By Roger Ebert
Sylvester Stallone sits on a hotel sofa with his feet up on the coffee table. He wears expensive blue jeans, the kind you buy in Beverly Hills. His muscles bulge beneath a T-shirt that says, simply and inexplicably, “Valentine.”
He has a tough, sensual face, a mane of black hair and the best hooded eyes since Robert Mitchum. Two years ago, he observes, his acting career was “intellectually, emotionally and financially defunct.” Now he talks about how it’s going to feel to be a star.
He’s a star because of Rocky, the screenplay he peddled to Hollywood studios while living in a one-room apartment on next to nothing a week.
He was offered big money if he’d sell the story and let someone else star in it – but, no, he thought he ought to be the star himself. He held out long enough and United Artists finally let him do it, and the movie’s one of the year’s surprise hits.
Stallone is not surprised.
“The people like it who let their emotions be their guide,” he says. “Of course, if you go in intellectually, you hate it. But if you let yourself go with it, something happens about 40 minutes into the movie. You say to yourself, hey, this isn’t going to be the colossal downer of all time. You find out Rocky’s not just a fighter on the way down, he’s a pliable, vulnerable person. And the movie isn’t just about fighting it’s about heart and love. And then you throw yourself into it emotionally. Maybe that’s why I made it about boxing. Everybody knows what it’s like to punch, and be punched, and everybody knows what it’s like to fall in love.”
Rocky is about a mob enforcer and punk prizefighter from Philadelphia who gets a lucky crack at the heavyweight title and knows it may be his one shot at amounting to something in life. The story could be Stallone’s.
After years of getting nowhere as an actor in New York, he went to Hollywood and got nowhere there. He had roles in Capone and Death Race 2000, and a nice scene in Lords of Flatbush where he was buying his girl a wedding ring. But things were not exactly snowballing for him when Rocky came through.
“When we finally knew that Rocky was going to be made and I was going to play Rocky, I knew this wasn’t only my shot, this was my life. Everything had to be perfect. I was hard on the crew when we were shooting – they thought I was a miserable bastard – but I had to give the movie my best shot. After the movie was over, if it was a flop, they could go back to Baretta. For me, it would be a one-way ticket back to Palookaville.”
The movie has been compared with a lot of other Hollywood boxing films, and it does have the same basic plot: Tough street kid gets a crack at the title and wins the girl (Talia Shire). But Stallone sees a lot of differences.
“It’s different about the boxing, about the girl and about the fighter himself. The boxing is more authentic. I went back and looked at Champion and, hell, Kirk Douglas didn’t even wear a mouthpiece in the boxing scenes. And Rocky’s relationship with the girl, it’s not like she’s some tough neighborhood broad. She’s shy and scared and all closed off until she falls in love. And Rocky, they say he’s a big macho type. I hate that word, ‘macho.’ It’s overused; it sounds like a cheap south of the border drink.
“He’s masculine, but he can be reached, and emotionally he’s a 14 or 15-year-old boy in the body of a man. Which turns some women on. They don’t want the super sophisticated intellectual businessman type. They turn on to a man who hasn’t forgotten what it’s like to crawl around on all fours playing with electric trains, and who likes to pinch them. Rocky’s like that. The fact he has two pet turtles, that’s very important.”
The movie’s climax is the championship fight itself, and it goes 15 bloody rounds and contains some of the most brutal violence ever put into a boxing film.
It leaves audiences drained. And yet, I said, there’s a curious thing: Women often say they don’t like violence in movies, and yet they like Rocky. Why does the movie appeal to them?
“Because Rocky is courting them. They see a love affair developing from its earliest stages. They see Rocky with his pet turtles, they see how shy the girl always seems to be, and they want to see this romance come to something. Even in the clumsiest early stages between the boy and the girl, the women in the audience are right there because they remember what it’s like to be so colossally shy, to be cornered in some guy’s apartment.
“When Talia says she wants to leave my place because she doesn’t feel like she belongs, they understand that. So by the end of the movie, the fight scenes with all the blood, the women in the audience are already going steady with Rocky. They’re not turned off, because he’s fighting for them.”
One scene that’s particularly appealing to women, Stallone says, is when the Talia Shire character overcomes her shyness enough to kiss him – just barely, but it’s a kiss.
“We shot that scene all day, and she was beautiful. So shy, so pale, so trembling. Then it turns out she had the flu. Christ, Talia, I said, no wonder you looked so great! So then she gets better and we all get sick, but it’s a great scene.”
Stallone thinks of himself primarily as a writer who acts, rather than the other way around.
“But I like to write popular stories. Mass audience stories that still have something to say. One of the reasons I wrote about a prizefighter is because a down-and-out prizefighter is about as low down as you can get on ‘the social scale, and I didn’t want Rocky to appeal to the audience on any intellectual level. It had to be a gut movie.
“And another thing, I don’t believe in agonizing over a story. I don’t think any screenplay could take me more than five weeks to write. So some of the scenes stink? So, OK, we’ll fix them the second time around. It’s the emotional structure that matters anyway. I’m a very fast writer.
“One reason for that is I’m a separatist, which means I like to be separate a lot. Socializing diminishes my powers of concentration. There’s nothing left for the page. I don’t think I’ve been in two bars in my life. You wanna know what my idea of a good time is? Having an intellectual conversation with a friend while flicking gravel at a stop sign.”
Which doesn’t sound very much like the Stallone of the legend already growing up around him. Like the Sly – that’s what his friends call him – who was raised in foster homes and grew up in Hell’s Kitchen and ran the streets and alleys and has a Brooklyn accent you could cut with a knife.
“You know who started all that crap? People magazine. They interviewed me, and I was very careful to make it clear that I may have been born in Hell’s Kitchen but we moved out when I was 5. And that I wasn’t raised in a foster home, but that both of my parents worked and so I was taken care of by a very nice lady who could put up with my neurotic behavior. And that I was never a hood or all that crap. But it makes a better story the other way. As long as I live, I’ll read about how I fought it out in Hell’s Kitchen.”
A pause for reflection.
“The one thing I’m not gonna do is, I’m not gonna be Eugene O’Neill and write about my private demons. I want to write for the public. My next movie, it’s gonna be about three brothers who live in New Jersey. And then there’s one I’m writing about Edgar Allen Poe and his child bride, Virginia. Only I’ll make it about the genius of Poe, and not about the reality. About his spirit. Who wants the caustic realities of real life when fantasy is so much better? And who wants an Edgar Allen Poe movie that tells the realities if the reality turns out to be two hours of Lost Weekend in drag?
“The one about the brothers in New Jersey, one is going to be the world’s biggest con man, so he thinks. Another one is a cripple and another one is a drunk, and their ambition is to buy a house. And I want to put in real fantasies, like the drunk sees a dinosaur coming out of a trash can, because I think people do have those fantasies. Like everytime I walk over the subway grating and think about all those tunnels down below, I know something lives down there, some huge creature with pearly teeth and crimson eyes, lurking in the abyss.”
It sounds, I say, as if you have a great imagination . . .
“Oh, I dunno. It’s just . . . Well, for example, there has to be a Loch Ness monster. I think I’m a romantic. People say Rocky is realistic, but I don’t want realism, I want romance. In a way, the movie’s like a classical symphony where it involves you, it hooks you and then it builds to the big finish, the monstrous lancing of the musical boil. That’s my formula. And I like it. I’ve seen Rocky maybe 200, maybe 300 times, and you know something? It’s still my favorite picture.”