I have been watching all the movies that won the Oscar for Best Picture. The next on my list was the 1976 winner, Rocky, directed by John G. Avildsen and starring Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Carl Weathers, and Burgess Meredith.
Rocky was the first movie in what would become a profitable franchise. The film tells the story of a down-on-his luck fighter in Philadelphia who gets the unlikely chance to fight the heavyweight champion. It's a down-to-earth drama that focuses on the humanity of its characters.
The other Best Picture nominees that year were All the President's Men , Bound for Glory, Network, and Taxi Driver. Rocky also won Oscars for Best Director and Best Film Editing.
Rocky is so ingrained into our popular consciousness it almost isn't necessary to summarize it. Fighter Rocky Balboa (Stallone) idolized Rocky Marciano, one of boxing's greats. Yet, unlike his idol, Rocky has not had success. He's fought in small bouts for years without a manager or any coaching advice. The fights don't bring in much money, so he has to make do by doing grunt work for a loan shark. His apartment is in the Italian Market neighborhood of Philadelphia, which at the time was apparently worse off than it is today.
He begins to court a very shy neighborhood girl, Adrian (Shire), who has low self esteem. Through his insistence that she's beautiful, he helps to instill her with confidence.
Unlike the other movies in the Rocky franchise, this is not a movie about boxing as much as it is a movie about taking chances and striving to be your best. Adrian is not alone in her confidence problems. Rocky has always been underestimated and, as people suddenly begin to believe in him, he gains confidence. And thus, the famous training sequence with him running up the art museum steps. At that moment, bouncing at the top of the steps with his fists in the air, Rocky feels capable of anything. And that, in many ways, is his true triumph.
Incidentally, the famous shot of running up the museum never would have existed if not for Garrett Brown, inventor of the Steadicam. He used the camera to shoot his girlfriend running up and down the museum steps, and based on that footage sold the camera. Months later, Avildsen saw the footage and decided a similar scene would work well in the movie. And so the iconic scene was born.
I didn't see Rocky until I'd actually moved to Philly, and the first time I watched it I spent most of the movie trying to figure out where specific scenes were shot. On a second viewing, I still liked it, although the initial excitement of seeing Philly on screen was less.
If you haven't seen it, Rocky might not be what you're expecting. It's not a high-adrenaline movie but rather a very quiet movie. The film was a personal project for Stallone, who wrote the film and refused to sell the rights unless he could also play the lead role. He was inspired to write it by watching the March 24, 1975 Chuck Wepner-Muhammad Ali fight where, despite being outclassed and enduring blow after blow from the heavyweight champ, Wepner continued to fight for 15 rounds.
This film introduced Stallone to the movie-going public, as a very humble, somewhat shy character, far from the pumped-up tough guys he would later portray. It was easy for him to identify with the lead role, since he had based it in part on his own frustrations with failing to make a name for himself in the acting world.
Much of the film is shot on location in Philadelphia, with even the interiors looking very much of the city. While a lot has changed the city is much cleaner now in Center City a lot is still the same. SEPTA buses have changed slightly, but the main landmarks (City Hall and the art museum) are the same. The movie offers a nostalgic view of the city that once was.
It's appropriate that the Italian Stallion would come from Philly, and not just because of the large Italian population. Rocky is an underdog, and Philadelphia is an underdog city. Aside from our important role in the history of this country, Philly is considered a second-class place. It's more often a punchline for late-night comics than a city that's respected. Yet, the city has a lot to offer and has its own charm. Just like Rocky.
It's good to see a local boy make good, even if that just means exceeding his personal best. And the steps of the art museum would never be the same!
Rating (4 out of 5): ****
You're a winner if you do your best.