“Too bad he doesn’t box any more.” It’s 1975 and Sylvester Stallone’s getting feedback from producers. He’s been kicking around an idea for a movie about a washed-up fighter turned debt collector called Rocky Balboa. Thing is, it doesn’t contain any boxing. Stallone, a jobbing actor turned screenwriter, suddenly gets it: put the guy back in the ring and “make this a redemptive thing.” Three-and-a-half days later Stallone’s clutching a first draft of Rocky, with added boxing. The rest is fight movie history...
Of course, Rocky isn’t just a fight movie. Whatever its endless string of sequels may have twisted it into (all grudge matches, Mr T and ill-advised comebacks), it began as a character study, a love story and, most of all, a reworking of a very American myth. The opening backroom bout sets Rocky up as a broken-down fighter who earns $40 per pummelling. But after that he’s off the ropes and on the streets, a man seeding his manhood oats. It’ll be 80 minutes before he summons up the the self-respect to step back in the ring. And only then will the movie crescendo into a final act of redemptive body blows.
The film’s producers, though, never wanted to cast Stallone as the chump who turns champ. James Caan, Ryan O’Neill, Perry King were all in the frame... anyone, in fact, but Stallone. Yet it’s Sly’s droopy-eyed, hangdog/underdog that carries Rocky’s tale of transformation. He’s no oil painting, no blue-eyed hero. He’s not supposed to make it – and that makes us instantly connect with him. His rough exterior houses schmaltz inside: a mumbling, stumbling courtship with mousy Adrian (Talia Shire) bringing ice rink romance and tender, hesitant kisses. Its punch-drunk love gives the boxing finale an emotional heft, though in a different movie it might have been the end of Rocky – two point four children, a meat-packing job and beer gut robbing him of his destiny.
But Rocky’s a man with fire, not grog, in his belly. Twitching, jabbing, jogging, weaving in every scene, he’s born to fight. It’s all he knows. Channelling the spirit of every down-but-not-yet-out scrapper from Brando’s Malloy to Ernest Borgnine in Marty and Robert Ryan’s battered has-been in The Set-Up, Stallone gives Rocky’s rags-to-riches American Dream real clout. It’s a fantasy of machismo fit for an age when feminism was strong and men were on the ropes. Back in 1976, Rocky grabbed its audience by the balls, saying, “This is how to be a man.”
That’s not just Rocky’s story. It’s Stallone’s too, the boxer becoming a metaphor for the Hollywood star. Unproven and distrusted, Stallone battled against the odds, enduring a humiliating probation (“If he snores, fire him”) to play the Rocky lead. Even then, no one at the studio thought movie or actor would amount to much. Shot for $1 million in chump change, it was supposed to eat mat faster than Ronnie Corbett in the ring with George Foreman. Instead, Rocky took over $55 million, KO-ed Taxi Driver, Network and All The President’s Men at the Oscars and made Stallone a heavyweight contender.