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Do other fighters pound raw meat?
The focus shifts in Rocky II. Stallone directed it as if he were caressing a lover. He was. It was himself. "I was insecure," he says. "I thought if I didn't show close-ups of myself, the audience would lose interest." Avildsen had shot the original in long and medium shots of Rocky slouching along beat-up Philadelphia streets. In his camera, Rocky was a loser. He got up from the canvas, but he didn't win the fight. Rocky didn't become a winner until Stallone began to direct.
Stallone was viewed as an oddity after Rocky, a one-shot wonder. He was out-pointed by the critics and ignored by the public in his next two roles. Nobody much liked him as the Jimmy Hoffa-like union leader in F.I.S.T. (1978) or the hustler in Paradise Alley (1978), which was his old Hell's Kitchen script reworked. The problem was, Rocky was so big that Stallone could hardly do anything modest. "Everyone wrote me off," he says. "I just wanted a shot at the title."
His personal life was becoming a Rocky horror show. He had some very public love affairs. He and Sasha separated. "I was basking in a newfound acceptance and notoriety, a babe in Toyland," Stallone says. "I expounded on things I knew nothing about—politics, social issues, religion. People expected me to live up to Rocky's ideals, which I couldn't."
He began hearing bizarre tales about himself. "Like I don't let anyone on the set go to the bathroom," he recalls. "Like I'm really 5'6" and never work with anyone taller. Have you seen my opponents in the Rocky films? They're huge." He shakes his head in disbelief and bewilderment at human fantasy.
His second son, Seargeoh, now age 11, was diagnosed as autistic. Stallone began to feel like Job, plagued by troubles. "I went into my backyard and cursed God," he says.
God took pity and recommended a sequel. And Stallone did it. Rocky II is a fairly simpleminded film about winning. Creed is goaded into giving Rocky another fight; Rocky hesitates but finally agrees to get into the ring. They knock each other down simultaneously. Rocky staggers up from the canvas first and is declared the heavyweight champion of the world. What else?
Many critics dismissed Rocky II as a secondhand car, repainted but with a very tired motor. Audiences loved it. Rocky II made $200 million. "You can't analyze Rocky's appeal," Stallone insists. "It's like trying to analyze the recipe of an apple pie."
But then the worst thing happened to you that could happen to any fighter: You got civilized.
In the opening montage of Rocky III, our hero smiles from the cover of Newsweek, does an American Express commercial and appears on The Muppet Show. His blood-and-sweat image has been reproduced on paper plates and candy wrappers. He poses with Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. You can't tell Rocky from Stallone. The line between them has vanished. Is the movie following real life or is real life following the movie?