By John Clark
Everyone knows the story: Big lug with big heart proves to himself and the world that he’s not a bum, while turning ugly duckling into swan.
Rocky, with Sylvester Stallone as the lug and Talia Shire as the ugly duckling, Adrian, should have been awful, but it wasn’t. That it wasn’t is a tribute to the script (by Stallone), which actually has a lot of funny lines (when Adrian says she’s never been in a man’s apartment, Rocky says, “They’re all the same”) and deftly satirizes American self-promotion (Rocky’s boxing opponent, Apollo Creed, arrives for their match dressed as George Washington).
It also works because the audience roots for these losers, a testimony to the performances of Stallone and Shire, who push the pathos, but not too hard. Subsequent Rockys (there were four more) tried to find ways to re-create the original’s underdog appeal, but that’s hard to do when you’re not a bum anymore. A DVD package of all five Rockys will be released Dec. 14.
Shire, born Talia Rose Coppola, made her name playing two characters — Adrian and Connie, the Corleone sister in the Godfather series (there were three of those, in which she morphs from princess to Lady Macbeth). Shire is something of a sequel — and sequel generator — herself. She is the daughter of composer Carmine Coppola, the sister of novelist August and director Francis, aunt of writer-director Sofia and actor Nicolas Cage, and the mother of actor Jason Schwartzman.
Though her career has been defined by two roles, she’s also acted in many other films (most recently I Heart Huckabees) and been a producer and director. We spoke with Shire by phone..
Q: I saw you dancing with Brando in a clip from The Godfather. Was there any particular scene you shot with him that you remember well?
A: A lot of us actors would go sometimes, when we weren’t in a scene, (and watch him) because we wanted to see him work. He was quite amazing. You’ve heard stories about his lines (being posted) around the set. Really it was not because he couldn’t remember them. He wanted to keep things fresh, as if things would occur to him. So very often he choreographed where the placement of the lines would be discovered. And he used ear wax in his ears to create active listening.
Q: Well, let’s compare him to Stallone.
A: There was a burning passion in Brando. And you have in Sylvester — people don’t realize the passion involved because when he made Rocky, you have to remember the context. Young actor, pregnant wife, no money. And finally just had to write himself a role that would frame him correctly. He made that role for himself the way a great tailor would make a suit.
Q: You say he tailored that part for himself, so he had to re-tailor it as the years went on and he changed.
A: I think he included the events that were taking place in his extraordinary celebrity. In most boxing movies, boxing was always about corruption. You never had a boxing movie that was going to be a spiritual one, about somebody going the limit, facing himself. So he was always going to keep exploring those things about how a person stays balanced in the middle of all sorts of seductions.
Q: So he had the arc of his life to draw from. What did you have to draw from?
A: What resonated for me was the idea of being in someone’s corner but truly as an equal partner. The identity of the woman is not lost. That meant a lot to me, because for me and for many other women that was what we were trying to achieve. Women’s liberation certainly was my generation.
Q: Was it validating for you to be in that success versus the success of the Godfather films?
A: Beyond belief. And it was very necessary, even though for the Godfather I was rejected from ever auditioning, and a month later was allowed to audition and did it under the name Shire. I think I was picked by (Paramount chief Robert) Evans, and I don’t think Francis was very happy about it. He was right. I should have asked him because of all of the political issues. And now as an older performer and someone who has directed, I know you can’t have a relative on the set when your own job could be over or at stake.
Q: I’ve read that one of his principal objections was that you were too pretty.
A: He did say that. I just wanted the chance to audition because that’s one of the things I don’t do well. The only time I ever auditioned well was Rocky. For the first time in my auditioning life, and not since then, did an audition have in it a kind of completeness.
Q: I’ve read there’s some talk of another Rocky.
A: I have a feeling when I’m 80 years old I’m going to get a phone call: There’s going to be another Rocky. We often talked: Could it be about politics? Could he become a candidate of some sort? That’s sort of getting in the ring with people lately.
Q: So would you be Laura Bush or Teresa Heinz Kerry?
A: I would be Adrian Balboa.