It’s not Oscar season if someone isn’t upset. It’s absurd that such-and-such movie didn’t get nominated. That piece of crap got in? Man, insert pandering / boring / uninventive movie here is going to win, isn’t it? For something many cinephiles purport to brush off, we sure care a lot about the Oscars. That’s because they’re a barometer by which more casual moviegoers in our lives measure what’s best. Instead of carping about controversial selections for Best Picture — which could fill a year’s worth of columns no one would read — we figured it would be more interesting to arguments from advocates for these choices. Welcome to Midwest Film Journal’s Oscar Gold.
1976 was an embarrassment of riches for the Academy, and four decades of hindsight only make that fact clearer. Arguably any Best Picture winner from that year would have defendable, even Bound for Glory if for no other reason than its further elevation of the legend that is Woody “This Machine Kills Fascists” Guthrie. Network, Taxi Driver and All the President’s Men are forever lodged in the American zeitgeist. Who doesn’t fantasize about making a “mad as hell”-type speech? Who hasn’t glanced in the mirror before briefly asking, “You talkin’ to me?” Who wouldn’t meet a shady character with a porn-inspired nickname in a darkened parking garage to take down a corrupt president? (No, really, please do). Each is a critical and cultural landmark.
Who could have guessed that, instead of any of these, a chronically under-budgeted sports movie featuring an as-yet-too-unknown Sylvester Stallone would be coronated as Best Picture?
Okay, maybe the writer of Network did. Network director Sidney Lumet once recalled something writer Paddy Chayefsky said to him on the way to the Oscars. “He said, ‘Rocky’s going to take Best Picture,’ and [I] said, no, no, no, it’s a dopey little movie. And he said, ‘It’s just the sort of sentimental crap they love out there.’ And he was right.”
Maybe Rocky won because 1976 was the big American bicentennial and maybe it won because Watergate tore public trust asunder and audiences were searching for something positive. But 2020 isn’t 1976. Rocky still endures. It could endure because of the underdog story, but he’s an underdog who doesn’t win. It could endure because it’s now ascended to a “classic,” but who cares? (Obligatory Millennial Death Link)
Rocky endures because Rocky endures.
Because Rocky. Jesus, Rocky. Rocky’s got hope. Rocky is the reason dweebs in middle school get up at four in the morning, listen to funk and try to jump rope and swallow raw eggs. Rocky was the best thing to come out of Philadelphia since freedom and would remain the best thing until Will Smith and Rob McElhenney.
Whenever I watch Rocky, I still bob and weave during the final fight. Plenty of punches meant to be hits clearly miss, victims of either that low budget or perhaps the 30-odd pages of scripted fight choreography Stallone put together. But that doesn’t really matter. Balboa loses, despite the demand that he win dictated by nearly all of Western culture from Aesop to Miracle. That doesn’t matter, either.
Of course, none of this really matters because we’re unwitting passengers on an organic spaceship hurtling through the void at mind-boggingly stupid speeds towards oblivion. Our inevitable demise aside, this all doesn’t matter because this movie about boxing isn’t about boxing, just as any movie that endures isn’t just about what it says it’s about. I’m not bobbing in my seat hoping for Rocky to knock out Apollo just this time. I’m bobbing around because I am Rocky.
Fine, only symbolically. The last fight I was in was in eighth grade, and I’m pretty sure it counted as a loss. I have also never awoken to funk music. But Rocky is like Sylvia Plath for gym rats, and the 21st-century American feels Plath pressing in the back of their mind every day.
In her mostly autobiographical novel The Bell Jar, Plath writes:
I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.
This idea pervades in Rocky, from the characters to the setting and the budget itself. Every character, from the nondescript orange-tossing caravaneer to Adrian to Paulie to Mickey is hitching their dreams on Rocky as much as Rocky is himself. The low-budget cinematography echoes and amplifies this. Everyone and everything is worn down and worn out and surrounded by dried figs — not necessarily from a lack of choice as much as a lack of opportunity.
Everything gets tied together with risk-taking and hope. Rocky is there as symbol, as hero.
Despite Chayefsky’s accurate criticism of the film, it’s important to note some sentimentality in which Rocky doesn’t engage. It doesn’t go for the sappy, happy ending where all his dreams come true. Even the romance between Adrian and Rocky is milquetoast and awkward, serving only as an incidental symbol rather than a driving, overly sentimental force. It stays tight on its themes and embraces the quirks of its filmmaking challenges to highlight rather than try to hide them.
One of the two most powerful scenes for me is Mickey’s visit to Rocky to plead with him in that 1970s masculine way to be his manager. Mickey has just gotten through railing Rocky for being small-time muscle for a loan shark before Apollo Creed’s people contact Rocky. This guy who’s spent his whole life trying to be something and then trying to make something out of others needs to make a case to a younger version of himself — a version he degraded in front of his peers just perhaps because the younger reminded the elder a bit too much of himself. He has to swallow all that pride because Rocky is his one chance at something more.
And Rocky responds with his own pride that is there without compromise but shaded with fear, and it looks like Mickey will leave empty-handed. Stallone ad-libbed the “This place stinks” line ,and he’s talking as much about the set (which did in fact stink) as he is about Rocky being sure he’ll lose and the rundown nature of everything. All of these dead and dying figs, drying up around him. We see Rocky’s fear. He knows he’s out-classed. His legs are gone and now he’s realizing his prime might already be behind him. He knows all those fights he’s been in were nothing and he may have been fooling himself. He wasn’t ever going to make it to the big time. And this “freak luck”? Well, it ain’t lucky at all. He’s going to get his face kicked in, and for what?
But he casts aside his frustration and pride and puts his trust in Mickey, a silent climax to a scene that needs no words. Mickey was willing to do what it takes. Rocky is willing to do what it takes, too. Maybe not to win, but to fight.
This is much more the climax of the film than anything else. Rocky has a choice. He can actualize this dream of being the big fighter in the big fight just once, to prove he has something. But in doing so, he’ll also actualize the likely result that he isn’t good enough, no matter his efforts. Or he can do what so many folks do: Mail it in, take the money, take the loss and hold onto this idea that his real effort would have been something more and shroud his failure in excuses.
But he gets down to the street and catches up with Mick. We don’t hear the words but the words aren’t necessary. We know the choice. The rest of the movie is denouement.
Rockyis special because it is fantasy and realism. That second most-powerful scene comes in the night before the fight, a scene that Stallone demanded be shot in one take. He lies in bed with Adrian and says, “I can’t beat ‘im.” Rocky’s a realist. But there’s hope. “I just wanna go the distance.”
Rocky is fantasy in the same ways we counted down the shot clock on the playground before sinking the final bucket or how we lie in bed at night dreaming up wild futures without realizing that coming from the working class necessarily bars us from most of them. But in this fantasy is its honesty. Members of the working class have always been trapped, and the opportunity to move out of class struggle has become even more rare since the 1970s. The hope grows not for a happy ending but for a chance at one. Just for some “freak luck.” That desire to get lucky and get out of the rat race and be something to yourself and others is the heartbeat of any worker. And sitting down one day to stake out the distance we’re willing to strive for is one small victory — one last, small opportunity to define the world on our terms.
My optimism is this, and it is the reason I am happy to revisit Rocky again and again — that the cynicism of the early 21st century, so prevalent in our media and everyday lives, will begin to fall away to the prospects of genuineness and hope. We have already seen this in our television sitcoms. We have made successes out of the likes of The Office and Modern Family, and one must recall David Foster Wallace’s critique of the postmodern.
We have had our obsession with irony. Irony may be able to point out problems, but it doesn’t take anything seriously. It doesn’t help us overcome or even survive. As Wallace would write in Infinite Jest, “hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being human.”
Rocky may be sentimental, but it’s sincere. And as we strain to hear the results of the fight, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because Rocky won the fight much earlier.