Comfortable and Furious

Rocky (1976)

Carl Weather’s agent sent him on an audition for some low-rent indie flick directed by a porn maestro. In the room was the Director, some production assistant and him—no actors, no producer, no writer—and he was supposed to run lines with the PA! What a six-penny operation this was. Still, it was a meaty role, lots of speeches—Carl loved speeches.

His audition was fantastic, the director praised him, even the P.A. was impressed, but Carl thought he could have done better, he told the director “If you liked that, imagine how good I’ll be across from an actual actor.” He didn’t understand why the room went cold all of a sudden, the director looked at the P.A. who stood and shook Carl’s hand–again– “I’m Sylvester Stallone, I wrote this movie and, uh, I’m the lead.”


He was also a producer, so everybody was actually in the room with Carl—that said, it was a still a stale bagel production nonetheless.

The other producers, Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff bought the script for 350 grand—a monstrous sum that was a full third of the one-million-dollar budget, of course, Stallone refused to sell unless he could star, they agreed—that’s how good the script was, some movies demand to be made, Rocky was one of them.

The balls on Stallone, though, he was in process of selling his dog, because he couldn’t afford to feed him.

Most assume Rocky was inspired by Chuck Wepner, the white fighter that lost to Muhammed Ali and delivered a surprise knock down blow to the champ in the ninth which infuriated Ali, gradually resulting in a called fight…for Wepner’s welfare, 19 miserable seconds before the bell. Rocky is the same story. A white fighter against a flashy black champ doing waaaay better than expected. Yet, Wepner was less an inspiration to the film than another, older story: The Tortoise and the Hare.

Rocky Balboa is a leg-breaker for a local loan shark, he lives the failed dreamer’s existence, plying his true trade, fighting for scraps in sweaty dives, after a day of thumb-snapping dock workers because the Flyers couldn’t pull the hat-trick. It’s a living, he said. It’s a waste of life, Mickey replied. Mickey (Burgess Meredith) is the leathery owner of the gym the hopeless Rocky uses as a base for his never-gonna-happen sporting fantasy.

Rocky is shown to be a nice guy, he tries to get a young girl to stop hanging out with palookas on the street and he gives one dock worker a pass when his over-under goes sideways. He is also endearingly in love with the wallflower at the pet shop (Talia Shire) who happens to be the sister of his perennially unemployed drinking buddy, Paulie (Burt Young).

Paulie. What a piece of work. Burt Young never gets true credit for just how pathetic, sadistic, helpless and at the same time occasionally endearing he makes this character. It just goes to show how lonely Rocky is that he hangs out with that needy jerk, to Paulie everything is everybody else’s fault, everybody owes him: Rocky, his sister, the world, midgets. A stupendous drunk never without a pint of swill in his mitt, he’s given to rages and stomach-turning acts of cruelty—like tossing his sister’s Thanksgiving turkey into the alley.

After that first date with Adrian on Thanksgiving we get a stark clue that this isn’t only a loose re-telling of the Chuck Wepner Story, as in his apartment Rocky has two turtles. It’s here that most don’t spot the connection between the turtles and Stallone’s acting choice.

He’s positively turtle-like, his famous slow-slurring speech, a caricature that would haunt him his entire character, was there to evoke, well, the tortoise.

Cue the hare. Apollo Creed the unassailable champ who dances with language, floatingly, as his feet might in the ring. He is arrogant, over-confidant, cock-sure and every other synonym for ‘hubris’ you can think of. All races were his races. He’d break the tape before his opponent broke sweat, he could even stop and enjoy a harmless flirtation with some girl bunnies—which in Apollo’s case is his showman’s rolodex of advertisers. Boxing wasn’t the goal. The spectacle is what mattered.

He’s super-pissed when no one will fight him on New Year’s Dy, one the biggest sports days of the year, all he has to do if find someone spectacular if he can’t find someone substantive. ‘Substance’ is for non-champions.

* ring ** ring * Is there a Mr. Turtle at home? An Italian turtle, perhaps.?

It’s Rocky’s ring name, the ‘Italian Stallion’ that cinches Apollo’s choice to fight this half-assed nightclub bruiser, no consideration about just who that name belongs to, Rocky got picked out of a book because Apollo Creed vs The Italian Stallion, in Apollo’s words “sounds like a god Damm monster movie”.

Hubris. Hare.

We don’t even see Apollo train for the fight, he’s so confident.

Rocky is not over-confident, and he’s never answered the central question of his life, was I ever anything but a meat-bag? And let’s face it, life ain’t throwing Rocky a pep talk, he hurts people for a living, he can barely get a pet shop lady to acknowledge him, people call him a bum in the clubs and Mickey, that mean old bastard, takes his locker away to gives it to another fighter. Of course, he tells Apollo ‘no’–what?! Given this string of Alexandrian victories, he’s gonna sign on to get his brains splattered on national television? By saying no he’s holding on to the last shred of self-respect he has. Because if he goes out there and gets picassoed’, they aren’t gonna say ‘nice try, Rock,’ they’re gonna say ‘how much did they pay you to take that ass-whoopin’, meat-bag?’

He’s got no hope. And then, guess who decides to show his kugel-eatin’ mug in his doorway, Mickey, the locker-takin’ geriatric who, like everybody else in this stinking world, never had a kind word for Rocky.

And Rocky lets go of years of pent-up self-hatred when Mickey offers to train him for the fight, his bellows chase a retreating Mickey down the street “At least you had a prime! Arms don’t work, legs don’t work! You wanna move in here?! This is a nice house!–It’s stinks! You want me to fight the fight, I’ll fight the fight—and get my head kicked in!” a moving scene, especially when you realize just how humble Rocky is, because after his tantrum he jogs after Mickey and accepts his offer of management.

Meanwhile, Apollo’s trying to get more sponsors in Canada while the local news films Rocky at work. Paulie landed a job in a meat packing plant, when visiting after a run Rocky began punching sides of beef, snapping the ribs—Christ, this guy has that kind of power? Somebody please tell Apollo. Oh, right, they did—he, uh…he didn’t give a shit.


A grand salute to Bill Conti. Who’s he? Maul your face with a cheese grater for your ignorance, Bill Conti is the unsung hero of this picture, because he composed, unarguably, the greatest American get-off-your-ass-and-tear-shit-up music ever! It’s not just stirring, it’s positively transcendent! And we hear it perfectly peppered through the film, seamlessly melding with the sequences of Rocky, running, when before he was winded, the camera follows him up the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s steps only to freeze frame, with wind to spare, in mitts-up victory.

But it’s not a victory. Not a real victory. Real victory lives…somewhere else. Rocky has a real stern moment of clarity when he tells Adrian “I can’t beat him.” Whoa! the movie’s over, then, right? That’s what this movie’s about, the classless underdog beating the slick-as-snot champion and all the delicious comeuppance for us as an audience for his laziness and his mercenary attitude and all the other attributes of rabbitiness. But no, it’s not gonna be that movie.

But we paid for that! What do you mean it’s not that kind of movie, the poster has him in a ‘V’ for victory!

Sylvester Stallone has never been given adequate credit as a writer. That is, that he’s an actual one. Any drug-store hack can give you that pompous, unbelievable ending, but not Sylvester, because Sylvester doesn’t write plot, Sylvester writes character, and it’s character that determines the ending. Sometimes the hero doesn’t win, sometimes he’s not out to win, sometimes he’s willing to go into certain percussive brain trauma for a smaller, more personal reason: to answer his central question.

“I can’t beat him,” he says “But if I go the distance–no one’s ever gone the distance with Apollo, and I know, if I can do that, I wasn’t just some bum from the neighborhood.”

Victory, in Rocky’s mind, is now defined. The seemingly simple goal of staying vertical. Considering the rabbit has blasted the barnacles off of everybody he’s met, it would be an accomplishment. But can it be done?

The final fight is a marvelous series of vignettes that toggle from Rocky getting bludgeoned to the corner banter between him and Mickey, introducing the uninitiated to the true brutality of the sport where body-horror, like Rocky’s eye, swollen shut, when cut above the eyebrow to relieve pressure, results in a cascade of pooled blood. No wonder these guys get the Lou Gehrig’s three minutes after retirement, the physical toll endured is like being run over by a Volkswagen, piecemeal, fifty times before you’re forty.

This marvelous film won the academy award for Best Picture. And it was probably the last time the Oscars got it right, Unrecognized was Burt Young who I thought was a shoe in for Best Supporting. The film isn’t just the Chuck Wepner story wrapped around The Tortoise and the Hare fable, it lives at a transitional point of the male life, 30, youth gone but enough knowledge earned to finally do some damage, where our victories aren’t the obvious ones. It’s the point in our life when central questions must be, without fail, at all costs and oblivious to consequence, answered…or die tryin’.

A man won’t stop perusing his central question, the tortoise didn’t until that tape was broken, but I don’t believe the tortoise in the story ever raced another race against the hare, why would he, his central question ‘slow and steady’ got answered, and I won’t tell you if Rocky broke the tape first, but as to his central question, a lot can from his answer to Apollo, just as the bell rung, “There ain’t gonna be no rematch!” to which Rocky simply answered:

“I don’t want one.”






3 responses to “Rocky (1976)”

  1. John Welsh Avatar
    John Welsh

    Good work! Very nice, Bart. More like this. You’re right, Bill Conti’s music moved the story to a whole other level. Up.

    And it’s Aesop.

  2. Goat Avatar

    Great job, Bart.

  3. Johann Avatar

    Well done! I’ve read dozens of reviews over the years and still got a lot out of this one.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *