On Nov. 21, 1976, Sylvester Stallone was vaulted to “the hottest new star” of the year with the debut of Rocky. The film, which claimed the best picture Oscar at the 49th Academy Awards, became a pop-culture milestone and an enduring franchise for Stallone. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below:
To describe Rocky as a movie about prize-fighting is about as helpful as saying that Marty, which it resembles in many ways, was a picture about butchering. Marty, you’ll remember, was a not-too-handsome but essentially decent sort of fellow who just happened to work in a butcher shop in the Bronx. Well, Rocky is a not-too-bright but essentially decent young man who just happens to be a third-rate heavyweight working out of a second-rate gym in South Philadelphia (and on the side, for eating money, breaks the thumbs of delinquent debtors on behalf of a local loanshark.) On paper, neither character may seem terribly appealing, but on the screen they steal your heart away, but completely.
I first saw Rocky maybe six months ago in a still drastically incomplete form. (Among many other things, the final reel was missing.) Even so, I have been saying ever since that this has to be the sleeper of the year. Well, last Friday, in its initial preview at the Academy, the sleeper finally awoke. Not only did that last reel include some of the most wildly exciting fight footage ever put on the screen, but it also provided an emotionally gratifying capstone to a picture that is truly an ode to the human spirit.
For the course of its two hours we learn that, given the incentive, a man can transform himself from a bum to a worthy contender — or perhaps more important, that America is still a place where a man can haul himself up by his own bootstraps provided he believes in himself and has the will to do so. True, the film presents Rocky with a particularly fluky opportunity — a crack at a championship match after the original challenger has dropped out. The champ happens to think that a bout with Rocky, who calls himself “The Italian Stallion,” would be good PR. No matter. It’s the rigorous training that Rocky puts himself through, the growing pride that he takes in himself — plus the doubts, plus his touching love for a shy and awkward slavey — that become the heart of this picture, and which touch the hearts of us all.
A romantic leftover from Capra-land? Possibly — although there are those of us who feel that there is ample room today for many more such romantic leftovers. But the irony is that, in many ways, Rocky parallels the story of Sylvester Stallone, the husky young actor who both wrote and stars in the film. Although he had appeared in only a handful of pictures (most notably, The Lords of Flatbush), Stallone wrote the script for himself — and put himself through a year of punishing exercise to build the physical stamina to play the role. His script made the rounds, and he began to get offers — good offers — but always for someone else to play Rocky. When he finally sold the script, to Chartoff and Winkler, it was for substantially less than he could have gotten elsewhere — but with Chartoff and Winkler, he was part of the package.
Nor should it be thought that Chartoff and Winkler were short-changing a hungry young actor. For a picture totally lacking in marquee names, the best they could come up with was a budget of around $1,000,000 — and it’s a large-scale picture, involving considerable location work in Philadelphia, as well as at the Los Angeles Sports Arena. To make it happen, Chartoff and Winkler not only gave up their normal producer’s fee, but actually mortgaged their homes in lieu of paying interest charges on a completion bond.
Such evidences of faith in a picture are all too rare; but if this gamble pays off the way I think it will, perhaps this will change as well. For in addition to a heart-warming script, Stallone has created on the screen a character of enormous appeal and charm — half-articulate but funny, gruff but good-hearted. His idea of a courtship is to drop by the pet shop where his girl works and tell her a terrible joke, one in the morning, one in the evening. There is a supremely touching moment when this uncouth fellow, a cigarette dangling from his lips, carefully explains to a 12-year-old tough why she shouldn’t talk dirty; and another when, in a choked fury, he asks the beat-up trainer who wants to manage him now that he has a crack at the championship, “Where were you when I needed you?”
All of this John Avildsen has realized with extraordinary insight, and an even more extraordinary feeling for the rhythm and pace of his film. The performances — not only Stallone’s, but Talia Shire’s as his girl, Burt Young’s as her swinish brother, Burgess Meredith’s as the irascible trainer, Thayer David’s as a smooth fight promoter — all of them seem to respond to the originality and the sense of truth that underlies their characters. And a final word must be said for James Crabe’s incredible camera work — not only his stunning views of Philadelphia’s historic monuments, but the squalor of the South Philadelphia slums, two breath-taking swoops up the broad steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum, a protracted run past swinging sides of beef in a meat-packing plant and, of course, the virtuoso photography of the climactic bout.
In many ways, Rocky is a picture that should make movie history. One thing is already certain, however — the movie has made Sylvester Stallone the hottest new star of 1976. As Frank Capra might put it, “It can happen here.” — Arthur Knight, originally published on Nov. 5, 1976.