit parts when he wrote the “Rocky” screenplay in the mid-1970s.
Major studios liked the story, but wanted an established star such as Burt Reynolds, James Caan or Ryan O’Neal (imagine Ryan O’Neal saying, “Yo, Adrian”) to play the title role. Stallone, however, held out for the lead and accepted a smaller payment from independent producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff to make his dream come true.
As played by Stallone, Rocky Balboa is a Philadelphia heavyweight whose less-than-stellar boxing career appears to be nearing an end. He still fights occasionally at small clubs, but earns more money as an enforcer for a small-time loan shark. The extra cash could come in handy, as he has romantic designs on Adrian (Talia Shire), the shy young woman who works at the neighborhood pet store.
Rocky receives an unexpected shot at glory when heavyweight champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), a character clearly patterned after Muhammad Ali, decides as a bicentennial publicity stunt to face an unknown on New Year’s Eve in Philadelphia.
Selected as the opponent, Rocky works himself into shape under the tutelage of veteran trainer Mickey Goldmill (Burgess Meredith). He is also planning for a life together with Adrian, although that means also dealing with her whiny, boozing brother Paulie (Burt Young).
Stallone famously batted out the screenplay in four days, but most film buffs are aware he didn’t exactly create the story out of thin air.
Rocky’s character was inspired by Chuck “The Bayonne Bleeder” Wepner, a club fighter who was plucked from obscurity to challenge the real Ali in 1975. Wepner nearly lasted the full 15 rounds and was even credited with a knockdown, although Ali always contended that Wepner had tripped him.
Perhaps because it was based on a true story, the original “Rocky” possessed a modesty that Stallone evidently forgot when he turned Balboa into a superstar later in the series. Recognizing that he is an ordinary fighter, Rocky has little hope of beating Creed. He simply wants to salvage his self-respect by going the distance.
While there were better actors around, Stallone adds to the realism by looking and talking like an actual boxer. The remainder of the relatively low-budget cast was similarly well-chosen. I wouldn’t want to spend 15 minutes with someone like Paulie, let alone have him as future brother-in-law, but Young makes him into a multi-dimensional character.
Oscar-winning director John G. Avildsen stages the fight scene well, but is understated in presenting other aspects of the story. He is aided considerably by Bill Conti’s iconic musical score.
Stallone unwisely took over the direction for most of the six (6) sequels (Avildsen returned unsuccessfully for “Rocky V”). Even worse, he kept recycling the same Rocky-overcomes-adversity plots and placing them in increasingly implausible situations.
While I haven’t seen all of the sequels, the series probably reached its nadir in “Rocky IV,” when Rocky took down the robot-like Ivan Drago in Moscow, with the Russian crowd deliriously chanting its support. The 2015 entry, “Creed,” made by a mostly new creative team, did receive very good reviews.
Perhaps because of the declining quality of the sequels, the original’s Best Picture Oscar, over such heavyweight competition as “All the President’s Men,” “Taxi Driver” and “Network” has been widely derided. That admittedly wouldn’t have been my first choice, either, but “Rocky” was a well-made film that deserved to be a contender.
Moreover, in terms of crowd-pleasing entertainment, it had the other nominees beaten. I first saw it at Aberdeen’s D&R Theatre, then showing first-run movies. At the final fade-out, the audience responded with a prolonged ovation.
I can’t recall a similar reaction — even from Democrats — at the end of “All the President’s Men.”