The terrible inverse of Baby’s First Christmas has got to be Mother’s First Holiday after Divorce. A year ago at Thanksgiving, my sons were 12 and 14, on the downward slide towards adulthood but not there yet, and their father had recently moved to another state. What holiday traditions could we salvage from the torched scaffolding of our broken family?
We needed a holiday movie, a cultural equivalent of It’s a Wonderful Life around Christmas, something to watch together with the same sense of ritual and renewal. That November 2015 a Rocky sequel of sorts had been released entitled Creed, highly praised and putting everyone in mind of the original. Reach back though all the sequels to that summer of 1977 and the first time I saw Rocky, on vacation with my parents at the Jersey Shore. Going to the movies on vacation was a double dose of escape, but Rocky seemed more real than any movie I’d seen before. Its storyline hinged on the fanfare surrounding the American Bicentennial, and the filmmakers managed to release it during the exact timespan it depicts, November–December 1976. Forty years later, the film still speaks to me.
Seventies movies are renowned for their gritty depiction of urban life, and Rocky is a prime example of this aesthetic: those streets of North Philly looked nothing like my hometown of Indiana, PA, population 15,000, a Bedford Falls of sorts and the actual hometown of Jimmy Stewart. Like It’s a Wonderful Life, the plot of Rocky arcs towards redemption, but it takes a long time to get there. A day in the life of Rocky Balboa out in the streets of North Philly meant a pile-up of petty conflicts: with the stingy fight manager, with the loan shark Mr. Gazzo exhorting Rocky to let him do the thinking, with Gazzo’s snarling driver. Even 13-year-old Marie, a neighborhood girl whom Rocky counsels to have more self-respect, is having none of his piety: “Screw you, Rocky!” she retorts.
All of this mean-spiritedness abates only in the pet shop, in the company of Adrian, the clerk so shy she cannot make eye contact with our strapping protagonist. Earlier we saw Rocky alone in his apartment rehearsing pet jokes about his turtles, and now we know for whom he was inventing these lines. Adrian smiles in spite of herself at Rocky’s turtle jokes and is promptly ordered to the basement by her boss to clean the cat cages. The pet shop is all about cages: in a later scene Rocky finally asks Adrian on a date while she’s tending to a birdcage on the counter between them, an impassable barrier. Adrian is so discomfited by his invitation that she can’t respond, and Rocky gives up and leaves with no answer—the first of two pivotal scenes where a character just shuffles offstage, everything unresolved, a hallmark of the movie's realism. Butkus from his cage on the floor is the all-seeing dog, but even he doesn’t know that by the end of the movie, they’ll be all of them sprung and united as a family.
George Bailey and Rocky Balboa suffer through a lifetime of bad breaks, economic struggles, and emasculation, too goodhearted to be overtly angry, lost until they meet their angels, Clarence and Apollo Creed. Rocky’s only friend, Paulie, is the sort of character you can imagine voting for Trump, far angrier than Rocky about his meager opportunities in life. He reluctantly aids Rocky in courting his sister Adrian, with remarks about her “dried up,” “old maid” status, a naked misogyny that in 2015 seemed dated but in 2016 is less so. In this twilight of his fighting career we’ve seen Rocky repeatedly humbled, and in Adrian he finds a downtrodden compatriot in her own seeming twilight of marriageability, both arrived at that particular late-twenties moment where you feel on the old side of young. More cruel than Paulie’s taunts, however, what plunges a knife in my heart now, after years of cooking for a husband and two children, is when Paulie reaches into the oven on Thanksgiving day to impale Adrian’s roasting turkey and hurl it out the window into the alley. Her meal ruined, Adrian flees to her bedroom and later emerges with a gallows expression for this dreaded first date with Rocky.
Have there ever been more inauspicious circumstances for a first date? Rocky takes Adrian ice skating, though the rink is closing and the manager has to be bribed, allowing them just ten minutes. They circle the empty ice together, Rocky jogging in his street shoes and Adrian knock-kneed in her rental skates and frumpy coat, a vision of misfit harmony. I wonder if Talia Shire really couldn’t skate well, or if that’s an ingenious bit of business from John Avildson, awarded an Academy for his direction. They speak of why boxing lefthanders are called South Paws, why Rocky’s parents told him to use his body since he didn’t have brains, and how Adrian’s mother told her the exact opposite. Rocky will later sum up their bond as “filling gaps” (“She has gaps, I have gaps, together we fill the gaps”), love as a guard against loneliness. The evening ends in Rocky’s apartment, initially shocking in its squalor but seeming almost homey by this point, with a sleeveless odalisque Rocky beckoning Adrian to join him and his muscles on the tattered couch. This erotic display unnerves Adrian, and she asks to call her brother. Rocky maintains his dignity in revealing that he can't afford a telephone, without exactly saying so. One of the great Hollywood kisses is their eventual embrace and slow collapse to the floor, with Adrian still wearing her enormous coat.
I relived this romance between Rocky and Adrian for years, playing the soundtrack in my bedroom at night. “The heralded celibacy of the fighter-in-training,” as Joyce Carol Oates called it, evidently made a chaste Rocky into the ideal heartthrob for an eleven-year-old girl. Forty years later, what grips me harder is the scene where Mickey asks to be Rocky’s manager. “What you need is a manager,” growls Burgess Meredith, the legendary actor in his own twilight, a genuinely ferocious, scowling, very old man. If you look for a crack in that façade to reveal a lovable curmudgeon, you won’t find it: his mood is relentlessly foul. But Mickey knows boxing. We meet him on the day he’s changed the lock on Rocky’s gym locker to assign it to a younger fighter, the ultimate insult; the next day, Rocky is announced as Apollo Creed’s opponent for heavyweight champion of the world.
Suddenly everyone wants a piece of Rocky, and Mickey shows up unannounced at his apartment to make his case. Ineptly, Mickey begins by insulting Rocky’s pet turtles, saying what good soup they’d make, then shows Rocky photos of himself in his prime and the gruesome injuries he sustained as a result of . . . not having a manager. The overture is five years too late, but Rocky is too kind-hearted to openly gloat that the tables are turned and now he gets to do the rejecting. He escapes to the bathroom, and to the sound of flushing Mickey shuffles out, twice, forgetting his hat the first time.
When the apartment is finally empty, Rocky explodes out of the bathroom in a wounded rant along the lines of “What about my prime?” while the camera cuts to a defeated Mickey descending the staircase, hearing every word. Then, in a leap of grace, his anger spent, Rocky forgives. He jogs down to the darkened street to catch up to Mickey, shown in a streetlamp-lit long shot. We never hear their words, but we see that Mickey is hired after all. It’s one of the most cathartic sequences of hurt and forgiveness that I can think of in any movie. The next day their training together begins, the montage that launched a thousand workout videos, ending famously at the top of the stairs to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, as if Stallone were saying, this is where my movie belongs, because it’s a masterpiece.
What is it about boxing movies—On the Waterfront, Raging Bull—and their taxonomy of regret? Above all other sports, boxing asks for the largest measure of courage and returns the greatest degree of damage, an irresistible metaphor for life. How to celebrate a holiday in the aftermath of damage is a challenge we all eventually face, sometimes observed by our children, and certain classic movies that offer both darkness and redemption can light the way. A year ago on Thanksgiving eve I cooked to the Rocky soundtrack, thinking of Adrian and her ruined turkey, how it led to something much better. My sons had never seen Rocky, and so we watched it together, and I was consoled.