Sly Mythology

For public figures firmly entrenched in the collective pop culture psyche, time can be both enemy and friend. With a career of any meaningful duration, it is inevitable to see celebrity stock rise and fall according to the capricious winds of change. To paraphrase an astute observation by songwriter Jackson Browne, to be extremely popular in one era is to pretty much guarantee you will be extremely unpopular in another. The real trick of attaining “legend” cred these days is to ride out all the highs and lows, failures, successes, and in-betweens long enough to be knighted for sheer persistence. Forget about dying young and leaving a pretty corpse, survival is the new cool. Perhaps no one parading around in the current movie awards season embodies this cycle better than classic underdog Sylvester Stallone.

Sylvester Stallone is someone who has been famous for so long both as an icon and caricature, that he’s become far too easy to pigeonhole through the years. While currently riding an evergreen winning streak (including Golden Globe and Critic’s Choice awards) most likely leading to his first acting Oscar for 2015’s Creed, it’s easy to forget that Stallone’s been a target of idolization and ridicule for nearly his entire run as a star. He’s also been unjustly underrated as an actor for many performances sandwiched between his two Academy Award nominations (for the first Rocky and Creed respectively). This has been partly his own doing. While creating two of the most iconic film characters of all time in Rocky Balboa and John Rambo, he’s also made plenty of confounding choices, often going with bankable, cheesy action fare or ill-fitting comedies over character-driven material. After literally creating his own winning ticket with 1976’s Rocky, Stallone could have easily carved out a career as a fascinating character-actor. With his unique look and voice (both due to a botched forceps delivery at birth) as well as his emotionally-driven screenwriting, he could have immediately followed up on the promise of that first Best Actor nomination. And for a while he tried, but considering the blessing-turned-typecasting albatross of the Rocky character, as well as years of struggle as an unknown, it is easy to see why he followed the path he did.

The reason the Rocky franchise has been so profitable for Stallone along with being his most relatable work is simple: it is Stallone’s life story re-configured and mythologized in the form of a lovable underdog pugilist. Stallone was probably the ultimate underdog struggling actor in the early ‘70s. Teased as a child for his looks and first name, Stallone was a shy, scrawny and insecure figure who grew up idolizing strong matinee idols such as bodybuilder-turned-leading man Steve Reeves in 1958’s Hercules. While dreaming of one day being a physically strong cinematic hero himself, the road to glory was the classic mythological test of character and desire. In fact, his first “starring” role was taken out of sheer necessity, having been evicted from his apartment and finding himself homeless. The 1970 feature film The Party at Kitty and Stud’s (later renamed The Italian Stallion to capitalize on the success of Rocky) was a soft-core adult movie. Stallone made $200 for two day’s work. He also starred in the erotic off-Broadway play Score in late 1971.

The rest of Stallone’s early film roles did nothing to elevate his profile or bank statement. There are uncredited roles in Woody Allen’s Bananas as a subway thug and in Klute as a background dancer in a nightclub. He played a supporting role in Roger Corman’s cult classic (as all Corman films are) Death Race 2000. More promising was a leading role opposite a pre-Happy Days Henry Winkler in The Lords of Flatbush where there were flashes of the street-tough yet vulnerable emotional combination he would later perfect in Rocky.

The story behind Rocky has now become Hollywood folklore and an inspiration to many including Matt Damon who recently acknowledged Stallone’s then-gamble as a template for the success of Goodwill Hunting. Realizing he was being typecast as a hooligan with no hope of breaking through the glass ceiling, Stallone decided to write his own vehicle inspired not only by his own professional and personal struggles, but also by the 1975 Muhammad Ali-Chuck Wepner boxing match in which the underdog Wepner surprised everyone by lasting 15 rounds with the legendary Ali. Stallone was so moved by the performance and underdog story that he came home and wrote Rocky in three days. He then attempted to sell the script to multiple studios with the intention of starring in the movie himself. Nearly destitute and with a pregnant wife at home, Stallone was offered $350,000 to relinquish the script for either Robert Redford or Burt Reynolds to star in. Remarkably, and in true Rocky spirit, he turned down the offer and held out for producers willing to let him play the lead role. He found them in Hollywood vets Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff who were so enamored with the screenplay that they ceded to Stallone’s stipulations. The gamble paid off for all involved, as Rocky became a massive, worldwide hit and would garner ten Academy Award nominations including Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay for Stallone. The film eventually won for Best Picture of 1976, a year loaded with top-shelf competition such as Taxi Driver, Network, and All the President’s Men.

The first Rocky worked because of the authenticity of the source material, the excellent ensemble chemistry, and the particular poignancy Stallone brought to the role of Rocky Balboa. As with all of his best work, Stallone brings a unique pathos to his lead male characters. As hinted at in The Lords of Flatbush, beneath the burly exterior and inarticulate speech patterns, there is a hard-knock sensitivity and naïve idealism in his most effective performances. Especially prominent in the vehicles he’s written for himself, Stallone draws from classic themes straight out of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces; archetypes and myths firmly embedded in the collective consciousness. Self-empowerment and overcoming challenges have been consistent messages in his work, just as his own self-actualization connected with millions of people worldwide.

In the aftermath of newfound success, Stallone would once again find himself typecast, this time by the viewing public. Having created an iconic and instantly identifiable movie character, it would prove a mixed blessing and difficult to escape from. He directed for the first time (1978’s Paradise Alley) and would star as a James Hoffa-type character in the labor union drama F.I.S.T.  But the lure of a Rocky sequel proved, as it would throughout his entire career, too powerful and lucrative to resist. He closed out the ‘70s writing, directing, and starring in Rocky II, again to huge box office success.

The ‘80s saw Stallone’s unique run of highs and lows continue. It began with 1981’s gritty Serpico-styled cop thriller Nighthawks in which Stallone donned a beard, further trying to distance himself from his most famous onscreen persona. This was followed by 1982’s winning combination blow of Rocky III and the introduction of his second-most famous screen persona John Rambo in First Blood. Like the first Rocky, First Blood was a credible and emotional character study that soon gave way to cartoonish sequels that ranged from highly entertaining to insipid. It told the simple story of a Vietnam veteran returning from war to an equally hostile and bitter reality at home. As equally monosyllabic yet likable as Rocky Balboa, Stallone’s performance as John Rambo was a deserved hit with audiences and would soon earn him praise from film critic Roger Ebert as the best physical actor in the world (a unique, yet fitting stamp). After a disastrous detour playing a New York cab driver-turned-country singer opposite Dolly Parton in 1984’s Rhinestone, he hit a box-office career peak in 1985 with another franchise double-play of Rambo: First Blood Part II and Rocky IV. Both movies redefined the action and sports movie genres for the remainder of the decade, leaning towards hyper-macho, comic book violence and antagonists worthy of the then-WWF. Just as fitting for a decade where the bodybuilding subculture finally went mainstream, Stallone morphed into a fitness icon almost unrecognizable from the slightly doughy, yet more relatable figure he cut in the ‘70s.

The rest of the 1980’s saw diminishing returns. While firmly established as the biggest star and highest-paid actor at the time, his films descended into entertaining camp. From the near franchise-launcher Cobra to Tango and Cash, his ‘80s oeuvre, nearly all of which were personal vehicles he had written, are definitely of their time and have dated poorly. Films like Rocky and First Blood, while also looking of their time, have character portraits and themes that lend them a timeless quality. Over the Top certainly does not.

The ‘90s got off to a bad start for Stallone with Rocky V, universally viewed (writer and star included) as the worst entry in the Rocky series. It proved to be a bad omen. He followed that up with back-to-back comedic misfires Oscar and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot. Stallone was taking chances and trying to break out of the action star rut he’d been in, and he can be genuinely funny both on the talk-show circuit and in portion-controlled moments onscreen, but it was not what audiences wanted to see. As long as he looked like a buff action star and was camping it up in films like Demolition Man and Judge Dredd, it was hard to accept him otherwise. While movies like 1993’s Cliffhanger kept him alive as a viable box-office attraction (especially internationally), he’d long since relegated himself to a kind of action-star purgatory, which is why 1997’s independent drama Cop Land came as such a welcome surprise.

One of Stallone’s greatest gifts as an actor is his physical commitment to his roles. Whether playing a boxer, military veteran, or mountain climber, he brings an athlete’s intensity and focus to the onscreen heroics. His training and on-set involvement are peerless and pretty much set the standard every leading male, whether in action or comic-book movies, follows to this day. Every time a Henry Cavill or a Chris Hemsworth bulks up to convincingly play a larger-than-life character, the lineage can be traced back to Stallone. And while not the first to drastically transform for a film role, the most famous example being Robert DeNiro’s game-changing work in Raging Bull, Stallone’s (albeit chemically-aided) body mutations through the Rocky and Rambo movies set a new standard in Hollywood. It also further chained Stallone to action spectacles which, especially in the ‘90s, left little room for character nuance. Sensing this himself, Stallone took his first interesting actorly risk since the mid ‘70s for Cop Land by packing on the pounds and completely de-glamming to play the partially deaf sheriff of a small New Jersey town run by corrupt New York City police. Surrounded by the best ensemble he’d worked with since the first Rocky, including Robert DeNiro, Harvey Keitel, and Ray Liotta, Stallone was once again human and vulnerable, looking very much like the actor he would’ve been had fate, dollar signs, and public expectations been circumvented.

Cop Land could’ve been the start of a career renaissance for Stallone, but oddly the next 9 years would prove to be a veritable wasteland. Whether by choice or circumstance, he once again returned to action and populace pieces, none of which would register with the viewing public. There was an unnecessary remake of Get Carter in 2000 followed by another self-penned vehicle Driven in 2001. The rest were even more forgettable with titles such as D-Tox and Avenging Angelo that only writers doing research on Stallone’s career will have any lingering familiarity with. Then came the announcement that was met with rolling eyes and snide comments everywhere: Stallone would once again reprise his most famous role as Rocky Balboa. Even loyal fans thought it was a bad idea, Stallone inching near 60 then and far removed from his doe-eyed prime. It smacked of desperation and sounded like a recipe for disaster, even more so than the ill-conceived Rocky V.

Shockingly, Stallone had the last laugh. Much like Rocky rising from a ten count, Stallone proved to have quite a bit left in the tank. Once again taking the helm as writer and director, he turned 2006’s Rocky Balboa into a modest triumph. By playing Rocky in an age-appropriate manner rather than the superhero he had morphed into, Stallone brought back the poetry and charm of the ’76 original. It was a genuine full-circle victory, connecting with both fans and critics, and was the surprise hit film of the year. Nearly as impressive was the resurrection of his other alter-ego in 2008’s Rambo, another unexpected hit. For longtime fans of both franchises, these purported final chapters served as fitting finales. More importantly for Stallone, it resuscitated his box-office clout and would pave the way for his greatest triumph yet to come.

Energized by these recent successes, Stallone created his third major franchise with the campy ‘90s-action throwback The Expendables. Surrounded by nearly every former action star of the ‘80s and ‘90s Stallone was clearly having fun, once again showcasing a style, sensibility, and maleness that had long since grown obsolete. It was a mostly old-school boys club, tongue planted firmly in cheek, and successful enough to warrant ongoing sequels. In a similar vein was 2013’s Escape Plan co-starring Stallone’s greatest professional rival Arnold Schwarzenegger, followed in the same year by the embarrassing Grudge Match with Cop Land co-star Robert DeNiro. Amidst the upswing in his professional life, Stallone was struck by personal tragedy in 2012 when his eldest son Sage was found dead from a heart attack at age 36. Six weeks later, his half-sister Toni Ann Filiti died of lung cancer. Fortified by life experience and a nourishing home life with third wife Jennifer Flavin and their three daughters, Stallone kept moving forward.

Having come back so many times when most critics had written him off, Stallone reached a point in his career where there was seemingly nothing left to prove and no dragons left to slay. While never receiving much acknowledgment for his work since the first Rocky, Stallone had attained something even more rarified and potent in the industry: he’d become a sort of bulletproof icon; someone who, no matter how many failures, missed opportunities, scandals, or outright foolish choices, would always be beloved as a star of the highest order; myth and mythmaker having somehow blended into a seamless whole. While there were rumblings about yet another Rambo, and his decades-old dream project about Edgar Allen Poe continued to languish in his desk drawer, there didn’t seem to be any new, genuinely artistic roads left to travel.

With the Rocky series having been brought to a satisfying conclusion, Stallone had apparently closed the door to any future sequels. He had been approached by talented up-and-coming director Ryan Coogler (of Fruitvale Station fame and a lifelong fan of the Rocky series) about possibly continuing the saga, this time focusing on the son of legendary Rocky opponent Apollo Creed, with the idea that Stallone would reprise Rocky as a mentor figure much like Burgess Meredith’s Mickey in the original. Stallone was not interested and it took years of persistence on Coogler’s part to gain the trust needed to make it happen. The result was 2015’s Creed, another surprise box-office hit. Even more surprising, Creed was a massive success with critics, particularly for Stallone’s performance. Having already laid the groundwork years earlier with his world-weary take in Rocky Balboa, Stallone brought the same gravitas to Creed, bravely playing the once-superhuman warrior staring down his greatest opponent: mortality. Once again, as with the original Rocky, there was artistry at work: Coogler’s retro, but forward-moving touch, co-star Michael B. Jordan’s complex and conflicted young lion, and the unmistakable weight, charm, and legitimacy of Stallone’s committed presence. For a career that has spanned decades and generations, it was a true crowning moment.

At 69 years of age and with many indelible onscreen moments on his resume, Stallone stands poised to finally receive his first acting Oscar as Best Supporting Actor for Creed. It is a remarkable Rocky moment come to life, one that would strain credibility if written out as fiction. Though clearly the hands-down (and sentimental) favorite to win, this is one case where the nomination alone is truly a victory in itself. If by yet another dramatic twist-of-fate Stallone were to come home empty-handed the night of February 28th, it would be perhaps an even more faithful nod to the underdog mythology of Rocky Balboa – a self-made, talented, yet flawed contender who personified the virtue of persistence and the glory to be found in hard-fought defeat. Sylvester Stallone has gone his own personal distance, bruised and humbled, but also refined by time. Having finally fulfilled the promise of the young “Italian Stallion,” Stallone stands on the crest of a fascinating third act, a testament to the folkloric inspiration and immortality of cinema.

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