In 1977, "Rocky" won Best Picture. The rousing and romantic boxing drama took home two more trophies, as well: One for director John G. Avildsen and the other for film editing. While very much a presence at the ceremony, the writer, lead actor, original creator and face of the franchise, Sylvester Stallone, went home empty-handed, if undoubtedly excited about the picture’s overall performance. He’d been nominated for Best Writing (as it was called back in the day) and Best Actor, but lost out to the talents behind "Network" for both. With a career that took him to the top of Hollywood’s blockbuster peaks, nothing Stallone made after "Rocky" generated much Oscar buzz.
"Creed" landed this Thanksgiving week on a wave of rapturous reviews, with much respect being paid to director Ryan Coogler — who somehow crafted a film structurally similar to the "Rocky" films yet wholly its own artful interpretation — and star Michael B. Jordan, delivering another powerful, emotional turn with his "Fruitvale Station" director at the helm. Yet Stallone’s name immediately came up — and not just because everyone loves Rocky. Serving the franchise for the first time as an actor only, the man who created the iconic character dug deeper than ever before to deliver a moving, poignant and downright imperative performance as Rocky Balboa. That character work could pay off come January when the Oscar nominations are announced. Here’s how.
1. That Scene
For anyone who hasn’t made it to "Creed" yet, please do yourself a favor and head to your local cineplex right now. …okay. Back? Good. Now you know exactly what scene we’re referring to above. After Rocky collapses while sparring with Adonis (Jordan), he’s in and out of the hospital faster than you can say, "We’ve got training to do," but it’s not the sight of the heavyweight champ in a hospital gown that grabs you. It’s when he’s called back to learn his diagnosis and upon hearing the word "cancer," a wave of memories flood his face. "My wife tried that," Rocky says when told it’s time to start chemotherapy, and with those words a million men, women and grown children wept.
This is one of a handful of scenes requiring Stallone to really dig deep — to find that "stuff in the basement" — but it’s in that repeated line, when you see so much history shoot across Stallone’s face, that his purest moment is found. It’s a truly significant scene for the film — as Adonis’ love for Rocky helps him not only become a better fighter, but more importantly, to find his own "stuff" and come to terms with it in the ring — but it’s also bigger than "Creed." Stallone’s intimate confrontation with death changes Rocky and "Rocky" forever by allowing Adrian and Rocky’s love story to live on in "Creed." Stallone, who obviously created these two characters so long ago, finds the passion they shared once more, for the betterment of both the past and the present.
2. The Body Language
In many ways, it makes sense that an actor known for rough and tumble action flicks would be a master of movement — just look at Tom Cruise’s impeccable body control for Example A — but Stallone does more than make his physicality work for him. Take the scene following what’s discussed above, when Rocky makes his way back to the gym and cinematographer Maryse Alberti tracks him walking from ringside to the locker room and back. Near the end of the shot, Stallone briefly looks like his mind is elsewhere, grappling with the weighty news just given to him. But before that you can see it in his gait, his hands and his eyes. Something’s different. Something’s changed. It’s not the casual, light plodding Rocky usually strolls around with, but a heavy, burdened and false congeniality. Stallone’s voice conveys as much too, but it would be a mistake to overlook the awareness within his physical performance.
3. The Story
Much has been made about how Stallone’s personal story parallels that of his character — a no-name given an improbable chance makes the most of it — but that thinking also applied to the ’77 Oscars. No one really thought "Rocky" was going to win. I mean, it was going up against "All the President’s Men," "Network" and "Taxi Driver." Who would pick the little movie that could to take down top tier films from established legends in the biz? But it did. Now, no one was talking about "Creed," let alone Stallone being part of the Oscar race before it was screened. Yet here we are, with Stallone once again hanging around as an underdog, trying to win his first Oscar for not just reprising but revitalizing the role he earned his one and only acting nomination for 38 years prior. That’s quite a story; one many Academy voters might want to see come true.
4. The Other Story
Let’s not forget Sly was once a big shot Hollywood A-lister. After some creative and personal setbacks, Stallone fell so far from that mountaintop he was doing straight-to-video work before VOD (back when "video" was a very dirty word). He’s built himself back up, maybe not to the "Cliffhanger"-status he once enjoyed, but certainly to the point where his movies are being released on the big screen. That, in and of itself, is another underdog story that could appeal to the Hollywood elite specifically. If Warner Bros. chooses to fully back Stallone — as they should, rather than the solid but less appealing Supporting Actor contender Joel Edgerton in "Black Mass" — it would be easy for the marketing machine to remind voters how Stallone fought his way back to prominence: Via Rocky or, more specifically, "Rocky Balboa." Stallone’s gone on record saying getting the sixth "Rocky" film made was harder than the first, but the effort helped him and the film become better than any preceding sequel — and it reminded people of their love for the Rock as well as the man who played him. Now he’s back (for the final time?), so why not reward this humbled superstar?
5. The Shift in Character
With the possible exception of "Rocky IV" (which was a fairly straight action yarn) and "Rocky V" (which we can all agree to collectively ignore), Rocky has always been on an ever-changing character. He took perhaps his biggest steps forward in "Rocky Balboa," adapting to a new fighting style, coping with loss and accepting the limitations of age (even as he rebelled against them). But "Creed" brought on even more unfamiliarity to a very familiar character, starting with the obvious — he doesn’t fight, nor is there even a hint that he might fight — and ending on the existential. Rocky deals with death on dual fronts in "Creed," as he makes decisions about his own fate while being haunted by the ghosts of his past. Stallone approaches the material with proper gravity. His voice cracks and his chest heaves as he tries to control his emotions in a tense conflict with Adonis, and earlier we saw Rocky fall for the first time "without getting hit." This is a new form of "Rocky" — one tailor-made for this film and fully embodied by Stallone.
6. The Heart
"Rocky" movies have always been about overcoming insurmountable odds with one thing and one thing only: Heart. Okay, hard work, determination, family and a few others fall in there, too, but they all relate back to what’s beating inside your chest, and the Rocky in "Creed" showed more heart than ever before. Connecting with the bastard son of his best friend; fighting his own fight; finding new meaning in life during his twilight years; all of these are huge — and new — challenges for the character, but Rocky handled them all with a smile. He’s an extraordinarily likable character, from his off-beat jokes to his general, widely-applied kindness. On the artistic side of things, one could say Stallone covered a wide range of emotions with stately grace. On the human side, voters might just like Rocky and Stallone or Stallone as Rocky enough to check the box next to his name. (Both, for the record, are good reasons to do just that.)
7. The Unofficial Lifetime Achievement Award
Like it or not, the Academy gives these out from time to time. Winners are crowned based on more than just their eligible work, but for a lifetime of good credit. Yet almost a decade after Martin Scorsese took home his first, long overdue Oscar, is anyone upset about it? If anything, "The Departed" has only gained admiration since it won Best Director and Picture in 2006. There are other examples for the other side, but the point is sometimes this is okay. Sometimes it’s all right to hand over a trophy to someone respected within the industry, adored by fans and deserving that very year. Sylvester Stallone meets all these requirements, especially when remembering he’s a director, writer and producer in addition to being a movie star. Why not reward two improbable underdog stories by awarding one worthy man?
8. That Other Scene
No. 1 on this list may have been Stallone’s Oscar scene, but no moment in "Creed" drew bigger smiles than when Rocky woke Adonis for his first day of training with an incomparably adorable dance routine. Rocky has a history of cute moments, and this one certainly ranks near the top. Call it heart, call it charm, call it whatever you want — if he gives us a little spin before collecting his Oscar, the whole damn theater would come down.