Some films are just too easy to take for granted.
Late last night I walked into my youngest son’s bedroom to turn his television off. That is until I saw what film was playing on HBO while he lay sound asleep.
Has it really been nearly 40 years since Sylvester Stallone wrote and starred in the boxing film that would go on to become the heavyweight champ of all film clichés?
Rocky, the quintessential underdog story of a low rent bum of a boxer who gets a shot at the title, won Best Picture at the 1976 Academy Awards. It’s director, John G. Avildsen, also won Oscar, as did the editing. The film was nominated for ten, including the lightning in a bottle casting foursome of Stallone, Talia Shire, Burt Young, and the late Burgess Meredith. How Carl Weathers, Rocky’s opponent, Apollo Creed, aka “The Master of Disaster,” was overlooked is a mystery to me. I’m sure the NAACP has a theory.
Ten Oscar nominations and a stunning win for Best Picture.
An iconic picture, now looking back, that so perfectly captures the American dream.
How a nobody can become a somebody.
A low-budget film (just over $1m) written by a no-name and starring an even bigger no-name, that goes on to gross $225m worldwide.
I meant to turn my son’s television off and return to bed. I couldn’t. Within minutes I found myself in tears as if I was seeing the film for the first time.
To my younger readers who may have never even seen Rocky, you do realize “The Italian Stallion” Rocky Balboa doesn’t even win the title fight? That’s the brilliance of the film.
It’s a love story.
It’s a story about setting goals that are seemingly beyond your reach…but still attainable.
The slow build to the title fight finally shows Rocky standing alone in the Philadelphia sports arena. All alone. It’s deathly quiet. The camera is in the rafters looking down at the square ring and the pugilist at rest to show the immensity of the challenge.
Rocky then quietly goes home to his smelly apartment and crawls in to his pathetic single bed, curling up like a schoolboy next to his clumsy half-blind girlfriend, Adrian (Shire).
“I can’t win,” he whispers to Adrian in a Brando mumble. “I can’t win. I just wanna go the distance.”
There are so many lessons in Rocky. It’s one of those great “Sports as metaphor” movies.
But the lesson so apt for our times today, with our economy so punch-drunk and so many teens and twenty-somethings looking around and seeing so few prospects, is right there in the corner with crusty ol’ Mick (Meredith).
“You had the talent to become a good fighter,” Mickey says to Rocky. “But instead you become a leg-breaker to some cheap second-rate loan shark.”
To which Rocky responds “It’s a living.”
“It’s a waste of a life!”
Mickey told it to Rocky straight. He didn’t pull his punches. A boss like that today would immediately be designated for sensitivity training.
Have we stopped raising fighters and somehow found our streets, diners, and arcades filled with settlers?
It’s called ambition, and without it you’re destined for a one-way ticket to Palookaville.
Maybe our problem today is there aren’t enough Mickeys around to ladle out the tough love required to make a man?
Here’s a suggestion. Next time you’re feeling like you don’t have what it takes to climb another wrung on the ladder, put Bill Conti’s brilliant theme song “Gonna Fly Now” into your ear buds and start running. Find your town’s equivalent to the City Hall steps Rocky climbs in the film, race to the top, raise your arms in the air and make a declaration to yourself that you can do better, go further, leave a bigger footprint.
Maybe even yell…
It can’t hurt.