Best Picture #49: Rocky

Each week this column will highlight one winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture, progressing chronologically until all winners have been discussed. There will be a brief discussion of the film itself followed by a mention of what we wish won from the nominees in the given year (though in many cases there were films that were superior in terms of quality and/or impact that were not nominated). This week’s entry is Rocky (1976).

It’s been said the measure of the quality of a boxing movie is whether it is the outcome of a fight or the motivations behind it that matter more. If that is so, no boxing film could be better than Rocky where the titular character doesn’t even care if he wins the fight, just that he can go the distance and fight through all the rounds with the world heavyweight champion. Written by Sylvester Stallone in only a couple days and produced on a budget of just over $1 million, the film, like Rocky, would have been a success without the awards and box office dollars, but its impact has gone far beyond, propelling Stallone to superstardom and creating a character so compelling we’ve seen him seven more times in the four decades since his first appearance. It’s a classic underdog story following an ordinary guy who gets the chance to fight in the world heavyweight championship in a publicity stunt, and it feels like a fantasy that leans into sentimentalism, but it avoids some of the greater trappings of the sports genre and just does the schmaltz so well. From the iconic training sequence where Rocky punches meat and runs up the stairs at Philadelphia Museum of Art, to the “Yo Adrian!” exclamation, to the wonderfully choreographed fight sequences, it’s chock full of exciting moments that provoke a sense that anything is possible for any person. So many films have such a pervasive cynicism that it’s refreshing to see one that manages to steer clear of that and still be a high quality film. Generally speaking, sports films are not my favorite genre, but Rocky tops almost all of them and is truly great.

The Real Best Picture:

A film like Rocky rising from its small budget to become the highest grossing of the year and competing for Best Picture with certifiable classics like All the President’s Men, Taxi Driver, and Network is an incredible and rare feat. I may think some of those other films are better but seeing the underdog go the distance is great and seeing it win is even better, so all due respect to Scorsese, I’ll stick by Rocky as a deserved win. 

Best Picture Winners

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