The entrance to the Philadelphia Museum Of Art sits atop 72 of the most famous stone steps in the world. They were immortalized by director John G. Avildsen and writer-star Sylvester Stallone in the 1976 movie Rocky. In the film’s signature scene, Stallone’s eponymous hero, a club fighter preparing for an unlikely bout with the heavyweight champion of the world, finishes a grueling training regimen by leaping up the Art Museum stairs, raising his arms in triumph as Bill Conti’s memorable score crescendos.
It’s a beautiful, inspiring moment. But the steps didn’t become iconic simply because they were featured in Rocky. They became iconic because they were featured in the movie twice.
Everyone remembers Rocky’s oft-imitated training montage, with its freeze-frame finale on the so-called “Rocky Steps.” But no one talks about the first time through, when Rocky barely makes it to the top. He’s out of shape, and he’s gasping for breath when he reaches the summit. But he perseveres, and eventually, he runs the steps with ease. That’s why the Art Museum is the perfect symbol for Rocky’s ambitions in his fight with the champ. He knows he can’t beat him, so he just wants to “go the distance”—last all 15 rounds without getting knocked out. That’s why it’s also the perfect symbol for all six Rocky movies; time and again, no matter how badly the odds are stacked against him, Rocky just won’t quit. For him, survival is just as good a victory as a knockout.
The same goes for Stallone. When he appeared on The Late Show With David Letterman in October to promote his recent film Escape Plan, Sly was introduced with an astounding statistic: He’s the only man alive who’s had a No. 1 box-office hit in each of five consecutive decades. It hasn’t always been easy; after his remarkable early success and a long run as one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood, he bottomed out in the dregs of direct-to-video thrillers. But years after his action-hero peak, Stallone returned to his roots and sparked one of the most remarkable comebacks in movie history. When things looked their bleakest, he rallied for one more climb up the Art Museum steps. This is the story of how Sylvester Stallone went the distance.
|0.0||The Party At Kitty And Stud's (a.k.a. Italian Stallion)||1970|
|2.0||The Lords Of Flatbush||1974|
|3.5||Death Race 2000||1975|
|3.0||Farewell, My Lovely||1975|
Stallone needed to call on his reserves of endurance almost immediately upon entering the film business in a disastrous softcore porno called The Party At Kitty And Stud’s (later recut and retitled Italian Stallion in a blatant post-Rocky cash-grab by the movie’s rights holders). Stallone plays Stud, a man who walks around in the snow, punches mirrors, and makes frequent, scrotum-baring love to his girlfriend Kitty. Their bizarre, nightmarish embraces are the cinematic equivalent of an ice-cold shower; so grotesquely unsexy, they could drive a nymphomaniac to become a born-again Christian. Under any title, the movie should be avoided at all costs.
Appearing in something as horrifically terrible as The Party At Kitty And Stud’s might have crushed a weaker-willed young actor. Stallone pressed on. It wasn’t easy for a while; he went years between jobs, and the roles he did get were small and one-dimensional. Initially, Hollywood was only interested in him as a physical presence. Most of his pre-Rocky roles were cameos or one-scene supporting performances as thugs or hired muscle. In Farewell, My Lovely, he beats up Robert Mitchum, sleeps with a prostitute, and shoots her madam without a single meaningful line of dialogue. In The Prisoner Of Second Avenue, he plays a mugger who can’t outrun 50-year-old Jack Lemmon after stealing his wallet. For a fitness freak like Stallone, who had been obsessed with bodybuilding and exercise since he saw his first Steve Reeves Hercules movie as a child, that must have been almost as embarrassing as The Party At Kitty And Stud’s.
Even his meatier roles came in exploitation films. Roger Corman cast him as the cartoonish “Machine Gun” Joe Viterbo in Death Race 2000, where he drove a car mounted with guns and knives. In 1975, Stallone was cast as Frank Nitti opposite Ben Gazzara in a tawdry biopic of Al Capone. When Capone gets reckless, Nitti swoops in and assumes command of his Chicago mob. It was the first of many movies in which Stallone enacted a twisted, unhealthy mentor-protégé relationship, although the rest came later with the roles reversed, after Stallone was established in Hollywood.
At 28, Sly was already way too old to play the role of high-school troublemaker, but his ear for authentic working-class conversations was an asset to 1974’s The Lords Of Flatbush, a Brooklyn-centric variation on the nostalgic teen dramedy that became a subgenre in the wake of 1973’s American Graffiti. Stallone played Stanley Rosiello, a member of a crew of greasers, and even convinced the film’s directors to let him write his own dialogue. True to early-career form, Stallone is the meathead of the group, but he also has several scenes with his girlfriend Frannie (Maria Smith), who demands he marry her after she gets pregnant. Stanley looks and sounds like Rocky Balboa, but he’s missing one key ingredient: his sweetness. He’s a tragic figure in some ways, but not a likable guy. When it was time to write a part for himself, Stallone made that one key change. Left to his own devices, he didn’t play a heavy. He played a heavy with heart.
|4.5||Rocky (also writer)||1976|
|3.0||F.I.S.T. (also co-writer)||1978|
|3.5||Paradise Alley (also writer, dir.)||1978|
|3.5||Rocky II (also writer, dir.)||1979|
The first draft of Stallone’s Rocky screenplay, written in a three-day, caffeine-fueled marathon, grafted Stallone’s own anxieties and frustrations about his career—he, like Rocky, was underestimated and pigeonholed as a brainless goon—onto the real story of boxer Chuck Wepner, who was plucked from obscurity to fight Muhammad Ali in 1975. Physically outmatched but blessed with an iron jaw and fierce determination, Wepner managed to knock Ali down, and survived until the final seconds of the 15th and final round, when Ali finally scored a technical knockout.
As the legend goes, the finished screenplay for Rocky was one of the hottest scripts in Hollywood, but Stallone refused to sell it to anyone who wouldn’t let him play the lead role. When Robert Redford wanted to star in the film, producers offered Stallone $360,000 for his screenplay, the equivalent of almost $1.5 million today. He wouldn’t budge. At the time, he had $106 in his bank account. Later in his career, Sly happily took big paydays to make bad movies, but when it mattered most, he held on to his artistic integrity.
What Rocky became after five increasingly outlandish sequels has largely overshadowed what Rocky originally was. The later movies were formulaic sports films about an underdog American hero; the first Rocky is more like an Italian neorealist character study with a brief boxing match at the end. Stallone’s screenplay and Avildsen’s direction focus much more on the bleak realities of day-to-day-life in dead-end Philadelphia: collecting debts for a low-level mob boss (Joe Spinell), fighting to keep a locker at the local gym, trying to coax the shy Adrian (Talia Shire) out of her shell. We forget how the film underplays all its “biggest” moments; you can barely hear the judges’ decision after the match because Rocky and Adrian are professing their love for each other.
“True to form, the king still refuses to give up his throne. It simply isn’t in his nature.”
More than an hour of the film passes before the champ, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), sets the fight with Rocky. Before that, Rocky’s battle, like Stallone’s, is for respect. The film’s first line, spoken by Rocky’s corner man, is “You’re waltzing. Give the sucker some action. You’re fighting like a bum.” Even after emerging victorious in that opening fight (which nets him a pathetic $40.55), a lady in the crowd still calls him a bum. After Rocky goes home, he takes a long hard look at himself in the mirror, focusing intensely on a photo hanging nearby of himself as a child, as if he’s trying to convince himself that she’s wrong. Going the distance would prove he’s somebody.
Rocky went the distance, too, winning Best Picture and Best Director at the 1977 Academy Awards. Stallone lost the Best Actor prize to Network’s Howard Beale, but he gave a fantastic performance. He became famous for “Yo Adrian!” but he shines in the subtleties as well; his wry smile at his own corny jokes, and his constant sniffling in the harsh Philadelphia weather. Looking only at Stallone’s recent work, it’s easy to dismiss him as a one-dimensional cartoon giving the suckers some action. Looking back at the original Rocky, it’s easy to see why it made him a star.
Riding high on critical accolades and commercial success, Stallone chose to follow Rocky with a pair of ambitious movies: F.I.S.T., the decades-long saga of a Cleveland labor union, and Paradise Alley, the story of three brothers in Depression-era Hell’s Kitchen who get into the wrestling business. Stallone co-wrote the former (from an original screenplay by Joe Eszterhas) and wrote and directed the latter; both films are about poor underdog strivers in the Rocky mold, but both films go further than Rocky, which ended precisely at the moment of the character’s triumph, to consider the hazardous ramifications of success. In F.I.S.T., after Stallone’s idealistic labor leader Johnny Kovak rises through the ranks of the Federation of Interstate Truckers, the film leaps forward 20 years, to show the character as older man of compromised morals. In Paradise Alley, a pair of brothers, Cosmo (Stallone) and Lenny (Armand Assante), convince a third brother to become a wrestler at a club called Paradise Alley. He’s a great grappler, but the dirty, violent racket threatens to tear the family apart.
In both films, Stallone showcases an easy charisma worthy of his nickname—Sly—but neither movie came close to replicating Rocky’s astronomical success with critics and audiences. It quickly became clear that Stallone was so identified with Rocky that many viewers didn’t want to see him as anything else. In a feature written during this period, Roger Ebert describes crowds of fans following Stallone around Philadelphia and chanting his name—“Rocky!” not “Stallone!” So Stallone gave the fans what they wanted and wrote, directed, and starred in Rocky II, but he incorporated themes from F.I.S.T. and Paradise Alley, about his uneasiness with winning while he did.
Rocky II picks up its hero’s story minutes after the first film’s conclusion and quickly chips away at its happy ending. Rocky wants to retire (just as Stallone wanted to make other kinds of movies), but he fails at a career as a television pitchman and is forced to step back into the ring for a rematch with Apollo (just as Stallone was forced to step back into the role). The film introduces a lot of the weird obsessions that would work their way through much of Stallone’s career—tigers, headbands—and reworks the original movie on a bigger, glossier scale. There are two training montages instead of one, and the final fight ends in wildly dramatic fashion, with a double knockdown at the end of the 15th round and both fighters racing to get back to their feet before the bell.
But for all its bluster, like its predecessor, Rocky II’s—and Stallone’s—best moments remain quiet ones, like Sly’s moving breakdown at Adrian’s bedside after complications during childbirth. The sequel was another massive hit, the third highest-grossing movie of 1979 behind Kramer Vs. Kramer and The Amityville Horror. Stallone had overcome the first true test of his stardom. Rocky II’s last line was prescient: “Yo Adrian! I did it!”
|4.0||Rocky III (also writer, dir.)||1982|
|3.5||First Blood (also co-writer)||1982|
|2.5||Staying Alive (also co-writer, dir.)||1983|
This is the tragedy of Sylvester Stallone: Success ruined his career. His greatest gift was his knack for gritty gutter stories heavy with autobiographical content. With every hit, he moved further from the world where he was most comfortable and insightful.
Audiences loved him as the tough-but-kindhearted underdog. But as the 1980s began, Stallone started focusing more and more intensely on action, and his own body. As he grew into a bigger star, he literally grew as well, working out even more obsessively, growing even more muscular. His chiseled physique was impressive—and completely contradictory to his initial appeal. Fans loved him as Rocky. More and more, he looked and acted like Apollo. Deliberately or not, he seemed to completely misunderstand his talents.
An emotional hardness began to creep into Stallone’s movies, to match his physical hardness. 1981’s Nighthawks is an effectively bleak thriller about New York City cops chasing an international terrorist named Wulfgar (Rutger Hauer). There’s a funny introduction where Stallone dresses in drag to catch some muggers, but mostly it’s a lean, straightforward picture with an emphasis on big stunts (Stallone hangs on a cable hundreds of feet above the East River) and brutal action. (Wulfgar blows up a department store by hitting on a clerk while he plants a bomb under her feet.) The same year, Stallone expanded from combat sports to soccer with Victory, playing the lone American member of an international team of POWs assembled to play a team of Nazis in the waning days of World War II. His character has a brief romantic subplot with a member of the French Resistance, but otherwise, the film features few women and dwells entirely on the action on and off the pitch.
The difference physically and emotionally between Stallone circa 1976 and Stallone circa 1982 was brought to the foreground by the third Rocky, which had the unenviable task of trying to turn one of the biggest movie stars on the planet back into an underdog. In short order, the movie kills off Rocky’s beloved trainer Mickey (Burgess Meredith) and introduces a ferocious new challenger, Clubber Lang (Mr. T), who defeats the unprepared champ. Back at square one, Rocky needs to overcome his guilt about Mickey’s death and his fear that he’s never been a true champion in order to secure yet another improbable victory.
Although this Rocky is barely recognizable as the guy from the first movie (even his thick accent seems to have mostly vanished), Stallone at least maintains the series’ autobiographical bent. Young Rocky’s desire for success has now been replaced by Old Rocky’s pathological fear of losing it. Young Stallone was so intent on starring in the first Rocky that he preferred destitution to wealthy anonymity. Old Stallone was so wracked by insecurity that he wrote himself the soul-baring speech that serves as Rocky III’s emotional climax. “The truth is,” he tells Adrian, “I don’t want to lose what I got. In the beginning I didn’t care about what I had. I’d go in the ring, I’d get busted up, I didn’t care! But now there’s you, there’s the kid. I don’t want to lose what I got!”
Of course, Rocky didn’t lose; Rocky III was another popular hit. Stallone’s transformation from underdog to ubermensch was cemented by his next film, First Blood. Based on a novel by David Morrell, it follows a combat-shocked Vietnam vet who wages a private war against a small-town sheriff who mistreats him. The vet was named John Rambo.
Rambo is an underdog insofar as he’s alone against an entire police force, but that’s where the similarities between Stallone’s two signature characters end. Rocky is a nurturer with a large support group of loved ones. He fills the spaces in conversations with dopey jokes and stream-of-consciousness musings about life. Rambo is a cold-blooded killer who almost never speaks; he has no family or friends. Although he acts in self-defense, he terminates with extreme prejudice.
The desensitization of Stallone would continue in First Blood’s even more violent, even less emotional sequels. But before he got there, Stallone indulged his softer side one last time—with disastrous consequences. Stallone had evidenced a passion for music before, even warbling the theme song to Paradise Alley, so it wasn’t completely unprecedented that he might try to make a musical like Staying Alive, the 1983 sequel to Saturday Night Fever he co-wrote and directed. Its hero, Tony Manero (John Travolta), had a lot in common with Rocky, another working-class city dweller with big dreams. On paper, the combination made sense.
On screen, the combination was a disaster. Travolta, buffed out to Stallonian levels, looks lost in this hilariously clueless backstage drama about Tony’s attempt to make it in the high-pressure, heavily Spandexed world of Broadway musicals. In its final moments, when Tony gets his Rocky-esque shot at the big time in a new musical called Satan’s Alley (located, presumably, just down the block from Paradise Alley), the film achieves something like the Platonic ideal of camp. Wearing just a loincloth, boots, and a headband, Travolta karate kicks and hip-swivels his way through a “musical” that involves no singing and no story, but does involve guys dressed like leather daddies whipping him while scantily clad women writhe in the background. Had Stallone ever even seen a Broadway show before he made the movie? It doesn’t look like it.
If Stallone seemed clueless about Broadway, he was clueless about and terrible at country music in 1984’s Rhinestone, which pairs him with Dolly Parton for a woeful farce about a country singer (Parton) who bets her boss (Ron Leibman) that she can turn anyone into a musician. If she wins, he tears up her contract. If he wins, she has to sleep with him.
To his credit, Stallone gave it his all, and evinced an impressive willingness to humiliate himself in the name of entertainment. But the entire plot hinged on Parton turning him into a credible country star, a notion that is even more absurd than the idea of basing a romantic comedy around the looming threat of rape. Parton and Stallone actually have some chemistry together, but Stallone’s comedic talents, like his dramatic ones, are suited to small observations rather than broad physical humor, and the songs, like the ode to alcohol abuse “Drinkenstein,” are thoroughly terrible. It couldn’t get any worse than this (until about 15 years later when it somehow did).