erik lundegaard

Friday December 04, 2015

The Rise and Fall (and Rise?) of Sylvester Stallone

“Rocky” had already won best picture when my best friend Peter and I went to see it on a weeknight in the spring of 1977 at the Boulevard Theater in South Minneapolis. We were in eighth grade. After the long winter the air was suddenly soft and full of possibility, and Peter and I talked briefly outside the theater, then parted. Here’s what he remembers: He looked back and saw me running down Lyndale avenue, so he did the same in the opposite direction. Me, I just remember being pumped. I remember feeling the need to run. I didn’t think I’d make it home without stopping but I did. I went the distance. 

OK, so it wasn’t a very long distance (according to Google maps, not quite half a mile), but before I’d always stopped whenever I ran out of breath. Something about “Rocky” made me keep going. A few years later I joined the Washburn high school cross-country team.

Hollywood likes to congratulate itself about movies that are inspirational—“Makes you want to stand up and cheer,” etc.—but Sylvester Stallone is one of the few writer-actors that actually inspired me to do things. Running home from the Boulevard was just the beginning. Because of him, I: 1) ate a raw egg; 2) bounced a tennis ball around town; 3) lifted weights. In my late teens, I became obsessed with getting stronger. Or at least looking stronger. Or at least looking less weak. 

“Rocky” changed more than me, of course; it changed Hollywood. Is any movie more perfectly bifurcated? The first half is a gritty, 1970s character study. It’s about a down-on-his-luck pug barely scraping by in a dead-end part of Philadelphia. His chosen career, boxing, didn’t pan out and he’s become, in Mickey’s words, “a legbreaker to some cheap, second-rate loanshark.” Mickey calls it a waste of life but he’s merely saying aloud what Rocky already knows. After the opening fight with Spider Rico, back in his lonely, shitty apartment, Rocky plucks a photo of himself as a kid from the mirror frame and stares at it, then back up at his reflection. It’s a look we’ve all given ourselves at some point. How did I wind up here? Wasn’t I going to be something else? Something better?

The second half of the movie is how he becomes that person. He gets an incredible opportunity, makes the most of it, goes the distance and gets the girl.

The first half of the movie, in other words, is what movies were from around 1967 to 1976: character studies about ordinary people getting screwed. The second half is what movies became: wish-fulfillment fantasies about heroic men with upbeat endings.

“Rocky” not only won best picture at the 1977 Academy Awards—over “All the President’s Men,” “Taxi Driver” and “Network”—but it became the No. 1 box-office hit of the year, and it was followed by “Star Wars” in 1977 and “Grease” and “Superman” in 1978. After years in which the top box-office hits were gritty, critically acclaimed downers like “The Godfather,” “The Exorcist” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” a light bulb went on for studio executives everywhere. “Oh,” they said. “People want to feel good again.” So that’s what they gave us: feel-good movies. They haven't stopped.

And now I pluck that image of ourselves from back then, from the spring of 1977, and I look back up at what movies have become; and I wonder what the fuck went wrong.

 Rocky Balboa looks in the mirror

Limp-wristed librarians need not apply
Stallone saw the future, by the way. In his first interviews with The New York Times, on Sept. 24, 1976 (two months before “Rocky” opened) and Nov. 18, 1976 (opening weekend), with journalists Guy Flatley and Judy Klemesrud, he articulates that future. 

To both, he brags that it took him only three and a half days to write “Rocky”; to Klemesrud, he describes the writing process as if it were an athletic event, with his wife spurring him on: “Push it, Sly, go for broke.”

He talks up his workout regimen. To Flatley he says, “An actor is what he looks like; I exercise religiously every day.” To Klemesrud, “If macho means I like to look good and feel strong and shoot guns in the woods, yes, I’m macho. I don’t think that even women’s lib wants all men to become limp-wristed librarians.”

Mostly he talks about the movies and what’s wrong with them circa 1976:

There are no heroes anymore, only anti-Christs and hatchet murderers. Bring back comedies, bring back mirth and dreams. If you want realism, cut a hole in the wall of your living room and charge people $3 to sit and watch what’s going on in your front yard.

He says something similar a few months later in Family Weekly, a mass-market supplement that appeared in local newspapers around the country:

The public is sick of weirdos. A man who works hard all week and wants to go to the movies with his family is subjected to brutality, murder, a bombardment of foul language. You have every conceivable sicko on screen. The public wants something, someone to believe in. And that’s just what I’m going to give them in the future—optimistic films.

He was right: Optimistic films were the future of movies. Yet, oddly, he couldn’t quite make it work for himself outside of the “Rocky” flicks. Every three years, he’d trot out another “Rocky” film and it would be among the year’s biggest hits; and in-between he’d make two other films, which would more or less die with both audiences and critics:

Year Movie Box Office
1976 Rocky $117,235,147
1978 F.I.S.T. $20,388,920
1978 Paradise Alley $7,185,518
1979 Rocky II $85,182,160
1980 Nighthawks $14,905,359
1981 Victory $10,853,418
1982 Rocky III $125,049,125

Yet hidden among these four non-“Rocky” flicks was one of the most influential films Stallone ever made. Influential, that is, with him. 

Again, The New York Times, July 31, 1981:

After shooting “Victory,” which opens today, Sylvester Stallone came home from Hungary a flag waver. He says if everybody had to spend two weeks in a Communist country, “patriotism in America would reach epidemic proportions. 

“To this day, I believe all our hotel rooms were bugged,” he says. “If you had an amorous night with your wife, you'd walk downstairs next morning and everyone would be grinning. The police have keys to everyone's house. They can turn off all the electricity in a city if they don't like what's going on. And every couple of months the tanks run down the streets, just to remind people that they‘re there.”

Was this the final element for Stallone’s success? Along with 1) heroes 2) with pecs, and 3) upbeat endings, he now added, 4) flag waving. 

Apollo’s ironic stars-and-stripes boxing trunks from the original “Rocky” reappeared in “Rocky III,” without a shred of irony, on Stallone’s carefully reconstructed body with its 2.8% body fat. That fall, Stallone had his first non-“Rocky” hit, “First Blood,” in which the hero, John Rambo, is a misunderstood Vietnam vet who says of the war, “I did what I had to do to win! But somebody wouldn’t let us win!” Three years later, Rambo was back, in “Rambo: First Blood Part II,” and this time he did win the Vietnam War, single-handedly, despite more “somebodies” (read: government bureaucrats) trying to prevent him. Then Stallone topped it off by winning the Cold War in “Rocky IV.” He avenges the death of Apollo Creed by taking on his Russian killer, the chemically suspect villain Ivan Drago, in the Soviet Union. And he wins! And the Soviet crowd cheers for him! Including the Politburo! Then he drapes himself in the American flag to go with his stars-and-stripes boxing trunks. 

Audiences loved it. Or at least saw it. “Rocky IV” was the third-biggest movie of 1985. “Rambo: First Blood Part II” was the second-biggest movie of 1985. And that year, Stallone was chosen by Quigley’s as the No. 1 box office star in the world.

Yo, Adrian, I did it!

And then it all went away.

Rambo II

Stinkers, not thinkers
I’d always assumed that Stallone remained a big movie star until the mid-’90s, but you look at the numbers and it was all pretty much downhill after 1985. His movies didn’t do poorly but they didn’t exactly capture the public’s imagination, either:

Year Movie Box Office Yearly Rank
1985 Rambo: First Blood Part II $150,415,432 2
1985 Rocky IV $127,873,716 3
1986 Cobra $49,042,224 15
1987 Over the Top $16,057,580 68
1988 Rambo III $53,715,611 16
1989 Lock Up $22,099,847 49
1989 Tango & Cash $63,408,614 20
1990 Rocky V $40,946,358 32
1991 Oscar $23,562,716 57
1992 Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot! $28,411,210 46
1993 Cliffhanger $84,049,211 10
1993 Demolition Man $58,055,768 18
1994 The Specialist $57,362,582 20
1995 Judge Dredd $34,693,481 52
1995 Assassins $30,303,072 59
1996 Daylight $33,023,469 48
1997 Cop Land $44,862,187 48

What caused this slide? Was it his two-picture, $25 million deal with the Cannon Group, the low-budget Golan and Globus outfit not exactly known for making quality movies? Was it Stallone’s tabloid relationship with Brigitte Nielsen, his tall, blonde co-star from “Rocky IV” and “Cobra”? Was it his narcissistic fascination with his own body? Was it the number of times he wrapped himself in the American flag? 

Or did his movies just get way too stupid?

“Cobra,” his first movie after the one/two triumph of 1985, was supposed to be his version of Dirty Harry, the lone cop taking down the horrific bad guys despite a liberal system that wants to mollycoddle them. It’s basically Dirty Harry turned up to 11. And it began, believe it or not, with Stallone’s rewrite of “Beverly Hills Cop,” which producers offered to him in the early 1980s. But in the rewrite, Stallone removed the comedy and increased the violence. He did, in other words, exactly what his 1976 self felt moviemakers shouldn’t do. “Bring back mirth and dreams,” he said back then. The producers passed and gave the project to rising star Eddie Murphy, who kept the comedy intact and promptly turned the film into the No. 1 box office hit of 1984. Stallone’s rewrite became “Cobra.”

Should we talk about villains here? Back in ’76, Stallone didn’t really talk about villains; he talked heroes. And you can have heroes without villains. Look at the first “Rocky.” Paulie’s an asshole but he’s Adrian’s brother and Rocky’s friend. Gazzo is a loanshark but a really nice loanshark. Apollo Creed? He’s the man who, on a whim, gives Rocky his million-to-one shot. “Rocky” doesn’t really have a villain.

By the time we get to “Rocky III” and “IV,” oh yeah, we’ve got villains. Clubber Lang is an angry black monstrosity, and that’s all he is. Ivan Drago is a Teutonic, Soviet-made machine that kills without remorse, and that’s all he is. They’re cartoons. Stallone doesn’t want us to imagine them with a life outside the confines of the plot. Ditto “Cobra.” During the shoot, actor Brian Thompson, who plays Night Slasher, the movie’s main villain, a creepy cult leader that kills the weak and the innocent for sport and a bankrupt ideology, kept bugging Stallone for motivation for his character. What was his background? Stallone told him his character didn't have a background; his character was simply evil.

Admittedly, “Cobra” did great opening weekend—the second-biggest opening of 1986 ($12.6 million), appearing in the most theaters of 1986 (2,131)—but then it died. In an era when movies tended to play in theaters for six months, “Cobra” lasted just six weeks. It opened Memorial Day weekend and was gone before the 4th of July.

With “Over the Top,” Stallone tried to do with arm wrestling what he did with boxing. Didn’t take. Then he returned to his staple products but the mass audience was no longer there. “Rambo III,” in which Rambo aids Afghan rebels (i.e., the future Taliban) against the Soviet Union, grossed only 35% of what “Rambo II” did three years earlier. “Rocky V,” in which Rocky loses all of his dough and then trains an ungrateful punk kid before the two of them have a street fight, grossed 31% of what “Rocky IV” did five years earlier. His failsafes were no longer safe.

He also probably got crowded out. He showed the way, and Arnold Schwarzenegger took it. So did Bruce Willis, Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Steve Seagal. They all gave us hard bodies and cartoonish plots and sick villains, and they all made a mint for a while. Thinking of them, and what movies became, I’m reminded of an early scene in “Rocky,” in which Rocky is watching Apollo Creed being interviewed on TV. And Apollo says the following to the kids watching:

Stay in school and use your brain. Be a doctor, be a lawyer, carry a leather briefcase. Forget about sports as a profession. Sports make you grunt and smell. Be a thinker, not a stinker.

Stallone, followed by the rest of Hollywood, did the opposite. They made stinkers, not thinkers.

Rambo III ties headband

The distance
Now the redemption song.

In the ’90s, attempting to get it all back, Stallone tried comedies (“Oscar,” “Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot!”) and sci-fi action (“Demolition Man,” “Judge Dredd”). He teamed up with the girl of the moment: Sharon Stone, Sandra Bullock, Janine Turner, Amy Brennamen. Nothing worked. Someone suggested he do what John Travolta did to get his career back—after Stallone all but ruined it by directing him in “Staying Alive” in 1983—and make a gritty independent picture surrounded by serious actors like Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro. “Cop Land” was the kind of movie Stallone had been fleeing since 1976—a worm-turns movie in which he plays the worm. He even gained weight for the role. He went method. Critics were mostly kind, but it wasn’t exactly “Pulp Fiction.” By the early 2000s, Stallone’s movies were essentially straight-to-video products.

But he kept punching. Give him that. He returned to Rocky and Rambo in 2006 and 2008, then envisioned the “Expendables” franchise, which makes most of its hundreds of millions of dollars abroad rather than at home. It’s not exactly a thinker.

But “Creed” is. I saw it opening weekend. It’s actually the first Stallone movie I’ve seen in the theater since “First Blood” way back in 1982. Imagine that. And it’s good. And he’s good in it. It’s a quiet film in which the relationships matter as much as the fight. It’s about human beings with foibles, not heroes and villains. In this way, it's a throwback to “Rocky.” I certainly felt it. I’m 52 now, not 14, and living in Seattle, not Minneapolis, but on my way home, confronted with the hills of First Hill, what can I say? I ran up them.

Rocky Balboa runs up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum

Posted at 07:15 AM on Friday December 04, 2015 in category Movies  
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Twitter: @ErikLundegaard