Monday, June 19, 2017

R.I.P. John G. Avildsen (1935-2017)

John G. Avildsen
On June 16, 2017, director John G. Avildsen died of pancreatic cancer in West Hollywood, California at the age of 81. Among his most memorable works are some of Hollywood's most beloved underdog stories, including The Karate Kid and the Best Picture winner Rocky. He made films to uplift people's spirits and provide hope to anyone struggling to be accepted. He also collaborated with some of the best artists of the 70's and 80's to help produce these masterpieces. Among his greatest attributes was his ability to make films that were as innovative as they were independently made and produced. In some ways, he was just as much an underdog as his greatest protagonist, Rocky Balboa. It's why his work will continue to live on, inspiring people to get up and train for success in any way that they can. 

Avildsen was born in Oak Park, Illinois on December 21, 1935. He received an education at The Hotchkiss School and New York University. Later on in his career, he would become an assistant director to various successful directors, including Otto Preminger (Hurry Sundown) and Arthur Penn (Mickey One). He made his directorial debut with the 1969 film Turn on to Love. His first success came with the low budget film Joe a year later. Its acclaim lead to another success with Save the Tiger, which received three Oscar nominations and won Best Actor for Jack Lemmon. They shared themes of exploring the lives of "losers" who were trying to turn their lives around. 

In 1976, he directed his biggest success commercially and critically. The film Rocky was based on a script by Sylvester Stallone about a lowly boxer who trains for a comeback fight. It was a film that was shot with limited funds and often in ways similar to contemporary independent cinema. It also featured innovative camera uses as well as an iconic score by Bill Conti, featuring the anthem "Gonna Fly Now." It became the highest grossing movie of 1976 and went on to earn 10 Oscar nominations, winning three total including Best Picture. Avildsen won for Best Director. He accepted the award from Jeanne Moreau and gave a speech thanking everyone in his cast and crew. 

Rocky's massive popularity became the pinnacle of underdog sports movies, and popularized the training montage. This was evident in the sequels, of which Avildsen initially refused to direct. During this time, he had been involved with the films Serpico and Saturday Night Fever, but was fired after disputes with producers Martin Bregman and Robert Stigwood. He would return to the Rocky franchise with Rocky V in 1990, believing that it was the last in the franchise, which was true until 2006 and its sequel in 2015, the latter of which earned Stallone his second Oscar nomination for playing Rocky. Among his other famous works was The Karate Kid and its two sequels, which shared the underdog DNA of Rocky for teenagers who di karate. Among his other films was the John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd vehicle Neighbors, which was best known for the duo playing against type.

At the time of his death, there was a documentary in the works that focused on his career. It was called John G. Avildsen: King of the Underdogs, which featured interviews with Stallone, Martin Scorsese, Jerry Weintraub, and Burt Reynolds to name a few. It was a companion to the book "The Films of John G. Avildsen: Rocky, The Karate Kid, and other Underdogs," written by Larry Powell and Tom Garrett. As a whole, his contribution to the sports genre alone is unmatched. His abilities to make the underdog an empathetic archetype is a formula that many have since imitated, and it all owes a lot of credit to the 1976 original. It's unlikely that the training montage would be the same without him. A lot wouldn't, and that's why he'll be greatly missed. 

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