Rocky shouldn’t have won best picture, Taxi Driver should have, but you can see why the Academy went with it. It’s the American dream for the bicentennial, instead of the crazy perverse vision of America Taxi Driver shows. Nevertheless, Rocky is a great movie. It’s the classic underdog story, and a good one.
Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) is a sweet guy trying to make a living as a tough mob enforcer and a small time boxer. He’s lonely, doesn’t find fulfillment in either of his jobs, and constantly feels picked on by others who realize these things. His friend Paulie (Burt Young) sets him up with his shy sister Adrian (Talia Shire), and they hit it off. Then, Rocky gets an opportunity to fight the heavyweight champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) who in a publicity stunt wants to give an unknown boxer a shot at the title. Rocky, realizing that this is the opportunity of a lifetime, throws himself into training for the fight with Mickey (Burgess Meredith) even though he feels insecure about his previous failures.
With Rocky, Sylvester Stallone (writing as well as starring) and director John G. Avildsen have created a modern myth. The film taps deep into the American consciousness with its portrait of an underdog working hard to achieve greatness, but it does this with a specificity that’s hard to see now that so much time has passed. Rocky, Adrian, Paulie, and Mickey are specific characters with universal goals, bringing the success of the film in that it is incredibly relatable yet distinct. The film is reduced to its cliched story elements sometimes, but is actually much more.
Similarly, Rocky clearly owes something to a previous best picture winner, On the Waterfront. It takes place in a similar environment, and deals with similar themes of a loser trying to overcome his feelings of uselessness. The boxing connection is an obvious one, and really the only fundamental difference between them is that Rocky fulfills his potential through boxing, whereas Terry Malloy is never given that opportunity and carries out his potential morally. There are many parallels between the film, the scene where Rocky first kisses Adrian and his constant talk of being “a bum” are just a few of the gestures repeated from On the Waterfront.
There are many surprising things about Rocky, actually even on a rewatch. I was surprised by these things the first time and still am on a second viewing. The film has a clear Catholic influence, with the opening shot of Rocky fighting Spider taking place under a icon of Jesus with the script “resurrection” underneath, possibly foreshadowing Rocky’s rebirth of sorts into a champion. I was still surprised by how sensitive Rocky is, he talks to his pet turtles, is overjoyed when Adrian buys him a dog to run with, and bothers to come up with a lame joke for her everyday. The romance between Rocky and Adrian plays more of a role than I expect it to; it really is the core of the film.
Finally, on to the way the picture was shot. The now achingly familiar training montage is actually pretty innovative; it features one of the first uses of the steadicam, one of my favorites. When Rocky’s running up the steps it’s clear to see how smooth the shots are, an effect that would have been unachievable without the technology. The steadicam would later go on to be used to greater effect in other films, most notably The Shining, but it all started here. It works wonderfully, enabling us to stay with Rocky to a greater extent than we otherwise would have.
While Rocky is a great movie, and I see why it won over Taxi Driver, I still don’t think it should have. Regardless, Rocky did win at the Oscars, nominated for ten and winning three. It lost out on a lot of acting awards, Shire for best actress, Stallone for best actor, and both Meredith and Young for best supporting actor. It also lost out on original screenplay, best sound, and best song (“Gonna Fly Now,” used during the training montage). However, it did take home best picture against not only Taxi Driver but Network and All the President’s Men, along with best director and editing. It may not get my vote for ’76, but its an enduring classic and I have nothing but love for it all the same.
“Yo! Adrian! It’s me, Rocky!”
Long story short: 3.5/4 stars
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