#455) Rocky (1976)
OR “Every Underdog Has Its Day”
Directed by John G. Avildsen
Written by Sylvester Stallone
Class of 2006
The Plot: Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) is a down-on-his-luck boxer who makes a living roughing up people who owe money to his loan shark boss (Joe Spinell). Heavyweight champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) is looking for a new opponent to fight on New Years’ Day in Philadelphia, and comes up with the marketing ploy of getting an unknown to challenge him. Rocky is selected, and reluctantly agrees, training under the guidance of retired bantamweight Mickey Goldmill (Burgess Meredith). With his shy girlfriend Adrian (Talia Shire) in his corner – and her abusive brother Paulie (Burt Young) definitely not – can Rocky go the distance? Hey, they made 800 more of these, what do you think?
Why It Matters: The NFR calls it a “stirring tale” that “has become part of the American psyche”. The film’s iconic shot of Rocky running up the Philadelphia Museum of Art steps is also highlighted.
But Does It Really?: It may be a tad too by-the-book in terms of underdog movie story beats, but “Rocky” more than makes up for it with its heart and guts. Sylvester Stallone pours himself into this story, and this passion shines through in every aspect of this movie. In the wake of Watergate and the Vietnam War, “Rocky” gave the world something that had been missing from the ’70s movie scene: Hope. And the film’s ongoing references/sequels has kept its legacy alive and well. How it took 15 years for “Rocky” to make the NFR cut is anyone’s guess.
Everybody Gets One: Sylvester Stallone spent almost a full decade as a struggling actor, appearing in bit parts in such ’70s films as “Bananas” and “Klute”. The 1975 match between Muhammad Ali and underdog Chuck Wepner inspired Stallone to write a screenplay, and three days later he had a rough draft of “Rocky”. United Artists was hesitant to let Stallone play Rocky rather than an established star like Robert Redford or James Caan, but they finally agreed to it, with the caveat that the film’s budget be reduced to $1,000,000. Director John G. Avildsen was eager to direct a more upbeat movie as a change of pace from “Joe” and “Save the Tiger”. He admitted to knowing very little about boxing before taking the job.
Wow, That’s Dated: The main one, of course, is the film’s setting amidst the country’s Bicentennial Celebration. Fun Fact: the Bicentennial gave us the “I’m Just a Bill” song from “Schoolhouse Rock!”
Seriously, Oscars?: “Rocky” the movie was as much an underdog as Rocky himself. The unexpected smash hit of 1976, “Rocky” led the Oscar pack with 10 nominations. Facing such heavyweight competition as “Network“, “Taxi Driver“, and “All the President’s Men“, “Rocky” took home Best Picture, Director, and Editing. Sylvester Stallone lost both his acting and writing nominations to the team from “Network”, but did get to present an award with self-proclaimed “real Apollo Creed” Muhammad Ali.
- Although the Ali-Wepner match served as Stallone’s initial inspiration, very little of Rocky is based on Wepner himself. Rocky Balboa was a combination of several boxers, including two real-life Rockys: Marciano and Graziano. Stallone also based Rocky’s story arc on his own struggles becoming a professional actor.
- Say what you will about Stallone, he’s loyal to animals. Rocky’s dog Butkus was Stallone’s real dog, and as of this writing Stallone still owns Rocky’s turtles Cuff & Link!
- The flirting between Rocky and Adrian is adorably awkward. It’s “Marty” meets “Somebody Up There Likes Me”.
- Speaking of, Talia Shire’s Adrian is a full 180 from her work in the “Godfather” films. Like everything else in the movie, Adrian is a subversion of the “boxer’s girlfriend” trope.
- Shoutout to Carl Weathers. Most movie boxing champs are dimwitted, but Apollo Creed is an intelligent businessman and a strategic showman. Throw in a disciplined performance from Weathers, and baby you got a stew going!
- “Who discovered America? An Italian, right?” ….no.
- I always forget that “Rocky” is one of the rare classic Thanksgiving movies. And then later a thoroughly depressing Christmas movie. Thanks, Paulie.
- “Rocky” once again proves my theory that a famous movie quote simply needs to be repeated multiple times. Rocky says “Yo, Adrian” quite a bit, and his easily imitable cadence makes it all the more fun!
- So as soon as Rocky and Adrian hook up, she doesn’t need glasses anymore? I didn’t know it was that easy.
- Oh Burgess Meredith, what a performance. It’s so close to campy, but never quite crosses that line. Plus you get to hear one of the greatest actors of his generation say things like “You’re gonna eat lightning, and you’re gonna crap thunder!” Thank god we dissolved the blacklist.
- This movie did no favors for either the eggs or giant meat slabs industries.
- “Gonna Fly Now” is the training montage that all other training montages aspire to be. And the song itself wins the “Shaft” award for least amount of lyrics while still technically being a non-instrumental (it has two lyricists!) My one question: did Apollo do any training for this match? We never see him outside of a business suit until the finale.
- Surprise Guest Star Smokin’ Joe Frazier! The producers sent out invites to several notable boxers to make cameos in the final scene, but only Frazier showed up. It ended up working out, as Frazier was based in Philadelphia, adding some authenticity to the proceedings.
- Apollo Creed is introduced as “The Master of Disaster”. I thought that was Irwin Allen?
- The final match is quite an exciting viewing experience. It helps that there has been very little actual boxing up until this point, and that both contenders are actually skilled (and do their own stunts). Like many movies of the era, “Rocky” takes its time getting started, but the third act is one exhilarating pay-off.
- “Ain’t gonna be no rematch. .Well…at least for three years.”
- “Rocky”, of course, catapulted its star to A-list Hollywood, where Stallone has spent the last four decades latching on to any franchise that will have him. He’s still making “Rambo” movies for God’s sake!
- John G. Avildsen’s career also took off after his Oscar win, and he would go on to helm another iconic inspirational sports film: “The Karate Kid”.
- As for “Rocky” himself, the film got a sequel in 1979. …And then another in 1982. …And 1985. And 1990…. Oh, and 2006, I always forget about that one.
- Ryan Coogler’s 2015 film “Creed” casts Michael B. Jordan as Apollo Creed’s illegitimate never mentioned son, now being trained by a semi-retired Rocky. It went over well with critics and audiences, and even got Stallone another Oscar nod.
- “Rocky the Musical” played Broadway in 2014, but even the reliable songwriting team of Ahrens & Flaherty couldn’t save this one. On the plus side, the musical lifted “Eye of the Tiger” from the third movie.
- And of course, tourists and movie-lovers have been running up the steps to the entrance of the Philadelphia Museum of Art in triumph since 1976. Hopefully they take the time to go inside too; they’ve got Picassos!