Philadelphia, 1975. Rocky Balboa (Stallone) is doing his best to make a living as a professional boxer. He's mildly successful, scraping up maybe $40 per fight working in dingy arenas. After one fight, he drops by the local pet shop to buy food for his pet turtles Cuff and Link, and also to flirt with the store clerk, Adrian (Talia Shire). She's very shy and says little, if anything, but Rocky chats her up anyway.
Rocky also works for Gazzo (Joe Spinell), a loan shark. Rocky is the heavy who chases down the deadbeats that are overdue. However, Rocky doesn't like to hurt people unnecessarily, reasoning that if he breaks the guy's thumbs, he can't work and therefore can't get money to pay back Gazzo. Gazzo doesn't like the logic, and his driver just thinks Rocky is a bum in general.
Rocky makes his way to Mickey's Gym. He's had a locker there for 6 years, but for some reason his lock combination isn't working today. He busts the lock and swings open the locker door to find it full of someone else's stuff. Rocky gets told all his stuff is in a bunch of sacks hanging on the wall hooks. Rocky confronts Mickey (Burgess Meredith), who tells him he gave the locker to another guy who's a contender, as opposed to some bum who hasn't gotten anywhere for 6 years and never even got his nose broken. Rocky leaves the gym and visits Adrian at the pet shop, and he gets nowhere with her again. His next stop is the tavern, where he finds Paulie (Burt Young). Paulie is Adrian's brother and a good friend of Rocky's. Rocky asks him why Adrian always ignores him. Paulie basically says it's because Adrian is a weirdo and a loser. He tells Rocky he should come over to the house Paulie and Adrian share tomorrow for Thanksgiving.
The World Heavyweight Champion is Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), and he's fighting a top contender on January 1, 1976 in Philadelphia to celebrate the nation's bicentennial. However, a problem arises. That planned opponent has a hand injury and has been ordered by doctors to not compete. Creed, his entourage and promoter Miles Jergens (Thayer David) all scramble to come up with an alternate plan since there are no other contenders available for that date. Creed decides he'll wrestle a local Philadelphia guy and they can sell the fight as a "local hero gets big opportunity" deal. After checking out the local talent, Creed settles on Rocky, loving the fact that he's Italian and tying that into the bicentennial as well.
Paulie and Rocky make their way to Paulie's house. Paulie swears to Rocky that Adrian knows he's coming and is excited about it. Paulie also wants Rocky to put in a word to Gazzo for him so he can work for him as well. When they arrive at the house, Adrian sees Rocky and gets mad at Paulie. She didn't at all know he was coming. Paulie insults her and tells her to suck it up. Adrian hides in the bedroom. Paulie tells her Rocky came to take her out tonight. Adrian says she has a turkey in the oven. Paulie proceeds to take the turkey out of the oven and chuck it outside, then yells for Adrian to get out of the house for once. Rocky thinks he should probably leave, but Paulie prods him to talk to her, be funny. Rocky talks to the door a few times and stammers out the best encouragements he can. Finally, the door does open. Adrian comes out, and she's all dressed for the outdoors.
Rocky and Adrian walk around awhile and ultimately enter an ice skating rink. The rink is closed for the holiday, but Rocky bribes the worker for 10 minutes of ice time. Adrian skates while Rocky jogs slowly next to her. She begins to open up a bit to him and they maintain conversation. Later, they make their way to Rocky's apartment. She hesitates before going in, and then feels she should probably go, but they finally kiss. Yay.
The next day, Rocky decides to confront Mickey as to why he lost his locker. Mickey tells him it's because Rocky wasted his potential. Rocky is then told about Jergens wanting to meet him, so they get together. Rocky assumes Jergens is looking for sparring partners for Creed, but Jergens tells him it's actually for a title fight against Creed at the Philadelphia Spectrum, the then-biggest arena in the city. Rocky at first turns it down, calling himself a ham-and-egger, but Jergens eventually talks him into it. Later, Rocky, Paulie and Adrian watch the Creed/Balboa press conference on TV. Creed delivers some backhanded compliments/insults to Rocky. Paulie, drinking as usual, gets angry and jealous about Rocky's success, so he and Adrian decide to leave.
The city is buzzing, and this is especially true for Rocky's Italian neighborhood, in regards to the fight. Mickey visits Rocky's apartment and advises him to be careful. He admires the Rocky Marciano poster on the wall, telling Rocky he reminds him of Marciano, since he's got heart. Rocky replies that he's got heart but he ain't got a locker. Mickey frowns, knowing this is gonna get rough. Mickey explains that he never had a manager, and that shortened his career because he never got the promotion he should have despite his success. He wants to manage Rocky so the same doesn't happen to him. He can protect Rocky from making the mistakes he made, and share his knowledge and experience of the big time. Rocky says he needed help 10 years ago. Where was Mickey then? Rocky stops listening to Mickey and goes into the bathroom. Mickey leaves, and then Rocky starts yelling out venting about how everything stinks in his life. Mickey, even now outside, hears all of it. Finally, Rocky runs out and catches up to Mickey in the street. They shake hands, evidently having aired everything out and now willing to partner up.
Rocky trains intensely, mostly by himself but also in Mickey's gym. Rocky likes to go running and tries to run up the steps of Independence Hall, but he gets winded before reaching the top. Rocky later visits Paulie at his meat packing plant. Paulie keeps asking to get in on the action, with Gazzo and with the fight. Paulie gets frustrated at one point and starts punching a side of beef. Rocky then does the same, using the meat as a punching bag. Mickey, while training Rocky, advises him to stay away from women, including Adrian, saying they're just a distraction. Adrian buys Rocky the dog from the pet shop that Rocky always plays with, saying he can have the dog as a running buddy. (The dog's name is Butkus, and was actually Stallone's real dog.) Rocky returns to see Paulie and sees a media truck there. Paulie has called in a news crew to film Rocky training. In the process, Paulie's hoping to promote his business, but the news crew blows him off as they talk to Rocky and film him training. Creed's trainer, Duke (Tony Burton), sees the news report on TV and has some concern about this upcoming fight, as he can see Rocky is going to be a serious opponent.
Rocky and Adrian are at her house. Paulie comes home drunk, picks up a baseball bat and goes into a jealous rage, destroying things. He thinks Rocky feels he's too good for Paulie and owes him. He insults and threatens Adrian, but she stands up to him. Rocky then physically restrains Paulie until he calms down. Adrian then asks Rocky if he wants a roommate. He says sure.
The next day, Paulie goes to the gym and wants to help Rocky with advertising. No apology or nothing, the two just pick up like it's another day. Rocky continues training, even conquering the Independence Hall steps. There's one thing left Rocky wants to do, and that's see the Spectrum the night before the fight. He visits and sees the posters and banners and ring all set up. He notices the artist rendition of himself has the colors on his trunks reversed. That night, he tells Adrian he doesn't feel he can win, but he just wants to prove himself and go the distance.
January 1, 1976. Fight night. Rocky enters with his crew, a basic ring entrance wearing a robe that's too large and has a plug for Paulie's meat packing company on the back. Creed enters with music, lights, props, etc. He dresses as Uncle Sam in the ring and points at the Rocky, saying "I WANT YOU!" Rocky finds it all entertaining. Creed expects the fight to be a cakewalk and thinks he'll win by Round 3. Well, in Round 1, Creed gets overconfident and Rocky knocks him down. The shocked TV announcer states it's the first time Creed has ever been knocked down. Creed recovers with a flurry as the round ends. Mickey tells Rocky his nose is broken, and it's an improvement. The fight continues and both men take a pounding. Adrian, who decided to stay behind in the locker room, makes her way into the arena during Round 14. The 15th and final round ends with both men wrapped up in a bearhug grappling, as they both agree there will be no rematch. The film ends with Rocky yelling for Adrian as the ring announcer proclaims that Creed has retained the championship in a split decision. Adrian gets into the ring and she and Rocky proclaim their love for one another.
The trunks being the wrong color and the robe being too big were both accidents, but the filmmakers didn't have the budget to order the changes, so Stallone rewrote the dialogue slightly in both instances to work those accidents into the film.....The character of Duke actually isn't named in this film, but the role was greatly expanded in the sequels, so I opted to call the character by name here.....Susan Sarandon auditioned for the Adrian role but was deemed too "pretty" to play the part.....Both Stallone and Weathers sustained legitimate (minor) injuries shooting the climactic fight scenes.....The Independence Hall steps had a Rocky statue installed in 1982. The statue has been moved around a few times since then but is now permanently enshrined next to the steps on the northeastern side.....Many of the scenes of Rocky jogging through Philadelphia were shot on the fly, with those around him having no idea a movie was being shot. One vendor says hello and tosses Rocky an orange. Director John Avildsen kept it in the film.....Burt Young was outdoors shooting a scene where his character is drunk. An actual drunk person nearby yelled to Burt that he wasn't doing a convincing job of playing drunk. Burt went to the man and asked him to demonstrate what he should do. The man spent several minutes showing him how to act drunk, and most of it wasn't probably the man acting either, but it was convincing. Burt thanked him with some money and then reshot the scene utilizing the actions the man showed him.....It's never stated in this or any of the Rocky movies, but Rocky's real first name is Robert.....With five sequels and another on the way (Creed), this has the most sequels of any Best Picture winner in history.
The film was a success from the start. The rags-to-riches feel-good story resonated with both critics and audiences, and it was 1976's highest-grossing film. Most people seem to agree that their favorite in the series is either this or Rocky II, but there are fans of every other sequel as well who would argue for those. The Academy clearly had their favorite, and it's this first one. It received 10 nominations within 9 categories. That seems like a surprising number of nominations in hindsight. As it turned out, the film would win a total of 3 Oscars. The losses came in the categories of Best Sound Mixing, Best Original Song ("Gonna Fly Now"), Best Supporting Actor (the category with a double-nomination, Meredith and Young), Best Lead Actress (Shire), Best Lead Actor (Stallone) and Best Original Screenplay (Stallone). Wins came for Best Film Editing (Richard Halsey and Scott Conrad), Best Director (Avildsen) and Best Picture, which was won over All the President's Men, Bound For Glory, Network and Taxi Driver. Wow, that's actually a pretty impressive list of nominees now that I'm looking at them all, and it made me stop and think to myself, did the right film win? I asked my wife the same question, and I was pretty sure I knew which of the nominees was her favorite. She answered as I expected, with All the President's Men, which is indeed very good. I also am a big fan of Network. Today, Taxi Driver is iconic. And how about Bound For Glory?
No, really, what about it?
OK, you're right. Odd man out. Sorry, BFG.
Truth be told, I think any of the other four are good enough to have won Best Picture. Whether or not I think the right film won...hmmm...there were some little things about Rocky that bothered me, and this rang true when I first saw the film many years ago too. The biggest thing that bothers me is that the Paulie character is just an awful human being. Awful. There is nothing likable about that character. Fortunately, in the sequels, he does get quite a lot more likable. It's a testament to Young's performance in the role here as to how much I hate the character, so kudos to him. Rocky is a film that still stands strongly today, especially when you compare it to some of the schlock that the later sequels put forth. It may or may not be what I would vote for today as Best Picture of 1976, but Rocky is a winner.