It was on November 21, 1976 when the world of the seventh art was shaken by an earthquake of cyclopean proportions. At Cinema II in New York, the film of a multifaceted stranger who until then had struggled between poverty, secondary roles and dreams was premiered. Sylvester Stallone had written the script in little more than three days, and then it had passed from hand to hand, in the court of Hollywood producers who had recognized his potential, but who wanted nothing to do with having him in the title role. . Rocky it was finally made as he wanted, costing just over a million dollars. It was considered an interesting B-movie, and it was hoped that producers Winkler and Chartoff and United Artist would be able to recoup their investment, and perhaps make a profit. That night Rocky it grossed over $5,000 at Cinema II. It was an all-time record for the theatre. It was just the beginning of an extraordinary success, which led to that American boxing fairy tale earning $225 million, topping the charts in 1976. A myth had begun, the trajectory of a cinematographic hero capable of surmounting fashions, changes and convulsions. The Rocky Balboa fairy tale had begun.
45 years have passed since that cold New York afternoon, since that movie that turned out to be the cathartic moment for an entire country, an entire society, the American one in 1976, which had been literally torn apart by a decade of crisis and convulsions. The Vietnam War had shattered the American dream, drugs, crime and economic crisis reigned supreme, Kennedy’s “new Camelot” had been sunk in blood, his own and that of the assassinated prophets of renewal. Nixon was crushed by Watergate, the mediocre Ford had pardoned him, but not the betrayed soul of a country that felt small and defeated. Boxing, however, had lived its Golden Age, mainly thanks to him, to Muhammad Ali, and to the great rivals who had helped him in the ring to become an immortal symbol of courage and renewal, but also of division. Stallone came at the right time, he gave the masses an example to follow, a role model, he gave them a hero. And America needed, and still needs, a hero, someone to identify with, someone to help them look at everyday life with greater confidence, optimism, and hope for tomorrow. Rocky Balboa, neighborhood bully, failed boxer, starved and beaten by life, would have been a hero forever. He still is today.
Stallone’s inspiration for Rocky came the year before, on March 24, 1975, while he was in the ring in Richfield, Ohio, watching Muhammad Ali butcher the semi-unknown Chuck Wepner, a New York beast sent to the ring as a sacrificial victim. He was a “springboard” boxer, as they say in the jargon, one who served to launch the opponent’s career, a fiasco without art or part. That night, however, Wepner, the Bloody of Bayonne, known for ending fights covered in wounds, gave a dirty and gangly but unexpectedly brave performance. Although he was bombarded by the Louisville Lip, he managed to hold on until near the end, and even landed a lucky takedown on Ali. Then, with seconds to go until the bell, he succumbed. But his courage, his not recoiling from him, moved the audience. Stallone sensed that from that story, from that episode of an unknown white boxer who almost defeated the Black Prince of boxing, he could get the perfect story. Wepner’s brief fame as a neighborhood hero got him into a lot of trouble, but Stallone made him the center of the ultimate movie hero.
Stallone chose the city of Philadelphia for Rocky. It was not causal, it was the city of boxing in the United States, and it still is today. In Rocky Balboa he combined the lives and characteristics of the gladiators who had made the noble art great. The first was undoubtedly Rocky Graziano, whose biographical film marked by hatewith the great Paul Newmanhad a profound influence on Rocky, with that rebellious boy, poor and persecuted by insecurity. Philadelphia in 1976 was above all the city of Smokin Joe Frazier, the great rival of Muhammad Ali, who made a nice cameo. Balboa also resembled him, with his good nature, his big heart and that ring in which he had come out of misery and humiliation, while training with frozen quarters of veal. However, the name Rocky continues to mean Rocky Marciano to the whole world, the undefeated bomber from Brockton, the quintessential Italian-American. From him Balboa got his granite strength, his rough, lanky style, his jaw, and almost inhuman courage. He would have had to compete with the Champion, that Apollo Creed, for whose interpretation Ken Norton, another great rival of Ali, whom Stallone had met on the set of mandingo. In the end they turned to ex-soccer player Carl Weathers, who in Rockyfor better or worse, was Muhammad Ali.
“Hey, that’s me!” exclaimed Muhammad amused when he saw Rocky for the first time. On the night of the Oscars, on stage, he and Stallone would start a skit that has become the stuff of legend. No one has stressed it enough, but in Rocky there was a double soul, a double nature. On the one hand, it was a progressive film, in which Creed/Ali was an adversary but never the villain, only clearly related to the more boisterous and narcissistic side of Ali. However, you couldn’t help but admire her for her strength, her class, and her courage. On the other hand, it is undeniable that Rocky, Stallone gave the public that least wanted The Greatest, a “white hope”, a white boxer capable of beating the African-American ace, as many had dreamed of for years. In the following years, Balboa would face another African-American, Clubber Lang, who brought with him the animal physique, the sexual charge of the black that terrified whites. Then came the turn of the Soviet Drago, symbol of the Evil Empire, the ungrateful yuppie Tommy Gun and a fragile African-American ace like Mason Dixon. However, in the end it was he who triumphed over them all, the white boxer, the symbol of the humble and very human proletariat, within the neighborhood boy.
Behind the key to the unparalleled success of Rocky there is the historical dimension of the silent America, as Nixon defined it, the America that worked and had few questions and shackles in its head, that struggled every day to put bread on the table and improve its situation. Over the years, some would draw comparisons to John Steinbeck and his desperate people, his search for dignity and happiness. Rocky Balboa was able to become an idol for all minorities, for all the children of the ghettos and of poverty. In fact, he kept his honesty intact, rejected the path of crime and consumerism, stood as a symbol of humanity and empathy, fell in love with an ordinary girl, did his best for his friends. There was all this and also the rage of the last, of those excluded from the American dream, left alone against all odds, but Rocky did not let it overwhelm him. In his world there are no sinners or saints, there are only poor souls trying to survive in a ruthless and degraded country, of which Stallone left us a snapshot that only over time has been recognized for its effectiveness.
Rocky Balboa has always hidden the secrets of a universality that is, to say the least, incredible. Because aside from his portrayal of the American dream, the concept that across the ocean if you believe in yourself and sacrifice yourself you’ll get something in return, his is actually the height of honorable defeat. And he has always been the antithesis of the American fairy tale, of the religion of success. Rocky will lose that fight with Creed, but he will prove to himself and to the others that he is not just a “neighborhood bully”, that he is worth something, but he will also understand that he is nobody by himself. Without Adrian and Paulie, without Mickey, he realizes that he is nobody, that being alone and being alone are two completely different things. All of this is the perfect metaphor for how a society can resurface, how individuals can begin to be free again, to rise up after the fall. This is why Rocky will always be the hero par excellence: because anyone, white, black or yellow, young or old, can see himself in him, in his fears and dreams, in his desire to change his life without crushing others. . Something that these 45 years have not affected in the least and that with believe Stallone has bequeathed the world of the 21st century.
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Happy Birthday Rocky Balboa
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