Thursday, December 3, 2015

Nothing But the Best: "Rocky" (1976)

Scene from Rocky
Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

Release Date: December 3, 1976
Director: John G. Avildsen
Written By: Sylvester Stallone
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Burt Young
Genre: Drama, Sport
Running Time: 119 minutes

Oscar Wins: 3
-Best Picture
-Best Director
-Best Editing

Oscar Nominations: 6
-Best Actor (Sylvester Stallone)
-Best Actress (Talia Shire)
-Best Supporting Actor (Burt Young)
-Best Original Screenplay)
-Best Sound
-Best Original Song ("Gonna Fly Now")

Other Best Picture Nominees

-All the President's Men
-Bound for Glory
-Taxi Driver

And the winner is...

It may seem like a caricature by modern audiences, but director John G. Avildsen's Rocky is arguably one of the greatest underdog stories both on screen and off. It is difficult to see the film as such, especially with Sylvester Stallone's prolific and noteworthy career in the almost 40 years since. It is a story of a man fighting for his chance at the big times, which very much paralleled the life of its actual star. With a comparable low budget, Rocky is the equivalent to an independent film nowadays not only competing with studio films, but often beating them at every turn. While the franchise that spawned from Rocky overshadows the original film's triumphs, it's still an amazing film that proved what hard work and talent can do to make a story count, especially in 1976: the year of America's bicentennial. It's one of the most American films in that it paints the American Dream in ways unlike any other. It's the story of the common man becoming something. It's the story of achieving your dreams.

It is hard to imagine, but Stallone used to be a struggling actor. Prior to Rocky, he had an uneven career with roles ranging from the pornographic film The Party at Kitty and Stud's (following Rocky's success, it was renamed The Italian Stallion after Stallone's nickname) to a brief cameo on Woody Allen's Bananas. He was by no means a recognizable name. By the time that he was writing Rocky, he was an usher making $36 a week and have only $106 to his bank account. He even contemplated selling his dog to have enough money. It was the basis for Rocky, only supplanting the struggling actor with a struggling boxer; as Stallone felt it would be more engaging. While the actor has since denied it, there's also claims that he thought up the idea after a March 24, 1975 fight between Muhammad Ali and Chuck Wepner, in which the latter lasted against the indisputable champ until the very end. He also claimed to have written the script in three days. While this is true, the final story took several rewrites to get to.

Stallone pitched the idea to producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff almost by accident. The actor had gone in for an audition on another film. This lead to discussion on his script for Rocky, which intrigued the directors. The plan was to film it for $2 million with a household name in the lead. Stallone claimed that he would regret it if he did not play the lead. As a result, the budget was slashed in half, with a portion being financed by the producers putting a mortgage on their homes. Sigourney Weaver tried out for the role of Adrian, but was turned down for being too attractive. They went with Talia Shire instead, who was eager to do the role in order to break her reputation as Francis Ford Coppola's sister (by coincidence, this would be her third appearance in a Best Picture winner in five years, following Coppola's two Godfather films). Shire's timidness in the film spawned from her being sick. Stallone's family and dog also make appearances in the film due to the low budget. Many other actors who tried out were rejected solely because they couldn't buy Stallone as a leading man.

Because of this, a lot of the film came up short. When the director put out a request for professional boxers to appear in the film, only Joe Frazier responded. Thankfully, he was a Philadelphia native, of where the film was shot. Likewise, various boxing scenes had to use stock footage due to the lack of extras. This was even present in a scene shot after hours at an empty ice rink. It was originally scheduled to be shot during the day, but they couldn't afford the extras. The famous montage where Rocky trains was done almost exclusively without permits with help of Garrett Brown's Steadicam (despite being credited as the first use of this camera, it was actually the third after Bound for Glory and Marathon Man). This is even noticeable in some scenes where crowds stare in bafflement at Stallone running. The final moment where Rocky runs up the museum steps was shot on the same day. The earlier portion was shot two hours before the sun rose while the other happened when it was up.

The film was a success in every sense. Despite the studio's initial hesitation, the film became the highest grossing film of 1976. It was so successful that it even covered the costs of other bigger budgeted films that failed at the studio, including New York New York. This is a factor made more impressive because Avildsen had never seen a second of actual boxing, whether as the sport or in film. Along with Stallone's mapped out script, the boxing was actually intricately shot and practiced for weeks. It definitely paid off, as it became one of the best shot boxing movies up to that point. While there were disputes regarding Stallone and Avildsen's professionalism, the two would return to work with each other on Rocky V

The film did pretty well at The Oscars that year. It became the first sports film in history to win Best Picture. While Stallone didn't actually win any Oscars, he became the second person since Charles Chaplin for The Great Dictator to receive Oscar nominations solely for starring and writing the film. It's an honor that hasn't been surpassed since. It was overall a very tough year to determine, as majority of the films have since gone on to become classics, notably Taxi Driver, Network, and All the President's Men. It was such a successful year that many would argue that it was one of the best years for Oscars. Still, Rocky's status over these other films is not without its merit. The film's legacy has lived on with a feel good story that best embodies the American spirit that was so prevalent during that year's bicentennial.

It is impossible to succinctly summarize Rocky's achievements in one paragraph. To date, there have been six sequels, with the most recent being the 2015 film Creed - which focuses on Rocky's competitor Apollo Creed's son. There has also been a statue resurrected in Philadelphia at a location nicknamed "The Rocky Steps." This was largely because people believed that Rocky did more for the city than anyone since Benjamin Franklin. The original Rocky also deserves credit for popularizing the montage and helping to create iconic theme songs for them. While "Gonna Fly Now" is from the original, many still confuse Survivor's"Eye of the Tiger" as being the original theme song. There have also been video games for the franchise released on various platforms. The amount of parodies and homages that spawned from Rocky remain endless. With the resurgence of Creed, it does seem likely that the Rocky franchise will continue on for a few more years, thus making it easily the most successful franchise from a Best Picture-winning film in history.

The legacy of Rocky is itself rocky to those who are coming to the film in the modern era. It has become so ingrained in pop culture that the character of Rocky Balboa himself feels like an entity. Even for those who have not seen the film, the music and iconography is present in everyday lives. It's because, at its core, Rocky embodies the underdog story at its very essence. It was likely because of how passionate and real the story felt for Stallone at the time. It also helps that along with being this way, the budget and production also left much to be desired. It's the equivalent of an independent film, sacrifice and all. Even if this gets overshadowed by everything since, it's important to remember the impact of fighting for your dreams and how perfectly Rocky embodies it cinematically.

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