Inside Film

Crooked mouth, drooping eye and bulging biceps: The enduring appeal of Sylvester Stallone

The Rocky and Rambo star, who will turn 75 in July, is still making boys’ own action movies. It’s as if he is arrested in a permanent, testosterone-driven adolescence and never allowed to grow up, says Geoffrey Macnab

Friday 28 May 2021 06:30
<p>Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa in ‘Rocky’ in 1976</p>

Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa in ‘Rocky’ in 1976

It’s not one of Sly’s more glorious moments on screen. He is shuffling across a busy New York street, looking shifty, when he contrives to bump into a dishevelled man walking in the opposite direction. He makes off with the man’s wallet. The man gives chase. They run across Central Park. The man is neurotic, wheezing, well into middle-age and very out of shape. Somehow, though, he catches up with Sly, jumps on top of him, and threatens to beat him up unless the wallet is given back forthwith. Sly meekly complies.

The future Rocky and Rambo star is almost certainly the only character in the whole of movie history ever to have come off second best in a fight with a character played by Jack Lemmon. The film in question is The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1975), an adaptation of Neil Simon’s play about middle-class, midlife angst in Manhattan. Sylvester Stallone, who turns 75 in just over a month, has built his movie career on the basis of his physique. He is the “Italian stallion”, to borrow the nickname of the fighter he played in the Rocky films, and yet here he was, in this early movie, being beaten up by Hollywood’s puniest, most powderpuff leading man.

Such reverses and humiliations are part of the Stallone myth. The reason that audiences have rooted for him on screen for almost 50 years is that he is a true everyman. When he is knocked down, he gets back up. Stallone has never been especially talented as an actor. He isn’t the good-looking Cary Grant type who can charm audiences with his repartee. He rarely wins acting prizes although he was once voted “worst actor of the decade” for his 1980s action films. He doesn’t have much flair for comedy and nor does he have range. He is as plodding and predicable on-screen as Rocky Balboa used to be in the ring. Nonetheless, he is also one of the biggest and most enduring movie stars of his era. He has a blue-collar appeal that smoother, better spoken screen actors can only envy. He writes and produces many of his films. Adversity never fazes him. He is like the boy who had sand kicked in his face but then turned into Mr Atlas.

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