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Rob Edelman: Stallone

Burt Young and Rob Edelman

If there is one sure thing at the upcoming Academy Awards, it is that Sylvester Stallone will walk off with the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance in CREED. In the film, he revisits the character that made him a star: Rocky Balboa. In CREED, Rocky is the ex-heavyweight champ who trains and mentors the son of Apollo Creed, his deceased friend and ex-rival.

The original ROCKY-- a number of sequels have been produced and released across the decades-- dates from 1976, which incredibly is now four decades ago. Several years ago, I discussed Sylvester Stallone and ROCKY and, given their triumphant return to the spotlight, this commentary is well worth revisiting.

Across the decades, Stallone has too often been cast as monosyllabic heroes in brainless action films. But I recently had re-seen the original ROCKY, which was screened at Proctors in Schenectady. I was honored to be asked to introduce the film and moderate a q&a with Burt Young, who plays Paulie-- and who also earned great acclaim for his work in the film.

Now of course, as the decades pass, not all films that are acclaimed in their day hold up cinematically. But not so with ROCKY. The film remains as powerful and moving as it was in 1976. It deserved all the accolades it earned back then, and it is well-worth re-seeing today. For one thing, Stallone offers a performance. His Rocky Balboa is a full-bodied character: a character with whom most anyone can relate. This is completely understandable given the nature of the story and the plight of Rocky: an obscure Philadelphia pugilist whom the world views as a loser but who then is offered a shot at the heavyweight title.

I think it is fair to say that everybody loves an underdog. We love the idea of the person who has suffered from ill luck or who has had his or her share of rough times, which is what defines Rocky Balboa. So we love the idea of the person who is behind the eight-ball, so to speak, emerging from behind that eight-ball and working hard and strutting his or her stuff and emerging a winner. This, I think, is at the core of ROCKY, and the fact that the film is so well-made and well-scripted and well-acted only adds to its allure.

A question worth pondering here is: Is ROCKY the greatest-ever boxing film? This one is open to debate. There are those who will say that BODY AND SOUL, which stars John Garfield and dates from 1947, is #1 on the list. There are other fine ones: for example, THE HARDER THEY FALL, from 1956, which is Humphrey Bogart’s final film; and THE SET-UP, from 1949, with Robert Ryan. Of course, there is Scorsese’s RAGING BULL, from 1980, which features Robert De Niro in a career-defining performance. (Let me add that two all-time-great films that are not generic boxing films-- 1953’s FROM HERE TO ETERNITY and 1954’s ON THE WATERFRONT-- feature central characters who are former boxers.)

But beyond its stature as a classic of its genre, one word that surely relates to ROCKY is: inspirational. This is something that I can connect to personally. Here is a true story. Not too long after ROCKY was released, I found myself in a life-threatening situation. I was in my mid-20s at the time, practically a kid. Yet I was struck out of nowhere with a very serious illness, and I had to undergo some very serious surgery. Needless to say, I was confused-- and I was scared out of my mind. To cut to the chase, what got me through this ordeal was thinking about Rocky Balboa.

At the time, I said to myself: Rocky psyched himself up and went into the ring and did his ten rounds or whatever and walked out of the ring standing on his own two feet. And you know what? I’m gonna do the same, in my own way. It was my thinking about this film, and its spirit, that helped get me through this very difficult ordeal. Such is the power of a great film. Such is the power of a film like ROCKY. So today, I have no problem with casting aside all of Sylvester Stallone’s brainless action films and standing up and cheering as he accepts his Academy Award.

Rob Edelman has written several books on film, television, and baseball, and was a longtime Contributing Editor of Leonard Maltin’s annual Movie Guide. He teaches film history at the University at Albany.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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