Rocky reveals this back story to Adrian on their first date, at a vacant ice-skating rink: “Yeah – My ol’ man, who was never the sharpest, told me – I weren’t born with much brain, so I better use my body.” This small detail starts the underdog engine of the first Rocky flick, directed by John G. Avildsen.
Our documentary, John G. Avildsen, King of the Underdogs, examines Avildsen’s astounding (yet widely unknown) directing career and his expert handling of the underdog story — a genre much more difficult to convey than outwardly seems.
The commonly understood meaning of “underdog” is a person or fictional character who is expected to lose, but wins (think Cinderella, the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team, Seinfeld greenlit for a second season, and the 1969 New York Mets). Avildsen understood underdogs, which means he knew how to interpret Sylvester Stallone’s script. The combined power of Stallone and Avildsen energized the underdog story: Rocky was plucked from obscurity to fight World Heavyweight Champion Apollo Creed; Rocky knew he didn’t stand a chance, but his plan was to remain standing when the final bell was rung — an admirable but near-impossible goal. This is essentially and symbolically every underdog’s story: remain standing at the end. Survive. Says Apollo’s trainer: “He doesn’t know it’s supposed to be a show. He thinks it’s a damn fight!” Had Rocky beat Creed, the story would not feel as genuine.
Avildsen, an underdog himself in Hollywood, inspired millions of fans to realize their own potential to go fifteen rounds and remain standing. The film itself is an underdog story, initially dismissed as a hokey B-movie most suitable for a drive-in; it ultimately earned 1976 Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director for Avildsen himself. He went on to direct all three Karate Kid movies, all of them successful.
The average moviegoer may easily recognize director names like Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Martin Scorsese, but Avildsen — despite his film legacy — remains a head scratcher (our documentary hopes to change that).
In a cinematic case of a rising tide lifting all boats, Rocky Balboa’s underdog story causes a chain reaction that affects those around him.
Mickey Goldmill: this calorie-burning performance by veteran actor Burgess Meredith earned him a Best Supporting Actor nomination, as well as a forever place in pop culture. Mickey, the manager of Rocky’s gym and a crusty father figure, vocally expresses his disappointment in Rocky falling short of his potential. This sparks Mickey’s own underdog story, whereas Rocky hires him as his trainer for the Big Fight. Mickey, at age 76, sees this as his last-ditch grab at greatness, and as a one-time chance to reverse the neglect that caused Rocky’s career to suffer. As the film progresses, with the help of Bill Conti’s goosebump musical score, the energy changes from negative to positive for both Rocky and Mickey.
Mickey himself had a lackluster boxing career before he opened a gym. He laments that he never had a manager, something that he claims Rocky needs in order to fulfill his potential. Mickey finds the courage to ask Rocky for the chance, but the job request is not easily granted, due to past resentments. In the end, though, amends are made; Mickey becomes Rocky’s manager, completing the circle of life. Score one for the underdog.
Adrian Penino: Talia Shire’s underrated performance takes the “ugly duckling to beautiful swan” underdog story beyond cliché. Adrian works in a neighborhood pet store, frequented by Rocky. She’s introverted, cerebral, insecure, and stifled by her tyrannical brother Paulie. Her underdog credentials are impeccable: her late mother told her that she wasn’t pretty and that she should develop her mind, her brother/roommate orders her around like a slave, her boss at the pet shop treats her shabbily, and she has a hard time making eye contact with customers. Rocky’s romantic interest in her unlocks her own potential and confidence. Rocky and Adrian make quite a surprising match; the match is lit for her eventual fashion makeover and, even more importantly, her newfound independence. Her finally standing up to her maniacal brother is one of the most powerful scenes in the film; it shows the power of the underdog when the rage is unleashed and handed back (later, Rocky will demonstrate this in the ring). It’s then when Adrian finally finds her voice and her power, and it’s loud and strong and clear and articulate. Another reason to cheer. Rocky’s greeting, “Yo, Adrian,” has become a pop culture catchphrase, and Shire’s performance earned her a Best Actress nomination.
Cuff and Link: Rocky’s pets are not underdogs but turtles, yet they bring a strong underdog symbolism to the story. Rocky, Mickey and Adrian are like turtles; they’re small and somewhat helpless, withdrawing into their hard, rough shells. Love and care are what bring them out, and keep them alive. Astounding trivia fact: Cuff and Link, who are both female and known technically as red-eared sliders, survived another 30 years to make a second appearance in the movie sequel Rocky Balboa in 2006.
One of the best rewards of a well-told underdog story like this one: giving yourself permission to cheer. Out loud. And maybe even doing so while rising up (both physically and spiritually). Theater audiences have done this at Rocky screenings for decades, but don’t deny yourself this pleasure if you’re screening this joint on a digital-age device. Allow yourself to give three cheers for Rocky, Mickey and Adrian.
Cick here to devour John G. Avildsen: King of the Underdogs.
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