Boxer Ascending a Staircase
It comes as a bit of a shock to be reminded that, after so many years of movies the likes of Daylight and Oscar, that our man Sly got his start not only as the star of this superb movie but also as its screenwriter. This tender movie, on the surface about the most violent of sports, is really a Marty-esque romance about two lonely people reaching out to each other.
Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) is a down-on-his-luck boxer who works as muscle, though his heart isn’t really in it, for a small-time loanshark. Adrian (Talia Shire) is a shy, mousy pet-store clerk. They’re both from the wrong side of Philadelphia’s tracks; both are considered failures by themselves and others. Inarticulate but sensitive, he coaxes her into a relationship that seems to surprise them both. She blossoms, Cinderella-like, under his attention — her transformation may be a tad unbelievable, but after all, this is a fairy tale. And she’s his inspiration when he gets the fairy-tale chance of a lifetime: to fight famous boxer Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) for the title of world heavyweight champion.
Rocky tells a timeless story about all the effort it can take to reach for someone else and how our most effective competition can sometimes be us, pushing ourselves to be the best. But little details also cement Rocky in the 70s. If the Irish are the hot ethnicity of the 90s, it was cool to be Italian in the 70s: Witness The Godfather movies, Saturday Night Fever, and the Fonz; Rocky Balboa fits right in here. Rocky’s Philly is definitely a victim of the urban blight of the period: The city is crumbling, gray, and miserable, covered in graffiti and strewn with garbage. It’s all very Billy Joel, very Bruce Springsteen — not coincidentally, two of the biggest musical stars of the time.
It would be twenty years before Sylvester Stallone would show audiences, with Cop Land, that he hadn’t lost the intelligence and talent he displayed in Rocky. I hope it won’t be another two decades before we see him like this again. When he’s good, he’s great, and it’s a shame to waste him on tripe like Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot.
Oscars Best Picture 1976
AFI 100 (1998 list): #78
unforgettable movie moment:
The montage of Rocky’s training for the big fight — set to the famous theme that has come to epitomize striving for an impossible goal — culminating in his victorious run, his fists raised in triumph, up the museum stairs that had thwarted him at first.