Two faces of the American dream

by Ira Shor

from Jump Cut, no. 14, 1977, p. 1
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1977, 2004

ROCKY is an irresistible and painful movie, curiously divided in its story and effect. At the same time that it explodes some myths about working people. it also traffics in other grand illusions. The film is set in an old Philadelphia ethnic neighborhood, where working people on grimy streets live out dead-end lives. Philadelphia has become the butt of many jokes in U.S. culture, but it is famous for producing such tough heavyweight fighters as Joe Frazier and Jimmy Young. The movie’s hero, Rocky Balboa—the Italian Stallion—is an aging and unpromising product of the dismal boxing gyms. Far from fame or affluence or the green suburbs, Rocky is part of a whole sector of working people left behind by U.S. prosperity. The movie evokes their lives through cheerless half light. So many scenes take place at night, dawn, dusk, on a cloudy day or indoors that the final glare of publicity surrounding Rocky teems unreal.

But if no sun shines on Rocky’s neighborhood, a romantic star does. The film is a stirring story about the American Dream, a Cinderella epic about an overripe boxer with a heart of gold. Rocky gets his crack at the big time, even though he’s past his prime. As a working-class hero, Rocky is superbly portrayed by Sylvester Stallone, unacknowledged for his fine performance as the macho leader in THE LORDS OF FLATBUSH. This time, as both actor and screenwriter in what should become a sentimental classic, Stallone is very male but less macho, playing a smalltime pug and hood. Before his punishing climb ends, lovable but graceless Rocky makes the most of his big chance, and the audience cheers him all the way.

The movie is acted very well and is an exciting story. In its Cinderella simplicity, the only character given real depth is Rocky. In the working class, Rocky might be known as a “good natured slob.” He is like many such men who are friendly, moral, well-liked, but who can't find dignity or a decent job or even put together a respectable family life. Rocky resists dehumanization even though he lives on the fringe, boxing for peanuts, pushing around overdue debtors for the local loan shark, hanging out in his smelly one-room flat. Tender and even sweet, he’s forced to be tough to support even a shabby life. As a working class misfit, he doesn't look for “honest” work. He wants more out of life but winds up with less than the people around him. Rocky has no choice but to either rise above his class or sink below it. He’s offered no chance to rise with his class, and can't fit into the respectable routines familiar to the working world.

The characters in Rocky’s life are sketched in caricature, deep enough only to give Rocky more depth. There is his shy love, Adrien, played admirably by Talia Shire. Adrien is a combination of two female stereotypes: first the wallflower and then the clinging vine. Next is Rocky’s best friend Paulie, the butcher, a worker without Rocky’s sensibilities, who would be happy to leave the icy slaughterhouse and go to work like Rocky breaking the bones of overdue debtors. Lastly, Mick, the crusty boss of the gym (Burgess Meredith) serves as a third major foil for Rocky. The redemption of all their empty lives by Rocky’s rising star adds emotional tension to the film.

The movie is a lot like its hero, simple and complex, obvious and intricate at the same time. A good example of the story’s complicated aesthetics is Rocky’s job, collecting for the loan shark. It’s ugly work. He knows it, but goes on doing it, even though he won't initiate Paulie into the underworld. We're set up to tolerate Rocky’s sleazy job because he can't bring himself to break the thumbs of delinquent debtors. Also, the shark himself is seemingly benign, low key, and even generous; he gives Rocky money to train for his big fight. Finally, the shark’s driver is so hateful that Rocky shines in comparison. So, we soften our judgment of Rocky, who after all doesn't break off with the hoods.

That hoods are not uniformly tolerated in the working class is shown by Nick’s violent contempt for Rocky’s job. Rocky himself feels guilty, but the movie matte of factly portrays how petty crime is just another ugly way of life in a world of dead-end lives. The audience is not asked to approve crime but just to understand the unglamorous context in which Rocky does it. Moreover, we get a chance to see just how morally superior Rocky is to the sordid world he lives in. The mix of fault and virtue places Rocky in a long line of film antiheroes, men of conflicted morals and mediocre talent who rise above their limits and square off against a depraved world far worse than them.

In a society jaded at all levels, Rocky is both a moral jewel and dinosaur. His old-fashioned values include a sentimental love for animals and a fondness for corny jokes. He has a good word to say to street kids singing on the corner. But he delivers a stern, paternal lecture to a friend’s teenage sister about getting a street rep as a whore. Rocky the male fossil cringes at the word, because he doesn't like to talk dirty in front of women. Stallone brilliantly creates a chivalric and gentle Rocky. Watching him radiate in the seedy tenements, we want him to make it. He gets his chance.

In a Bicentennial hype, the fictitious heavyweight champ (a tasteless caricature of Muhammed Ali), Apollo Creed, winds up offering a title shot to an unknown fighter. Creed and his promoters stage a lavish patriotic spectacle as a national demonstration of what the Land of Opportunity still can offer after its first two hundred years. From a catalogue of nobody boxers, Creed chooses the Italian Stallion for his colorful name. Rocky has already had thirty of his own years to find out about opportunity for workers, so when he’s called into the promoter’s plush office, he only expects a few dollars to be a sparring partner for Creed. Then he turns down the offer of the big fight, feeling too outclassed. Finally, the chance is just too great, and he accepts the magical call.

As the film becomes more of a fable, Rocky’s character becomes more symbolic. His identity as a working-class warrior sharpens. In the early going his clumsiness overshadows his courage. Lumbering, unpolished, and inarticulate compared to Creed and the promoters and the press, who all ridicule him, Rocky suffers self-doubt. He wonders, is he good enough? What’s he trying to prove anyway? Why get his face busted for such a hype? The complex of feelings is intricate—injured pride, fear of failure, need for recognition, and resentment at performing by somebody else’s rules. Stallone’s script captures an authentic psychology of many working class men. Training his way through doubts, Rocky lowers his expectations from fantasies of victory to just going the distance. This movie is one fable with its feet on the ground!

Rocky gives Creed the fight of his life, and in his spectacular display of courage, a lifetime of disgrace falls like an albatross from his neck, replaced by the warm love and admiration Adrien offers. Ending on an “up” note and exciting all the way, the film makes us cheer Rocky because the audience identifies with a nobody who wins respect and dignity. The movie invigorates feelings of heroism in a cynical time, and it validates honesty and simplicity in an increasingly decadent society. At the same time that the system is judged corrupt, it is also ironically seen as giving Rocky a chance to overcome degradation. Rocky emerges as a working-class hero who answers the sudden call of the American Dream, going from disgrace to dignity in a magical moment. His bruised but handsome face mirrors the two faces of the Dream. Soft-hearted Rocky must hurt people and get hurt himself in order to make it. Opportunity is inseparable from both glory and tragedy, in the damage to oneself and others, up the U.S. ladder to success. Rocky breaks Creed’s ribs and Creed breaks Rocky’s nose, recording the price each man pays for pride.

Compared to recent working-class heroes. Rocky is closer to Ivan (Jimmy Cliff) in THE HARDER THEY COME, and farther from Travis Bickle (Bob DeNiro) in Scorsese’s TAXI DRIVER. All three movies display working-class innocents trapped in violent quests for recognition. Trying to break out of narrow class confines, each engages in dubious battles for pride. However, Rocky’s story is the least self-destructive. It is as rich in human relationships and affirmative values as Cliff’s in the Jamaican film, and free of the sinister and unrelieved cynicism of the Scorsese movie. DeNiro the taxi driver is applauded socially for his crazed massacre of smalltime pimps in a society seen ready for warped answers to social problems. Ivan gets shot down by the well-armed forces of race and class oppression on an island riddled with poverty.

But Rocky survives. He will get married, enjoy several years of better-paying fights, collect some more scars along with paychecks, bask in a small limelight until he retires, and live happily ever after with Adrien. The story is such a satisfying fantasy because it speaks to a powerful reality: The good in working people is fighting daily against a depraved society. Our wish to have the best rescued from depravity comes true in the enchanting tale of Rocky Balboa, a man who has to win or lose on his own.