I am a big fan of the Rocky movies, and of Sylvester Stallone himself. Always have been. I know he’s got a bit of a reputation in Hollywood, but man, I was rooting for him so hard to win that Oscar a few years ago for his performance in Creed. You’ll never hear me say a bad word about Mark Rylance — met him once, lovely fellow — but come on. Sly was the man. He had worked for four decades to win that award.
So it was with some consternation that I followed his recent meltdown over Irwin Winkler still owning the rights to the Rocky franchise, and the troublesome insults and accusations Stallone hurled at his former producer.
The first one featured some antisemitic imagery of Winkler as a snake, which is a time-honored trope depicting Jews being disloyal. The Nazis were big on this, and while I’m willing to give Sly the benefit of the doubt, and would never put him in the Mel Gibson camp of Jew Haters, it was not a good look for him, at the very least.
Nor, for that matter, is the tantrum he’s been throwing for the past couple of weeks. I get that he wants to be able to control the rights to his signature character — and any of you who argue for Rambo should just stop reading now and never come back — but there has got to be a better way than to take to Instagram and go after a 91-year-old man with a fantastic reputation, calling him a bloodsucker (more antisemitic dog whistles, by the way) in the process.
Sly wants the rights back, rights he sold as a young man to get his movie made, and for which he was initially paid $75,000 (nearly $400K in today’s dollars), as well as a reported $2.5 million (over $13M today) in profit sharing from the first film. This does not take into account the untold millions he’s made in the decades since for writing and directing five more Rocky movies and starring in two Creed films, earning that well-deserved Oscar nod in the process.
All in all, Sly has done pretty well with Winkler owning the rights to the Italian Stallion, so this attack seems to have come out of nowhere. Is it possible that there were behind-the-scenes efforts to make some kind of deal that then fell apart and led to Stallone losing his mind over it to the point where he felt he had to take it public? Sure, it’s possible. But… I mean, why? What does Stallone think he has to gain here, aside from the obvious — that if anyone is going to be making money off the continued use of characters he created, it should be him? The way he’s playing it, how does he ever think he comes off as the good guy in this thing?”
It got worse when he went after Winkler’s kids — saying that his son David Winkler‘s memoir might be a good substitute for toilet paper — and then sent a new shot across the bow when the announcement came down about a Drago spinoff starring Dolph Lundgren. Aside from the fact that this movie sounds both terrible and fabulous, the outburst again seemed to come out of nowhere, as more than one person involved with the project suggested that Stallone and his team had been involved in the conversations about it.
Lundgren, for his part, was all diplomacy, saying that no script has been written and no deals have been made, and Stallone made sure to exonerate his erstwhile costar and pal from any blame in the matter, but I still sort of can’t get over the fact that this is happening at all.
Let’s take Stallone’s side for a moment and try to examine why he feels the way he does. Setting aside all those millions — and there are many, many of them — it can almost certainly be safe to assume that there was not one person on the planet who thought that the character would last for as many years as it has, and thus, the deal that he signed was not a fair one. In his mind, I’m sure, handing the character back to him after all these years would be a gesture of goodwill that would satiate any bad feelings he’s had about any exploitation he believes he’s suffered at the Winklers’ hands.
Okay, I can see that, and can certainly empathize as someone who writes for a living and has signed a deal or two that may not have been as writer-friendly as I would’ve liked.
But — and you knew this was coming — I did sign those deals, and I did end up getting things made because of them, even if I wasn’t thrilled with the way they turned out or the situation in which I found myself. And yet, that’s my fault, because I made the deals in question. I did business with people I shouldn’t have and paid the price for it while not even making a fraction of 1 percent of what Stallone did in the process. That’s how these things work. You sign a contract, and that’s it. If the contract says the deal lasts in perpetuity, then that’s how long you’re stuck with it, unless the other side agrees to make a change.
Sly clearly doesn’t see it that way. He believes that the Winklers have made enough money off his creation and that they should return to him what is rightfully his. It is, however, a reasonable question to ask if that is, in fact, the case. Does Rocky really belong to Stallone? Yes and no. Yes, in that no one else could, would, or should ever play the now iconic character, but no, in that the first movie probably never gets made without Winkler. Without that first movie, where does Sly end up? Does he make it in Hollywood without that character, let alone become the megastar he eventually became?
Maybe. There’s no way to say for sure, but it would have been far more difficult than it was.
The thing about Rocky is that he’s such a fantastic underdog. Even after Rocky became the champ, the movies still worked because Stallone found a way to make the character an underdog again. It worked with Mr. T’s Clubber Lang in Rocky III, with Lundgren’s Drago in Rocky IV, and with Antonio Tarver’s Mason “The Line” Dixon in Rocky Balboa (I think we can all agree that the less said about Rocky V, the better). That formula for success worked once again with Creed, in which Rocky takes another underdog (Michael B. Jordan) as a protégé and teaches him everything he knows. This is what works about the character — and always has.
I think that, ultimately, is what this is about. Stallone is trying to paint himself as the underdog in this situation, decrying the way the Winklers have treated him and the character, and trying to curry favor with the fans in the process. The problem with this position is that it’s extremely hard to feel sorry for Stallone in this situation. He hasn’t been an underdog in a very, very long time. So long, in fact, that I think he’s forgotten what the real thing looks like.
I love Stallone. I do. Normally, I’d be rooting for him. But this is one fight where he may want to throw in the towel because each punch he throws is only making him look worse.
Neil Turitz is a journalist, essayist, author, and filmmaker who has worked in and written about Hollywood for nearly 25 years, though he has never lived there. These days, he splits his time between New York City and the Berkshires. He’s not on Twitter, but you can find him on Instagram @6wordreviews.
You can read a new installation of The Accidental Turitz every Wednesday, and all previous columns can be found here.