The Best Picture Winners: Rocky (1976)

| December 14, 2017

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.

After experiencing two decades of war, protest, political scandal, violence and national heartbreak, America arrived at its bicentennial needing something, anything to feel good about.  Rocky seemed to be just what they were looking for.  Sylvester Stallone’s heartfelt character study came along at just the right moment, and seemed to embody the American spirit, not in a phony way but with a good, true and genuine heart.

The good news is that it hasn’t dated one bit.  It is an easy movie to make fun of, particularly in light of the volley of sequels of varying degrees of quality (the robot didn’t help) and an entire genre of imitators, but zeroing in on this movie alone, its hard to complain.  It came from the heart.  Stallone wrote and starred in this unpolished character study – reportedly based on real-life heavyweight Chuck Wepner who went 15 rounds with Muhammad Ali – about pursuits of Rocky Balboa, a down-on-his luck  club fighter/debt collector who wants nothing more than to prove himself by getting a shot at the heavyweight title.

The movie has the feel of real life, with the kinds of intricate character details that we usually associate with a great novel.  Yet, it never feels like fiction or a genre piece and, for the most part, isn’t really even a boxing picture.  Yes, it is about a boxer and boxing is his forward momentum but the characters are so rich that it defies a blanket genre.  The movie is really a beautiful love story between Rocky and the painfully shy Adrian and how these two lost souls find themselves shyly coming together.

The story of Rocky’s struggle for his million-to-one shot mirrored the personal story of Stallone who fought just as hard to get this movie made.  After writing the script by hand in just three days he then spent several years shopping it around Hollywood but couldn’t drum up any until he was given his chance by United Artists.

The payoff was the most profitable movie of the year and a film that has stood the test of time.  It was also a massive breakthrough for Stallone who would spend the next 15 years as one of Hollywood’s biggest stars (he would play Rocky six more times) before a string of box office failures turned his name into a punchline.  Today, Stallone’s movie career seems to be made up of very honorable attempts to breathe life back into his career – ret-conning, is the current term.  He even got a second Oscar nomination for playing Rocky in 2016.

As for the movie, it bred a series that has been a roller coaster of quality (again, the robot) that would mirror the current direction of Stallone’s career, getting worse and worse before finally coming back around for 2006’s Rocky Balboa and 2015’s beautifully made Creed.  The last two films proved something I have felt all along, that first film was so specific, so vivid and so full of intricate details that we remember, that it meant something when we returned to them 40 years later.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.