For decades, as I have watched Sylvester Stallone on talk shows or caught snippets of promotional interviews with him, my impression, without much thought, has been that he’s a guy with a certain charismatic native intelligence. Still “Cunning”, the infectious and fascinating portrait of Stallone and his films that premiered today at the Toronto Film Festival, is based on an interview with Stallone conducted at his lavish, art-adorned Mediterranean-style mansion in Beverly Hills (he has since sold it to Adele). And throughout the film, he is so calm but tremendously eloquent, so candid about the processes of filmmaking and his strengths (and weaknesses) as an actor, so wise about the meaning of his own stardom, that I realized, with a touch of shame, a prejudice that I have carried for 47 years. Deep in my reptilian brain, I still I think Sylvester Stallone is Rocky.
I think a lot of people do it. On the surface, this may not seem like such a striking error in judgment. We all fall into the trap of “believing” that certain actors are the characters they play. We think of Humphrey Bogart and imagine him as… Bogart. Sean Connery was indelible as James Bond because he really looked was James Bond. That said, we live in an era of media overexposure in which an actor like Stallone has had every opportunity to prove that he is not Rocky Balboa. His other iconic role, Vietnam kamikaze veteran John Rambo, could hardly have been more different.
When I saw “Sly,” what struck me was because Rocky became completely attached to Stallone, and Stallone to Rocky. I love the original “Rocky” (who doesn’t?), but I always considered it an “innocent” piece of corn between Brando and Capra: a crowd-pleaser that wasn’t necessarily a work of art. It won the Oscar for best picture and has always stood in stark contrast to three other 1976 films it faced: “Taxi Driver,” “All the President’s Men” and “Network.” They They were works of art. “Rocky” was an ingratiatingly manipulative neo-Old Hollywood pulp magic trick.
Except now I realize that at the center of that instinctive evaluation was the failure, on my part, to see how much art, how much imaginationwent into creating Rocky as a character.
Many actors have a sad story or a school of hard knocks story. But Stallone’s, as he tells it in “Sly”, stands out from the rest. He grew up with a tough Italian father who did not hesitate to hit him, who gave him no respite and who, in short, hated him. And what’s surprising and moving is that Stallone, at 77, has never gotten over it; he still burns him. That father became Rocky Balboa’s bottom layer: the fact that Rocky worked for a loan shark and made a living breaking people’s arms.
Stallone, born in 1946, grew up in Hell’s Kitchen, when it really was Hell’s Kitchen, and began acting in college, arriving in Hollywood with no money but big plans. In New York, he had done theater, softcore porn (which the documentary never mentions), and had been cast in small roles as thugs. Quentin Tarantino, interviewed in “Sly,” provides fervent and revealing testimony to Stallone’s mystique, especially when he enthuses over a scene from “The Lords of Flatbush” (1974), the 1950s greaser fable he introduced Stallone in a supporting role alongside Henry Winkler.
But while it’s now axiomatic that Stallone was a born star, the industry didn’t think of him that way; He thought his look was wrong. The Spaniel’s drunken eyes that looked like something out of a Paul McCartney bully, the sneer that Stallone says was caused by paralyzed nerves as a result of the damage he suffered during his birth at a community center, that breathy voice… it was a A Little bit weird. That’s why he wrote “Rocky.” The role that Hollywood at the time refused to accept was created.
The mythical story is that Stallone wrote “Rocky” in two and a half days. Yes, but he had spent several years writing scripts, going to the movies and recording the dialogue and coming home and studying it, completing his own dialogue, so he could see how a movie was put together; became Robert McKee’s own. And that two and a half days was the first draft. He kept rewriting “Rocky,” and even though the movie drew from many sources: it was “On the Waterfront,” it was “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” it was Stallone in De Niro’s leather jacket and fedora in “Mean Streets”. — Stallone beat them in his own sincere ’70s fairy tale concoction.
He insisted on starring in the film, playing chicken with the studio by refusing to sell the script for $350,000 unless he could play Rocky as well. She won, of course. And in retrospect, he was the grumpy and stunted one deadpan of how he played Rocky that was so indelible, so authentic… and so created. Stallone, as “Sly” makes clear, is a great conversationalist. His creation of Rocky, the inarticulate wanderer who only knows how to fight but has a gentle soul, was an act of conventional, frank cinematic poetry. That’s why he seems so much himself in the role.
Taking a film lover’s journey through Stallone’s career, “Sly” shows you how he continued to shape his image on screen and what a part of our blockbuster culture he created. His star went through troubled waters after “Rocky.” He played a Jimmy Hoffa-inspired character in the 1978 flop epic, “FIST,” where, in retrospect, he was martyred by the debut of a Hollywood screenwriter infinitely inferior to him; That would be Joe Eszterhas. The same year, Stallone directed and starred in “Paradise Alley,” which was like “Rocky” reduced to a piece of candy corn.
But then, against the ropes, he did something bold. He made “Rocky II” (1979), directing it himself, and in one fell swoop invented the culture of the franchise. Obviously, there were sequels before (“Jaws II,” anyone?). However, no one pretended to be doing much more than profiting. By taking on a character so beloved, so sweeping of an Oscar, so instantly classicc like Rocky and saying, “Hey, did you ever like this?” Let’s do it again. Because why not?” Stallone single-handedly rewrote the rules of love in blockbuster movies.
And since “Rocky II” was meant to seem like a pale echo of “Rocky,” which it was, Stallone completed the reinvention with “Rocky III,” outlining the franchise’s grand final rule of culture. Namely: make it bigger. Put the sequel on steroids. It was an over-the-top movie idea, but the power of “Rocky III” is that Stallone’s commitment shone through the excess. It was his idea to cast Mr. T (and use “Eye of the Tiger”), and when they got to “Rocky IV,” a fight scene with Dolph Lundgren put Stallone in the hospital for nine days. But by then he had already reinvented Hollywood.
Thom Zimny, the director of “Sly,” has primarily made films and videos about musicians (such as Bruce Springsteen), and he frames Sylvester Stallone as another cult of personality. Speaking to the camera, Stallone tells great stories and makes his own journey irresistible.
He reinvented himself with “First Blood” (1982), once again chiseling the film in his own image. The original idea of John Rambo is that he was a psychotic warrior. Stallone was sympathetic, insisting on a more triumphant ending than had been written. Today, that ideology against the end of the depression sounds staid and corrupt, the kind of thing Robert Altman skewered in “The Player.” But the point is that Stallone changed the culture. After all, what was “Rocky” (a ’70s movie in which Rocky loses the big fight but appears to have won) if not the first act of Reaganism? They were the unconscious roots of Morning in America, the revolution against the revolution. I’m not saying that “Rocky” was in any way a politically conservative movie, but rather that it was culturally traditional in a way that showed people yearning for a new (old) way.
“Sly” has a lot of fun charting the parallel arcs and rivalry of Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger in the ’80s. The two attacked each other and worked to see who could flaunt the most perfect physique in comics. But as Arnold (interviewed here) testifies, they eventually became great friends. The film makes clear how the Herculean body fetishism of films like “Rambo: First Blood Part Two” worked in tandem with the action. You could believe in the exploits you were seeing. That said, it was a style of cinema destined to end up empty. “Sly” chronicles Stallone’s attempt to reinvent himself as a serious actor in “Cop Land.” It was a transformation that didn’t go entirely well, although Stallone has a good story about how he encouraged an overly subdued Robert De Niro, like his police chief, to become Bobby D.
It may sound, in this review, like I was giving too much slack to a lot of films I had mixed feelings about at the time. In fact, I’ve always been a fan of “Rambo,” which I felt was underrated because of his right-wing politics. (It’s not that I liked the politics; I hated them. It’s just that I didn’t think the politics made the movie’s action any less brutally exciting.) But what entertained me in “Sly,” and what I valued about it, is that Stallone, with the agile directness of his explanations of why he did everything he did, takes us deep into how mainstream Hollywood has worked. The documentary shows us that Stallone’s films, however they are judged, were staff, even as they came out with (and sort of built) the dream factory of the blockbuster era. He poured out his wrath and his glory on them. In the age of Netflix and Marvel, you can watch them and almost think, “They don’t make them like they used to.”