Barring a major upset Sunday night, it is pretty much agreed by everyone that Sylvester Stallone will have an Oscar to show off on Monday morning. Not just any old Oscar mind you, it will be an award for playing one of the most iconic characters in movie history for almost half a century, an adulation not only of his performance in Creed but of what Stallone brought to the movie landscape through the sad-eyed loner that the actor now dubs “my imaginary friend.”
For those of us who were raised in the last third of the 20th century, Rocky is something of a fairy tale character. Like Luke Skywalker or Indiana Jones or Inspector Clouseau or Christopher Reeve’s Superman, he’s part of the tapestry of our movie mythology. The others have experiences we can only imagine, but Rocky lives in the terra firma of our imaginations, and for those of us who grew up being picked last for everything, he made our struggle not so isolating. He made it okay to be an outsider.
Sylvester Stallone has always seemed like an outsider. His career has more downs than ups – it is fashionable to make fun of it, to see it as a long series of wasted talent. Yet is easy to forget the uphill climb he made to even get noticed. Way back when, when he was just a wet-behind-the-ears up-and-coming actor, Stallone took a chance. Over one weekend, he pounded out a beautiful screenplay about a nobody who accidentally gets a chance at a one-in-a-million shot. Rocky was his own story, and when he took it to the studio, everyone fell in love with the script but nobody wanted him for the title role. They wanted tested talent like Ryan O’Neal or Nick Nolte. Today it seems impossible that anyone else might have embodied the role, but back then he might have seemed easy to dismiss. He didn’t exactly look like a matinee idol. He was a droopy-eyed, sad-looking fellow who spoke with a long drawl and didn’t seem to possess a great deal of brain power.
Yet, Stallone was adamant that this was the role he was born to play – he saw in this character, an element that others could not. He saw the vulnerability, the seething ambition and the tender heart of this kid who just needed a break (some of us could relate).
Rocky Balboa was the balance board for Stallone’s career. It is impossible to imagine where he might have gone without that success. Yet, the movie became an international phenomenon, a cultural icon that, against-all-odds, was awarded the Best Picture of 1976 by The Academy against extreme heavy-hitters like All the President’s Men, Taxi Driver and Network. Looking back now, it would seem that Rocky was the right movie at the right time. This was 1976, just on the heels of the humiliation of Vietnam and Watergate and the feeling that America was rupturing as it approached its 200th birthday. We wanted something to feel good about, and it turned out that Rocky was the perfect symbol of our times. America, in many ways, was like Rocky in that we felt a sense of wasted potential, that time had passed us by; that we needed one more shot to prove ourselves.
Stallone did not win an Oscar for Rocky, either for acting nor for his beautiful script, but he achieved something else, an immortality that no single award could ever match. Where he went from there is where his story gets a little sticky.
Somewhere along the way, it began to fall apart. Success can often calcify talent, and Sylvester Stallone’s great early potential was overturned by a long series of easy paychecks. Like Burt Reynolds and Eddie Murphy, Stallone began taking work that did not match his potential. Yes, he became the biggest star in the world, but by the 1990s what did he have to show for it? Rhinestone? Stop or My Mom Will Shoot? Lock Up? Over the Top? Was this the byproduct of Rocky’s success? Even the Rocky series itself became a laughing stock when The Italian Stallion went to Russia to fight The Soviet Superman. If you ever want to see a living example of life imitating art, watch the first half of Rocky III when you see Rocky’s career after winning the Heavyweight championship from Apollo Creed. Rocky has everything in the world, but it is all built on sand, on taking set-ups and easy matches. Rocky lets his ego get the better of him and he loses the thing that helped him rise to the top. Many accused Stallone of doing the same thing. Yes, the box office was there, but what was it founded on?
Yet, it has always seemed that at the lowest points in his career, Stallone returns to his beloved creation and reminds us what a good actor he could be. At a low point in 2005, he began work on revitalizing Rocky once again with beautifully-made Rocky Balboa, a movie nobody initially wanted to make. And yet, like the original, this movie shocked the world. It was a return to form for Stallone and his creation as he took a chance by taking away the heart and soul of Rocky – his beloved Adrian who in the movie had passed away from cancer. The image of Rocky seated in a folding chair at a cemetery talking to her headstone could have rung with bad laughs, but in following the hard-fought journey of The Italian Stallion, the message was that grief was his toughest competitor. The movie proved that Stallone is best when he’s passionate about what he’s writing. When his heart is in the project, we get Rocky. When it isn’t, we get Rhinestone.
Passion is at the very heart of the movie the seems to encapsulate the best aspects of what he can do as a performer, and the movie that will win him the Oscar Sunday night. Creed, I believe, is the peak of his career, a beautiful sequel that moves The Stallion off-center in favor of a young up-and-coming fighter Adonis Creed, the illegitimate son of Apollo, fighting to find his own identity in the shadow of a father who has been lionized by history. And yet, even though Rocky’s story remains at the film’s edges, it never feels like an intrusion.
Directed by Ryan Coogler, Creed finds Rocky facing the inevitability of his own mortality. He still misses Adrian – of course he does – but he’s a man whose breadth of experience are weighing down on him. He’s older, wiser, and worse he’s alone. Not only is Adrian gone but so is Paulie. What Stallone brings to this performance is his life experience, the undeniable fact of aging, the undeniable fact of his loneliness.
The performance comes from his guts and what startles us is how far he’s willing to let himself go. When he realizes that he’s looking at the son of Apollo Creed, we can almost feel the avuncular instinct welling up inside him, a knee-jerk need to want to protect this kid who has suddenly dropped into his life. Rocky’s whole life has been a series of temptations that he can see being laid out before young Donnie. He doesn’t want to see him fall into that trap. And yet, while he encourages the kid to never give up, the kid is shocked that Rocky has given up on his own fight. Refusing to get treatment for cancer due to what Adrian went through, Rocky is resigned to his own fate, but Donnie won’t hear of it. Both are struggling, and both have to do the climbing to beat the odds.
In Creed, Stallone allows an upfront vulnerability that he has never allowed in any other role. You would be hard-pressed to find another actor more comfortable inside the skin of a character that he himself created. And for Creed it was a risk. He put down the pen and allowed a new director and a new screenwriter to take Rocky’s story in a new direction. It’s a brave move because it has resulted in the best performance of Stallone’s career. Ryan Cooglar and his co-screenwriter Aaron Covington wrote a beautiful new chapter. There are themes to be explored not just about determination but about battling this thing called life and making decisions that will chart the course of destiny. For Stallone, he’s finally come home again and in his hands, an Oscar. He can finally say “I did it.”