It seems insane to think about now, with the passage of time, but Sylvester Stallone has never won an Academy Award for a Rocky movie, not even the first one.
He was nominated for the first Rocky, but he lost the 1977 Best Actor Oscar to Peter Finch of Network. That was a great movie – a classic, even – but it hasn’t entered our national psychology in the same way Rocky has; Rocky Balboa has always represented the way many Americans want to see their country’s ethos: a place where everyone, including the working class underdog, can make good with enough talent, heart, and determination.
Stallone was also nominated for an Oscar for best screenplay that same year. Again, he lost (Network won that one too). If it’s any consolation, Robert De Niro was nominated but didn’t win the Best Actor Oscar that year, either. For Taxi Driver.
Stallone did get to fight Ali, though.
Rocky did pull off a Best Picture win that first year (winning over movies like All the President’s Men), but Stallone would go until 2016’s Creed, 39 years later, to get nominated for the character again. He was considered by many to be the Supporting Actor favorite that time around, but he lost in a surprise upset to a guy named Mark Rylance, who starred in a movie called Bridge of Spies. Who?
According to The Hollywood Reporter, Stallone’s 2016 Oscar bid marked the longest stretch between Oscar nominations for any actor playing the same character (Paul Newman held the honor first.)
Some people thought Stallone was robbed.
Stallone’s four-decade long Academy Award quest almost has a Rocky-like narrative.
If ever a man embodied a character, it’s Sly and Rocky Balboa (forget the dreck he sometimes made in between Rocky and Creed and his bloated 1980s lamborghini lifestyle). He didn’t just act the role, he wrote it. In Creed 1 and 2, he’s taken the character on an evolution into new territory. In the end, when the body goes, you’re stripped down to what really matters. Family.
Rocky’s body may be broken down, but he’s still a fundamentally simple and decent blue-collar guy who makes his living with his hands, who embodies an immigrant work ethic, and who just wants to find his way through this often painful world like the rest of us.
With Creed 2, which was released in theaters on November 21, 2018, Stallone gains a new chance to finally bring home Oscar gold. It’s not that he’s better in Creed 2 than he was in Creed 1. He’s consistently excellent in both. That could be a hindrance: He’s playing the same guy, at almost the same age, and in the same way. Stallone in Creed 2 feels less like a surprise than the character did in Creed 1. He feels as familiar as family.
The flash is gone. The money is gone. The fame is fleeting. The physical body atrophying. He doesn’t have much of a punch left. Rocky is, in the words of Yeats, fastened to a dying animal. Just like Stallone is. (As an aside, Dolph Lundgren also turns in a subtle and noteworthy performance in Creed 2, for pretty much the same reasons. The emotional backstory almost makes you root for the Russian. Almost…)
When you boil it down, the world’s full of broken men, and people just trying to be somebody (or to love and be loved by somebody).
Rocky’s a throwback in a modern world in his old-school Italian restaurant with its glory days pictures that never seems to have customers and in his Philly row house with the street light the city never bothers to fix. But, of course, because he’s Rocky, he doesn’t stop calling the city and trying. It’s as if the world has passed him by but he’s the guy we hope still exists somewhere in it. He spends his time pulling a chair up to his deceased wife’s headstone, sometimes reading her the newspaper, talking to ghosts. He’s a man surrounded by ghosts, perhaps including his younger self. He’s a man with a past, without much of a present, and with seemingly little future. It takes a young man with a link to his past to give him one.
The human need for connection – and for family – is a durable one, and human beings have an uncanny ability to make families out of people who aren’t blood when they need to do so. Enter Adonis Creed, the son of Apollo Creed, Rocky’s nemesis and friend, who died in a fight Balboa didn’t call. Adonis needs a father, or at least a father figure, and Rocky needs a reason to connect in a present punctuated by loss. (The Dolph Lundgren subplot also revolves around fatherhood.)
Will Sylvester Stallone finally bring home an Oscar for a Rocky movie? As always, he will have formidable competitors (Sam Elliott in A Star is Born, Mahershala Ali in Green Book, Timothée Chalamet for Beautiful Boy, and…. Michael B. Jordan in Black Panther?). He’s not the current narrative; the “will Sly win the Oscar for Rocky at last” narrative feels so 2016. However, his acting in Creed 2 is no less worthy than Creed 1. Since he’s Rocky, though, it’s fitting that he’s still in the ring trying.