by Quendrith Johnson, Awards Intelligencer (Feb.10, 2016) — awfj.org
Maybe it’s a little-known fact that a deep bond exists between Hollywood icon Sylvester Stallone and a newly minted phenom, Creed director Ryan Coogler. Coogler, who turns 30 in May, was also homeless once and had to fight his way to the big leagues in movies. Deadline’s reporter Pete Hammond, on hand to present Stallone with the Montecito Award in Santa Barbara, prods Stallone on this, skipping the connection with Coogler who lived in his car on-and-off while attending USC Film School. The “legend in the house,” as Hammond has introduced him, wags his head and looks toward the floor at this question. “I lived in my coat — you call it coat, I call it a house.” In typical Rocky fashion, “Sly” Stallone, takes this loaded question and just detonates it to reveal something breathtakingly human. He recounts “living in the port authority bus station, outside a post office. My coat became my buddy, my house. But there’s something to be said about struggle.”
Later he will segue into one of the most beautiful and telling John Huston (Maltese Falcon, Key Largo, Asphalt Jungle) stories ever, from the 1981 film Victory with the unlikely cast of Stallone and a youngish Michael Caine in a politically charged soccer match against Nazi players, with Max von Sydow playing a heavy in jackboots. It even has a cameo by Pelé.
“He was a great storyteller,” Stallone exhales, before watching a clip of Victory. “So John Huston. You get two alpha dogs together. He’s like ‘hmm who’s this guy? We were in Hungary.” To make a long story short, Stallone quickly rattles off all the directions Huston gave him, hard ones, as in a whole list of physical demands: “go through the barbwire… down a hill… crawl through the grass… in one take. So ‘(Camera) Rolling.’”
Next thing, “I zip down, dip, zing… dogs are barking — I’m in grass crawling, crawling. I’ve gone 50 yards. No camera in the world can follow, unless it is connected to a lawn mower — the grass is five feet high. I stand up. No one around. They’re all leaving (up the hill).” A much younger Stallone is incensed, feels the humiliation. He goes to air his grievances with Huston. How does the wry John Huston react?
“He says, ‘If you have a problem with me, Mr. Stallone, put it in a letter. And I will read it in the morning.’ He had a sense of humor that was a little weirder than mine.” The “Italian Stallion” as he once was known in the 70’s from his blue film period, does a pitch perfect impersonation of Huston, complete with condescending pauses, as he recalls those words.
And while all the focus is on Creed right now, which is notable for being the first “Rocky Balboa” movie with Stallone in it, not penned by the actor, Sylvester Stallone’s history in show business can not be overlooked in thinking about Award Season. Another gem is when he tells of auditioning for Woody Allen for Bananas, where “Woody didn’t find us intimidating enough,” to be “muggers on a subway.” So he and a friend got Allen to “freak out,” when they came back “with Vaseline in our hair, soot, looking really ugly,” and scared Woody Allen into casting them.
As for John Rambo franchise that began with First Blood, Stallone tosses off a shocking statistic. “We were losing 20,000 vets a month (men and women) by their own hand,” when they returned from Vietnam. His whole persona drops for a moment. That number rings in the air. Stallone invokes slogans of the period, saying he’d hate to come back from defending the country only to be “spit on,” and called a “Baby-killer.”
The most hair-raising story is from Rocky IV, where Swede Dolph Lundgren who plays the Russian villain who pulled no punches on set. “Next thing I know, I’m on a low attitude flight to St. Johns Hospital in Santa Monica. Seriously they had nun, actually nuns around the bed.” The doctors said “he hit you in the heart so hard, he made your pericardial sac swell. Its like you have been in a car accident. (Dolph) is like a Swedish truck.”
“Carl Weathers,” who is here tonight to do the honors for the trophy presentation, “is by far the finest athlete I’ve ever worked with in the ring. He was so super. He is a world class athlete… It’s been a privilege to get punched out by these guys.” So the tribute clips, which Stallone claims “you’re killing me with this” each time he sees himself in early career, finally flicker to Creed starring Michael B. Jordan, directed and co-written by Ryan Coogler.
Coogler did the wildly acclaimed movie Fruitvale Station, “but he hadn’t even done that,” when he first approached a reluctant Stallone with an Apollo Creed-son storyline. In the old days, 2011, they used to list Coogler’s agent’s email as a contact, he was that unknown. Now that he has coached Rocky’s originator to raw heights as trainer to eponymous Creed’s son Adonis Johnson (Jordan), you won’t see his contact info anymore. But you will see woven into this tale, bits and pieces of fathers and sons on both sides. Which is why Sylvester Stallone — against all odds, meaning fellow noms Mark Ruffalo, Christian Bale, Mark Rylance, and Tom Hardy — could walk away with the gold this year.
Coogler has his own father-son story, but the fact that Stallone lost his son Sage Stallone, 35, under tragic circumstances in 2012. Michael B. Jordan, who also was in Coogler’s Fruitvale, becomes Stallone’s son here, and the tears aging Rocky holds back on screen just rip your heart out when you know the backstory on Sage. So can Sylvester Stallone best heavily favored Ruffalo, perennial favorite Bale, a breakthrough by Rylance, and the mighty Tom Hardy? The answer might be “yes,” because the ‘heart wants what it wants,’ even among Academy members. This just might be seen as an Unforgiven, a movie that turns a genre on its head as Clint Eastwood did in that remarkable late-career defining Western.
As for tonight, accompanied by his very adoring wife Jennifer Flavin who laughingly admits “we’re praying” about the 88th Oscar presentation results, Sylvester Gardenzio Stallone who turns 70 in July, sums it all up with “I’m grateful,” and “life is pretty good.” On Sunday, Feb. 28, we’ll know just exactly how good.
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