The Popcorn Champs looks back at the highest grossing movie in America from every year since 1960. In tracing the evolution of blockbuster cinema, maybe we can answer a question Hollywood has been asking itself for more than a century: What do people want to see?
On the day before Thanksgiving, Donald J. Trump, currently the president of the United States of America, tweeted a truly strange image: his own stupid, glowering lump of a face atop the body of mythic sports-movie hero Rocky Balboa. There was no text attached. It was just the image: One man’s face Photoshopped onto the Rocky III poster. Trump had already walked onstage at rallies to Bill Conti’s triumphant Rocky theme. Now he was presenting the world with the strange bad-dream spectacle of himself as the Italian Stallion.
It’s hard to even attempt to reconstruct what might be happening in the bubbling soup of Trump’s brain at any given moment, but to invoke the specter of Rocky is to call forth the myth of the underdog, the fighter who prevails against impossible odds. Even the most powerful man on the planet could see himself in this primal story. That’s the power of Rocky, for good or for ill.
The original Rocky, the highest-grossing film of 1976, is itself an underdog story on every conceivable level. Sylvester Stallone was a struggling bit-part actor before he decided to write a script. If you watch enough early-’70s movies, you’ll see Stallone’s unmistakable mug show up onscreen every so often, menacing Woody Allen on a subway train in Bananas or running from Jack Lemmon in The Prisoner Of Second Avenue. Stallone eventually won himself bigger roles in small films like The Lords Of Flatbush and Death Race 2000, but his career wasn’t going anywhere until he wrote himself a star vehicle.
Stallone, who had no previous screenwriting experience, wrote Rocky over a few days in 1975. He’d just watched the journeyman boxer Chuck Wepner last 15 rounds against Muhammad Ali. (Later on, Wepner would sue Stallone, and Stallone would settle.) Stallone loves to talk about the studios who offered him hundreds of thousands for the screenplay, thinking it would be a good vehicle for someone like Burt Reynolds or Robert Redford, two people who are now genuinely impossible to imagine in the Rocky role. Stallone took a pay cut, insisting that he keep the role for himself, and the film got made on a paltry $1 million budget. It opened in theaters the same month that former peanut farmer Jimmy Carter was elected president. America was evidently ready for a feel-good underdog triumph, and it got two.
Watching Rocky today, it’s remarkable how much of the film plays out as a grimy ’70s social drama. In the opening scene, Rocky Balboa fights in a smoky club, lumbering around the ring and barely blocking any punches. The crowd seems to hate both him and his opponent. Rocky wins the fight, turning into a feral animal after taking a headbutt. On his way back to the locker room, he bums a cigarette from somebody in the crowd. Everything in the scene stands in stark contrast to the opening horn fanfare and to the word “Rocky” flashing across the screen in letters too big for all of them to fit. There’s no glory or glamor to any of it.
For the first hour of Rocky, Stallone plays the kind of good-hearted lug who might’ve shown up in a 1950s drama like Marty, only if he were dropped into an early-’70s Scorsese movie. Rocky’s life does not look fun. Mickey, the owner of the local boxing gym, gives away Rocky’s locker and tells him that he should retire the morning after he wins a match: “You got heart, but you fight like a goddamn ape.” Rocky lives in a hovel with some turtles and a goldfish. A teenage girl cusses him out when he tries to offer her his idea of sage advice. His only apparent friend, Paulie, is a miserable shithead. We never see his family, but Rocky does mention that even his father thinks he’s stupid. Rocky himself doesn’t seem to disagree. “You gotta be a moron to wanna be a fighter,” he cheerfully admits.
But Rocky himself, we learn, is a kind and charming lummox. He works for a loan shark, but he won’t actually break a guy’s thumbs even though he gets in trouble for showing mercy. (Instead of actually hurting anyone, he tells a deadbeat that he should’ve planned ahead.) Rocky mindlessly chatters to anyone who will listen, especially Adrian, the young woman who works in the pet shop and who never talks. (I love Rocky telling Adrian that the parakeets in the shop look “like flying candy.”) And when a bartender calls Apollo Creed, the heavyweight champion of the world, a “jig clown,” Rocky sticks up for the champ.
That last part is key. The Apollo Creed character is clearly and transparently modeled on Muhammad Ali. Ali is now a canonized giant in the history of American sports. In 1976, though, plenty of Americans—white Americans in particular—hated Ali. Two months before Rocky opened, Ali defeated Ken Norton at Yankee Stadium, announcing his temporary retirement afterward. As the judges announced Ali’s victory by split decision, the New York crowd booed.
In Rocky, the former Oakland Raiders linebacker Carl Weathers plays Apollo Creed as a savvy, strutting prima donna. Like Ali, he’s a master of self-promotion. When a big Philadelphia bout falls apart, Creed hatches the idea to fight a local no-hoper, framing it as a story of American opportunity: “I’ll tell you why! Because I’m sentimental!” He settles on Rocky as an opponent simply because he likes the guy’s nickname, enthusing that Creed against the Italian Stallion sounds like “a damn monster movie.”
Over the decades, plenty of critics have derided the original Rocky as a racist fantasy. The film shows an inverted power structure: a dominant Black champion challenged by a scrappy white underdog with nothing going for him. Creed sits around offices with promoters while Rocky is out running alongside docks, beating up slabs of meat in freezers. When Creed enters the ring in a cartoonish George Washington costume, Rocky is nonplussed and almost wry: “He looks like a big flag.” At one point, the film even offers up the idea of Rocky as a victim of racism. Creed makes a couple of light Italian jokes at a press conference, and Rocky takes it all silently. Later on, he admits to Adrian, “You know how I said all that stuff on TV didn’t bother me? It did.”
The Rocky movies are complicated on race. At the end of the first film, after Rocky and Apollo have beaten the hell out of each other, Apollo tells Rocky that there won’t be a rematch. In the second picture, Apollo demands that rematch after all. Rocky and Apollo become friends later on, but Apollo remains a victim of his own hubris, dying at the hands of a Russian superman in Rocky IV. Clubber Lang, the villain of Rocky III played by Mr. T, is an absurd stereotype of a menacing Black villain. You can start to see what someone like Trump might see in these movies.
There’s a statue of Rocky Balboa, a fictional character, in Philadelphia. It’s been there since 1982. (Originally, that statue was merely a prop for Rocky III, but it’s a full-on tourist attraction now.) Joe Frazier, an actual real-life boxing champion from Philadelphia, didn’t get a statue until 2015, four years after his death. Frazier, who has a cameo in Rocky, was the inspiration for much of the Rocky story. Frazier really did run up the steps of the Art Museum when he was training for fights, and he really did go into meat lockers and use slabs of frozen beef as punching bags. But Rocky would’ve never been made with a Black man like Frazier as its hero. It would take Ryan Coogler’s basically perfect 2015 film, Creed, to imagine a Rocky story with a Black man at the center.
But even with all that in mind, I love Rocky, and a big part of the reason is that I love Apollo Creed. Carl Weathers’ performance isn’t a vicious exaggeration of Muhammad Ali. It is Ali, right down to the larger-than-life rhetoric and charisma. The movie, which can be slow early on, crackles to life whenever Weathers is onscreen. In the virtuosic fight scene that ends the movie, Creed’s whole demeanor changes when he learns that Rocky is a serious fighter. Creed suddenly goes into competitor mode, and he wins the fight. (Apparently, 1976 was the last year when Hollywood made underdog sports movies where the hero loses in the end. The Bad News Bears, another 1976 hit, ended in the same kind of valorous defeat.)
Rocky isn’t really a movie about Rocky Balboa fighting Apollo Creed. Creed isn’t a villain. Creed might give Rocky a shot at the championship for cynical reasons, but those cynical reasons become destiny. At first, Rocky refuses the match: “It really wouldn’t be such a good fight.” Later on, he starts to accept the idea that he might not be “another bum from the neighborhood.” Mickey, the gym owner who gave away Rocky’s locker early in the movie, becomes a Patton-esque commander, building him up and bellowing encouragement. Rocky finds love with Adrian. He ends the film with his head held high. Rocky doesn’t work at Creed’s expense. It works on the sheer fairytale charge of watching a nobody become a somebody.
Rocky abruptly shifts from ’70s-style social realism to pure beautiful cornball fantasy the moment that the training montage hits. It’s a masterful sequence. Conti’s score, a soaring piece of music that would become a #1 pop hit, blares out while director John G. Avildsen builds a crescendo of images. Stallone seems to magically transform before our eyes, becoming someone who could credibly challenge Creed for the championship of the world. I don’t know if it’s the first training montage in cinematic history, but it’s definitely the one that set the standard for all that would follow. Stallone would use the technique again and again in the Rocky sequels that he directed. Avidsen would use it, too, in The Karate Kid and its sequels. You can almost watch ’80s cinema being born in that montage. It’s beautiful.
Everything after that montage is pure dream logic. Rocky boxes Creed, goes the distance, finally gets his nose broken, and ends the night a hero. But after the fight, Rocky doesn’t worry about that. He’s too busy animalistically bellowing Adrian’s name. He hasn’t beaten Creed, but he’s beaten the odds that he set for himself. He’s lost, but he’s won.
The films nominated for Best Picture at the 1977 Oscars are all stories of men attempting to deal with a cruel, uncaring world that’s set up for them to fail. Some of those stories are triumphant, and some are not. In Taxi Driver, a maladjusted veteran goes on an ill-considered murderous rampage and accidentally becomes hailed as a hero. In All The President’s Men, two reporters doggedly push their way through layers of subterfuge and intimidation and red tape, uncovering dark truths and changing American history in the process. In Network, a disgruntled anchorman tries to speak truth to power, and his bosses have him assassinated on-air. In Bound For Glory, a former sign painter, faced with the greed and misery of the Great Depression, becomes a spokesman for working people and turns himself into a folk-music legend. All of those films are classic. None of them are schmaltz. Rocky, the movie that defeated all the others and won Best Picture, is total schmaltz, but it’s just as much a classic as the others. Rocky is some of the best, most effective schmaltz that a Hollywood studio ever put into theaters.
That night, Sylvester Stallone was nominated for two Oscars, for acting and screenwriting. He lost both awards, to Network’s Peter Finch and Paddy Chayefsky, respectively. But during the ceremony, Stallone stood on the stage with Muhammad Ali. They put on a goofy little confrontation. Ali came out unannounced, yelling, “I’m the real Apollo Creed! You stole my script!” Stallone and Ali spent a couple of seconds play-boxing, and then Stallone said that it was an honor to be standing next to “a 100% certified legend.” Then the two of them handed a Best Supporting Actress statuette to Beatrice Straight from Network. That’s its own kind of impossible story, but it happened.
Rocky arrived in the year between Jaws and Star Wars—another crowd-pleasing genre movie that made more money than anyone thought possible and moved Hollywood’s focus from the ’70s New Wave to the blockbuster cinema of the ’80s. But if the film didn’t have its own sort of mythic force, it never would’ve mattered. Rocky isn’t a racist fever dream, and it’s not lowest-common-denominator entertainment. It’s a hell of a movie. Don’t let Donald Trump take it away from you.
The contender: The box office top 10 for 1976 is a truly strange thing to behold. The IMAX documentary To Fly! The sloppy-ass King Kong remake! The deadly boring A Star Is Born! The Enforcer, the Dirty Harry sequel where terrorists kidnap the mayor of San Francisco! The genuinely great All The President’s Men and The Bad News Bears! But my favorite of the year’s hit movies is The Omen, the ultra-Catholic horror blockbuster that elevated satanic panic to operatic heights.
The Omen must’ve been a tough thing to pitch: “Okay, so Gregory Peck learns that his young son is really the antichrist and that he has to kill the kid with a mystical dagger.” It’s still crazy to think that there’s a massive big-budget Hollywood film where the audience is asked to hate and fear a small child and to cheer for the kid’s attempted murder. But The Omen is a vicious, nasty, unrelentingly entertaining piece of work, and every new occult revelation pushes it even further over the top. It rules.
Next time: Star Wars is both a nostalgic reverie and a vision of the future of movies, and we’re still living in its world today.