One of the reasons we keep returning to 1976 is that it’s supposedly the one year that many people in the Oscar game point to as one of the worst Best Picture wins in Academy history, when a scrappy little movie called Rocky bested films as impressive as All the President’s Men, Network, Taxi Driver, and Bound for Glory. The more I’ve learned about the Oscars in the years I’ve been covering them, the more I’ve understood why that Rocky win represents a valuable a lesson: it was an inclusive, not an exclusive win. In that the Oscars are better, I think, when they take into account the public at large and do not turn too much inward — as they did pointedly last year, with Birdman — thus very nearly exiling themselves onto Oscar Island. Movies are made for everyday people in the real world. The further the Oscars get away from that, I think, the more they lose their value in terms of defining a snapshot in time of our cinematic culture overall.
That’s why I think Rocky was a good win for the Oscars. And, more importantly, it was a good win for moviegoers whose lives can truly be transformed by movies. Rocky was the movie that inspired so many. Even one of the sequels ended up profoundly reaching filmmaker Ryan Coogler’s father and helped lead to the arrival of Coogler himself as force to be reckoned with in American cinema. What the Rocky movies meant to his father, how it impacted that family’s life and thus influenced their son, is really what energizes the backstory of Creed.
It isn’t so much the Rocky movies themselves — it’s their cumulative cultural impact that matters here. Oh, how I wish the Academy could have understood that message and nominated Creed – to illustrate the Academy’s own impact on the lives of the people out there in the dark, as well as the films they reward. But it wasn’t to be. Why? Because there is still a swath of self-importance that envelops the Oscars, such that they fail to take a movie like Creed seriously, the same way they take Mad Max: Fury Road seriously. Creed, as part of a hugely successful franchise, is perhaps seen by some voters as nothing more than another chapter of fan fiction, like The Force Awakens.
But think of it a different way and a somewhat different picture emerges. Movies have been around for what, 100 years? They have evolved in so many way in that span of time, from silents to talkies, from black-and-white to color, from traditional narrative to experimental, from character-driven to effects-driven. The animation industry has exploded and continues to thrive. Thus, in the same way Woody Allen made The Purple Rose of Cairo or Play it Again, Sam to reflect on the impact movies had on him — for example, with a nod to the Marx Brothers in Hannah and Her Sisters — so did the Rocky films impact Ryan Coogler to make Creed. It’s a different kind of interpretation, but no less valid.
This is part of the reason why the very notion of Sylvester Stallone getting up there and actually winning an Oscar exactly 40 years after the original Rocky won Best Picture is so exciting to many of us. Sure, there were all those lesser Rocky movies in between, and maybe we’ve all been tempted to write off Stallone as a paycheck guy whose prime has passed. But set aside that bias and look more closely. There is more depth here than one might imagine. With this deeply moving, raw, and honest portrayal of Rocky Balboa in Coogler’s Creed, opposite the magnificent Michael B. Jordan, Stallone’s humility in the face of this honor makes it all the more satisfying. If he forgot to thank Coogler and Jordan at the Globes, I’m sure that’s largely because that standing ovation took him by surprise. Sure, people were angry about it — and there was frustration about a white actor being the only recipient of accolades from the Coogler film. But I can tell you, as an Oscar watcher, the fact that he was nominated at all from a movie most had written off completely is a miracle in and of itself. A movie like this is ordinarily considered almost “silly” by Oscar voters. There was a moment we all thought they would snub Sly, even.
It’s interesting that two other movies seem to echo 1976 as well. In its own way, The Big Short is much like Network. It is funny and dark, with brilliant writing and an almost satiric look at American culture in all of its corrupt fading glory. And of course, Spotlight is like All the President’s Men, almost an homage to that film. Both of them will likely split the screenplay awards. Stallone would have won probably won the screenplay Oscar that year if it hadn’t been for Network and All the President’s Men. We don’t have our Rocky this year, unless it’s The Revenant (but how could it be) or our Taxi Driver (they don’t really nominate movies like that anymore) or Bound for Glory. It’s still interesting, though, that somehow Rocky figures in.
I suspect that if Stallone does win, as we’re all hoping he will, it will be one of three standing ovations on Oscar night. The first for Stallone, the second for Leonardo DiCaprio, and the third for Alejandro G. Inarritu, who will either win Director or both Picture and Director, making Academy history with the latter win.
But no victory that night will be as moving as Stallone’s. I feel pretty certain of that.
Rocky was nominated for 10 Oscars, and won only 3 – Picture, Director and Editing.
All the President’s Men was nominated for 8 Oscars, won 4 – Supporting Actor, Screenplay, Art Direction (!) and Sound (!).
Network was nominated for 10 Oscars and won 4 – Actor, Actress, Supporting Actress, Screenplay
Bound for Glory was nominated for 6 Oscars and won 2 – music and Cinematography
Taxi Driver was nominated for 4 Oscars, no Director, won none.
1976 also saw the first female director nominated, Lina Wertmüller for Seven Beauties. It was also the year Sissy Spacek was nominated for Carrie. It was also the year of two remakes — A Star is Born and King Kong. Jodie Foster starred in both Bugsy Malone and Taxi Driver.
Listen to a really wonderful interview with Stallone on KPCC with John Horn here.