Why I was wrong about Sylvester Stallone

Sylvester Stallone has had a major impact on the way movies are made now. Photo: Barry Wetcher People visit the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art to climb what are now called the Rocky Steps. Photo: Supplied
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Stallone made his body into a work of art, a symbol of can-do. Photo: Supplied

Stallone is not the man we see in the movies. In person, he’s charming, witty, smart and personable. Photo: Supplied

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In Rocky IV, Apollo Creed says to his friend Rocky Balboa, aka The Italian Stallion: “You know, Stallion, it’s too bad we gotta get old”. Creed (Carl Weathers) was dead soon after, a victim of his own failure to recognise that he was, indeed, too old. He challenged Ivan Drago, the mountainous Russian played by Dolph Lundgren, and died in the ring. Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) shared the guilt, because he failed to throw in the towel soon enough to save his friend.

The guilt set up the conflict for Rocky IV, which was both ludicrous and hilarious – at least if you like some reality in your movies. Many people don’t: on that paradox, Sylvester Stallone has built his career.

He’s back in cinemas now with Creed, in which he mentors Apollo’s son, Adonis (Michael B. Jordan), as a fighter. There are suggestions that this movie could finally put Stallone in contention for an Oscar – although it’s not like he hasn’t been there before. Rocky (1976) won best picture, best director and best editing in 1977 and Stallone was nominated for best actor, alongside Robert De Niro for Taxi Driver. Peter Finch beat them both for Network.

Stallone turns 70 next year and maybe this is a good time for me to apologise to him. For a long time, I thought he was just a meathead, like some of the characters he invented.

When I started writing about movies in 1984, he had become a poster boy for the American right. Ronald Reagan himself declared that Rocky was a Republican. Stallone had already made Rockys II and III, and he had done the first Rambo film, First Blood – which was actually pretty good. In 1984 he was paired with Dolly Parton in a country musical, Rhinestone Cowboy. Some wit declared it the meeting of the two greatest racks in show business. He was becoming a joke, but a very successful one.

I think now that I was wrong. It’s not just the phenomenal box office of his combined films, although that is a lump (more than $4 billion in grosses, adjusted for inflation). Stallone has had a major impact on the way movies are made now – in the way action montages are put together, the speed of the editing, the use of music. He has had an impact on how Americans see themselves, reaffirming their sense of right and might; he has redrawn the Hollywood map in terms of longevity, although he has had plenty of helpers there – from Eastwood and Schwarzenegger and all the other action has-beens who won’t die, most of whom turn up in Stallone’s Expendables franchise, another phenomenally successful Stallone idea that defies all notions of good filmmaking.

Most of Stallone’s films are terrible, at least if you are a film critic, but audiences have now loved him for almost 50 years. Critics discount him, because his films dwell in melodrama, where pathos, sentiment and formula drive the plot, rather than characterisation. Audiences don’t care; they like what he stands for.

Stallone plays the underdog better than almost anyone in film history. And Rocky is crafted for all the underdogs out there in Peoria and Palookaville, one step ahead of the bailiff and the banks. Rocky gave hope to the lost, the hopeless, the loveless and the weak. That’s a great gift and that is why, every day, people visit the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art to climb what are now called “the Rocky steps” and stretch their arms in a sign to the world: I’m here, and I could be great.

In 1954, American corruption denied Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) the chance to become a contender in On the Waterfront. The mob, even his own brother, betrayed him: the country was rotten. Rocky reversed that negativity, just when America needed it. They had lost the war in Vietnam two years earlier; their president had been revealed as a sneak and a liar. Rocky single-handedly revived the American dream: all you needed was a bad tracksuit, a side of beef and a sense that you could do it. Rocky lost that first fight against Apollo Creed, but it didn’t matter. He won because he was still standing after 15 rounds against the world champion. It was will, not skill, that mattered.

Stallone is not the man we see in the movies. In person, he’s charming, witty, smart and personable, less of an ego than some of the other men-of-action. He has a huge art collection and he has painted since before he did Rocky. He chooses not to make arty movies but that doesn’t mean he can’t visit the top drawer, and bring a good game. His performance in Copland, where he played a lowly sheriff in a town of corrupt New York City cops, was an eye-opener; he was superb in his comeback film, Rocky Balboa (2006).

Stallone made his body into a work of art, a symbol of can-do. He probably did it the same way Arnold Schwarzenegger did, but no-one expects movie stars to be free of performance-enhancing drugs. His unfortunate tangle with Australian Customs in 2007, when he was caught bringing 48 vials of human growth hormone and testosterone into Australia, made a dint in the idea of the natural-born physique, but not enough to concern the fans. He and Lance Armstrong are not in the same branch of show business, after all. In Hollywood, no-one has to get old until they actually die.

On twitter: @ptby­­rnes

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