Monday, November 21, 2016

'Rocky' Did It Right

Mickey (Burgess Meredith): Your nose is broken.

Rocky (Sylvester Stallone): How does it look?

Mickey: Ah, it's an improvement.

If there is anything that is almost guaranteed to engage a movie audience, it is a story about an underdog overcoming the odds — and when director John G. Avildsen's "Rocky" made its debut on this day in 1976 movie audiences got enough of that to keep them satisfied until "Hoosiers" hit the big screen 10 years later — although they had plenty of those underdog movies, some good and some not so good, in the interim.

They always do. Movie makers know underdog stories make money. Well, that ones that do it right make money — and "Rocky" did it right.

I well remember the first time I saw "Rocky." It was in a theater in my hometown. Now my hometown theater — well, the one of my early childhood — was one of those spacious theaters with a lobby and a balcony and one truly big screen, but it had been out of business for awhile by the time "Rocky" made its premiere. So I never got to see it in that setting (although I have often wished that I had). I saw it in the more compact theaters in which one sees movies today — more like screening rooms than theaters, if you ask me, but that's a topic for another time. By modern standards, it was rather tiny. It only contained two screens — but that allowed twice as many movies to be shown and, therefore, provided twice as many options for consumers in my hometown.

The arrival of that two–screen theater produced as much buzz in my hometown as the arrival of the first McDonald's.

Anyway, in that more modern moviegoers' milieu, I saw something from the old days of which I have heard but I have seldom actually seen. I saw an audience stand and applaud when the movie was over.

A sport of some kind is always good for that kind of reaction (for a real–life example, one need look no further than this year's World Series, won by the Chicago Cubs for the first time in more than a century) — even though other pursuits can be used. "Rocky," of course, was about an individual sport — boxing. Team sports are good, too, but they teach a different kind of lesson that extols different values. Those movies are tributes to the virtues of teamwork and unselfishness. Movies about individual sports are more about determination, self–sufficiency and resourcefulness.

You couldn't really say Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) was down on his luck. He had never had much in the way of luck. He wasn't a bum, as Marlon "I coulda been a contendah" Brando memorably said of himself in "On the Waterfront." Rocky really could have been a contender. He was a Philly brawler who had squandered his prime and figured he would never get to fight for a title, not even once. (In the words of a Beatles' song, "Isn't he a bit like you and me?")

That was a source of frustration for Mickey (Burgess Meredith), the operator of a gym and trainer of would–be contenders, which, in turn, was a source of friction between Rocky and Mickey.

But then Rocky was offered an opportunity to fight the champ, a fellow named Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), to mark the occasion of America's bicentennial. The champ didn't take the fight seriously, but Rocky did. He got up in the predawn hours to drink a glass of raw eggs and run in the dark, cold streets of Philadelphia, and he used sides of beef as punching bags in a meat freezer under the management of his friend Paulie (Burt Young).

Mickey swallowed his pride and approached Rocky about helping him prepare for the fight, but Rocky, briefly succumbing to that all–too–human tendency to engage in a little "how do you like me now?" banter, refused. When Mickey walked away, humbled and hurt, Rocky followed and reconciled with him.

Now, in case you have never seen this movie — and, frankly, it is hard for me to imagine anyone who hasn't seen "Rocky" by now — it is important to realize that Apollo wasn't looking for a legitimate fight. He was looking for more of an exhibition, a fight against an unknown on New Year's Eve. Rocky didn't get his shot at the title because he had been an up–and–coming contender. He was chosen purely at random. The champ saw Rocky's nickname — "The Italian Stallion" — and liked its possibilities as a marketing angle for the fight.

The champ never thought the Italian Stallion would be a serious threat, and he didn't go through serious preparations for the fight, which kind of foreshadowed, in a life–imitates–art kind of way, Buster Douglas' stunning upset of seemingly invincible heavyweight champion Mike Tyson in 1990. In one of my enduring memories from the movie, Apollo's trainer (Tony Burton) watched with alarm a TV report on Rocky's training regimen in the meat locker and kept telling Apollo to come watch the segment. But Apollo was too busy going over marketing plans for the fight.

Many things were finally coming to Rocky after a lifetime of waiting. Here he was getting a chance, at long last, to fight for the title, and he had also found love. Adrian (Talia Shire) was Paulie's sister, kind of plain and quiet. She worked at a pet store and lived with Paulie. She cooked his meals, cleaned his house, did his laundry. Apparently as a younger man he had promised to look after her because the family had concluded she couldn't look after herself. "I don't get married because of you," he yelled at her in frustration the night she moved out of his house — and into Rocky's tiny apartment. Maybe her family thought she was retarded or autistic. Fact was she was just introverted.

It was probably the love story — more than anything else — that made "Rocky" and its many sequels work. Most people probably fantasize about doing whatever they do professionally so well that they receive standing ovations and live handsomely for the rest of their lives.

Most people never achieve that, of course, so they can't relate to "Rocky" on that level (except in their dreams), but most people probably do find love — some don't but most do — and sometimes it is against the odds, in their own minds if no one else's.

On that level, most people probably could relate to "Rocky" in their real experiences — even if they had never participated in a sport, whether team or individual.

Rocky's love for Adrian was at the heart of everything he did. The movie was as much about his commitment to her as it was his commitment to giving his very best shot in the fight of his life. Maybe — no, make that probably — more.

So much of that is due to Shire's performance. Audiences already knew her as the Corleones' sister from the "Godfather" movies, and she had been nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in "Godfather Part II."

She received a Best Actress nomination for her work in "Rocky" as the shy, sensitive Adrian. It was a powerful performance, all right, and perhaps she should have won — but she won neither Oscar.

"When she hesitates before kissing Rocky for the first time," wrote film critic Roger Ebert, "it's a moment so poignant it's like no other."

In a way, I guess, the audience already knew how the fight between Rocky and Apollo Creed would turn out before it even happened.

It didn't really matter, I guess, if Rocky wasn't a winner in the ring (except it always bothered me that, in the fight scenes in the first and subsequent Rocky movies, when punches landed, they always sounded like car doors being slammed in echo chambers).

He won the love of his life against all odds.

And so, too, did the movie. It won Best Picture (as well as Best Director and Best Film Editing) at the Academy Awards — in spite of heavyweights like "All the President's Men" and "Network" on the Academy's ballots.

Talk about your underdog–makes–good finish.

And Bill Conti was nominated for — and probably should have won — the Oscar for Best Original Song. "Gonna Fly Now" is such an iconic movie tune now. Forty years later it lives on in more memories than the winner of that Oscar, Barbra Streisand and Paul Williams' "Evergreen."

Take my advice. If you have a daunting task facing you and you need to get pumped up, listen to "Gonna Fly Now." Works every time.

Actually, Conti probably should have been nominated for Best Original Score. But there is a limit for even an underdog's triumphs.