Rocky (1976): Best Picture Oscar–Old-Fashioned Populist Entertainment, Starring Stallone

Two decades after Marty, the 1955 Best Picture Oscar, an unemployed actor named Sylvester Stallone took some ideas of that 1955 Oscar winner, mixed them with conventions of the sports-prizefighting genre (The Champ, Golden Boy, Champion, and Somebody Up There Likes Me), and came up with the formulaic but enjoyable Rocky, a sampler of populist entertainment.

Rocky proved the nearly impossible by becoming the first, but not last, sports film to win the Best Picture; Chariots of Fire was the second, in 1981.

Artistically speaking, along with Hal Ashby’s Bound for Glory, the biopicture of singer-labor organizer Woody Guthrie, Rocky was the weakest nominees for Oscar Gold.

Independently produced, Rocky was distributed by UA and benefited from a great ad campaign, whose motto was: “His life was a million-to-one shot.”

Detailed Synopsis

When first met, in November 1975, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) is a small-time boxer and collector for a loan shark named Anthony Gazzo (Joe Spinell), living in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia. The World Heavyweight Championship bout, with undefeated heavyweight champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) defending against Mac Lee Green, is scheduled to take place at the Philadelphia Spectrum on New Year’s Day 1976, the year of the  Bicentennial.

rocky_5_stalloneWhen Green drops out because of an injured hand, Creed doesn’t know what to do; there is not enough time to get into shape. Creed then suggests giving a local underdog a shot at the title.  He likes Rocky’s nickname, “The Italian Stallion,” and so he selects the unknown fighter, announcing “Apollo Creed Meets The Italian Stallion.” Fight promoter George Jergens (Thayer David) says the decision is “very American,” but Creed holds that it is “very smart.”

rocky_4_stalloneTo prepare, Rocky trains with an ex-bantamweight fighter and gym owner, Mickey Goldmill (Burgess Meredith). Mickey knows that Rocky has heart, but he taunts him as “tomato” and “leg breaker for some cheap second-rate loan shark.” Rocky is initially skeptical of Mickey’s motives and timing for training Rocky for the big fight. Rocky’s friend Paulie (Burt Young), a meat-packing-plant worker, lets him practice his punches on the carcasses in the freezers.

Rocky begins dating Paulie’s shy, quiet sister, Adrian (Talia Shire), who works in a local pet store. He draws Adrian out of her shell and she begins to gain confidence. The night before the fight, Rocky confides to Adrian that he does not expect to beat Creed, and that all he wants is to go the distance, as no one had ever gone the distance with Creed.

rocky_3_stalloneOn New Year’s Day, the climactic boxing match begins. Creed does not take the fight seriously, and Rocky unexpectedly knocks him down in the first round (no fighter had yet floored Creed during his long career), embarrassing Creed. The fight lasts 15 rounds, during which both fighters sustain injuries; Rocky suffers his first broken nose and trauma, and Creed sustains brutal blows to his ribs and internal bleeding. As the match progresses, Creed’s skill is countered by Rocky’s apparently unlimited ability to absorb punishment, and his dogged refusal to be knocked out.

rocky_2_stalloneThe final round bell sounds as both fighters are locked in each other’s arms. Creed vows “Ain’t gonna be no re-match,” to which Rocky replies “Don’t want one.” After the fight, sportscasters and audience go wild; the promoter/ring announcer George Jergens announces that the match was “the greatest exhibition of guts and stamina in the history of the ring.” As Jergens declares Apollo Creed the winner by virtue of a split decision, Adrian and Rocky profess their love.

Oscar Context

u6yv3ecizymThe other three 1976 Best Picture nominees were, artistically speaking, far more interesting than Rocky.

Alan Pakula’s “All the President’s Men,” produced by Robert Redford, was a good political thriller about the Watergate scandal, based on the best seller by the two Washinton Post reporters, Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) and Bob Woodward (Robert Redford). Sidney Lumet made an outrageous farce, Network, about the potential power of television, that for some reason many people took as a serious drama.

Martin Scorsese followed up his “Mean Street” with another masterpiece, “Taxi Driver,” a film about political and social alienation, embodied by Robert De Niro in a grand performance.

But Rocky’s message, the rise to stardom of an obscure “nobody,” which paralleled both the actor’s life off-screen and President Jimmy Carter’s 1976 election, was the most upbeat and the least controversial. But it was also the most befitting of the nation’s mood in its Bicentennial celebrations.

The impact of Rocky’s success is still felt by the American public. The film made Stallone the most popular star and the most dominant male image in the 1980s, surpassing the powerful persona of Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry films. And it also led to three sequels of the Rocky Balboa saga, which raises two questions: Will Rocky IV be the last part of the series? and, if not, who will Rocky fight next? After defeating the Russian champion and being cheered up by the entire Soveit Union what else is left?

Rocky was not a typical family drama, but the romance between Rocky and Adrian, a shy, plain salesclerk (Talia Shire), whom he later marries, was conducted along the movie lines of Marty and Clara in Marty.

Moreover, it paved the way to the making and acceptance of other conventional, old-fashioned, movies about ordinary families and ordinary folks. The American public seemed to crave for such fare, after being saturated for a whole decade with the action-adventure “disaster” film. Many moviegoers must have noticed that the family has almost disappeared from American films for most of the 1970s. And the last major pictures to have dealt with marriage and the family were mostly negative portrayals, like Mike Nichols’s two nominated features, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate.

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