Stallone, Sylvester (1946—)

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Stallone, Sylvester (1946—)

The most pervasive action star of the 1970s and the 1980s, Sylvester Stallone became renowned for his depictions of inarticu-late, larger-than-life heroes, most notably the lovable pugilist Rocky Balboa, and the alienated Vietnam War veteran John Rambo. As a creative force, who wrote/directed/produced many of his movies, he also became a favorite target of critics, who took aim at the overt sentimentality of the formulaic Rocky sequels, and at the revisionist politics of the Rambo series. Yet Stallone triumphed with audiences, to become one of the biggest movie stars in the world.

Not coincidentally, the Hollywood anomaly rose to fame in the shadow of the Watergate scandal. Amid the cynicism of the 1970s, moviegoers flocked to Rocky, the uplifting 1976 saga of the Philadelphia southpaw, also known as the Italian Stallion, who inadvertently gets a shot at the title. The year's sleeper hit made its screenwriter-star the year's most talked-about talent.

As with the character of Rocky Balboa, whose saga was underscored by the line, "his whole life was a million to one shot," Michael Sylvester Stallone was an unlikely contender for success. A native of Hell's Kitchen, New York, he was born with droopy eyes and slurred speech, the result of a forceps injury. His childhood and adolescence were troubled; growing up in a broken home, he had behavioral problems that resulted in frequent expulsion. By age 15 he had attended a dozen schools. After graduating from a high school for troubled youth, his athletic prowess led to a scholarship to the American College in Switzerland. He went on to study dramatics at the University of Miami. He was just a few credits shy of graduating when he headed to New York.

He once described his earliest efforts in show business as "off the wall." Indeed, he co-starred in the 1970 soft-core adult movie, A Party at Kitty and Studs, which was later rereleased and retitled The Italian Stallion, and he appeared nude in several off-off Broadway plays. He made his mainstream movie debut in 1974, with the 1950s-era look at Brooklyn buddies, The Lords of Flatbush, and was followed by roles in Capone, Bananas, and Death Race 2000. But his career remained in stasis.

Stallone was 30 years old, with a pregnant wife and $106 in the bank, when he chanced to see a closed-circuit prize fight between Muhammad Ali and Chuck Wepner, a longshot who thrilled the crowd by going the distance. Over the next three days, Stallone wrote his screenplay about Rocky Balboa, who squares off against the champion, Apollo Creed. By fight's end, Rocky has not only won respect, but also the love of the shy, bespectacled Adrian, who works in a pet shop. Initially, the producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff envisioned a vehicle for a leading actor such as Robert Redford or Al Pacino. But Stallone refused to sell the script unless he could also star.

Filmed over 28 days for $960,000, Rocky became the year's top-grossing movie, and won the year's Best Picture Oscar. Its ten nominations included those for best actor and best screenplay, putting Stallone in prestigious company. At that time, the dual honor had previously been bestowed only on Charles Chaplin for The Great Dictator and Orson Welles for Citizen Kane. Of his watershed movie, Stallone once said, "It was never a script about boxing. It was always about a man simply fighting for his dignity. People require symbols of humanity and heroism."

With its prolonged training sequences, and publicity about Stallone's own body building regimen, Rocky also evoked the bene-fits of health and fitness, foreshadowing the fitness movement of the 1980s. Much of the Stallone oeuvre has celebrated physicality. The five Rocky movies have all included a rigorous workout sequence. With their loving close-ups of the title character's rippling pectorals and abs, the three Rambo movies are as much a paean to the body beautiful as they are about the adventures of a modern-day warrior. Moreover, it was under Stallone's supervision that actor John Travolta resculpted his body, to sinewy perfection, for the 1983 movie, Staying Alive, which Stallone directed, co-wrote, and co-produced. Stallone has said that as a teenager he was inspired to body build after watching the gladiator movies of Steve Reeves; doubtless, teenagers of the 1970s and 1980s were similarly inspired by Stallone.

His own movies certainly impacted the action-adventure arena—particularly Rambo: First Blood Part II, the 1985 sequel to First Blood. In fact, Rambo redefined the genre, with elements that became genre staples. Among them, the visceral style, minimal dialogue, the ticking time clock that gives Rambo limited time to carry out his covert mission, and scenes of the hero readying for war. Because the plot took the disenchanted veteran back to Vietnam, to rescue forgotten American POWs (Prisoners of War), and because Rambo asked, "Sir, do we get to win this time?," critics and commentators assailed the movie for rewriting history. They also took personal aim at the star-co-writer, noting that, like John Wayne, another star famed for his patriotic alter egos, Stallone had managed to elude real life military service. But Rambo proved critic-proof, touching a responsive chord that transcended language and cultural barriers.

Stallone, or "Sly" as he is called, shrewdly parlayed his 1980s-era power into deals that included creative control, and the highest salaries of the day. His celebrity was further amplified by his colorful personal life, which has included a string of public romances and marital woes. In the 1990s, however, as the action arena sought new direction, his career waned. He tried playing against type in several comedies that failed. More successful was his turn as a paunchy, lonely, sheriff in the 1997 crime drama, Copland. At the time it was widely publicized that Stallone had gained 30 pounds for the role. Today, it is the career, not the man, that needs redefinition. But if Stallone is a star in transition, there is no denying his charisma and star quality, or the crowd-pleasing appeal of his most famous creations, Rocky and Rambo.

—Pat H. Broeske

Further Reading:

Broeske, Pat H. "The Curious Evolution of John Rambo." Los Angeles Times. October 27, 1985, 32-38.

——. "Sly Stallone's Rocky Road." The Washington Post. May22, 1985, F1, F4.

Rovin, Jeff. Stallone! A Hero's Story. New York, Pocket Books, 1985.

Sackett, Susan. The Hollywood Reporter Book of Box Office Hits. New York, Billboard Books, 1990.