Sylvester Stallone vs Clint Eastwood

The latest Rocky movie (Rocky Balboa) is a beautifully written, organically cohesive near masterpiece.

I also recently watched Gran Torino, which was a lot of fun until the stupid, illogical ending (I won’t spoiler it). Gran Torino was intermittently well written and the opposite of cohesive. I can say the same thing about the last several Clint-directed movies I’ve seen, including that overrated mess, Million Dollar Baby.

Which brings me to comparing Sly to Clint, and finding Clint less than Sly.

Here’s what I’ve noticed about Clint’s movies for a while:

Like too many directors, he’s now into the scene at the expense of the story and characters. The most egregious example of this trend is Scorcese’s The Departed, a movie I passionately hated. Nobody in that movie made any sense or had any arc or continuity from scene to scene. Everything was sacrificed to the bloated egos of the stars (I include Scorsese in the ego orgy). Oh, yeah, individual scenes were masterful. And evocative of other words that start with master.

Gran Torino was a lot better than The Departed, but still starfucker-infected and fragmented. Compared to Rocky Balboa, Gran Torino is a B-movie, at best.

(NB: The compound noun starfucker, as used in the above paragraph, differs from the conventional usage in that both star and fucker  are to be parsed as nouns.)

It’s interesting to compare the careers of Clint Eastwood and Sly Stallone. These days, Clint gets a lot more respect than Sly. I think that’s backwards.

Both have been in their share and more of really lousy movies with no excuses, because they were in charge of them start to finish. (Everybody remember’s Stallone’s bombs, but you might need reminding of “Left turn, Clyde!” or the Sondra Locke era). Eastwood has been forgiven his egregious transgressions against taste, but not Stallone.

Both stars have gotten plenty of industry awards. Right out of the gate, decades before Clint would graduate from starring with both simian and starlet knuckle-draggers, Sly made the Slumdog Millionaire of 1977:

Rocky walked off with best picture, best director (John Avildson, not Stallone) and best editing. Stallone got nominated for best actor and writer. Talia Shire, Burgess Meredith and Burt Young all got nominations too.

Sly Stallone wrote Rocky. He also wrote the new and perhaps as good Rocky Balboa (and he wrote the Rocky’s in between, just to level set).

Not only did Stallone write Rocky, he shopped it around for years while he was poor and refused to let it go even for what must have seemed like a bazillion dollars, unless he’d get to be involved in the movie. He’s the writer with integrity who held out till the suits gave in.

Clint ain’t wrote shit. He likes jazz and brooding and he shoehorns brooding jazz into all his movies lately. Cool.

But Clint directs. Well, so does Sly. He directed Rocky Balboa, with a beautifully understated hand.  And while Clint can be a great director, he can really lay it on too thick too. He’s like the Stephen King of directing. He NEEDS a good editor, and it’s obvious that too often nobody has the guts to tell him to rein it in.

Stallone is the Sarah Palin of Hollywood. It doesn’t matter what his virtues or faults are, he’s despised by the dilettantsia because of his social class. 

Who are the dilletantsia? They are the somewhat-smarter-than-average-but-not-much-smarter children of successful bourgeousie parents. They are the intellectual nouveau riche who got sent to good colleges, where they vaguely realized and quickly repressed the fact that they’re not all that intellectual or committed to much.

The dilettantsia can tell medium good from really good wine by the price. They seldom read the books chosen by their book clubs, but they do buy them. Their opinions on politics derive from whatever blowhard their favorite blowhard professor they had a crush on admired–or from The Daily Show or The Colbert Report or Bill Maher (all three significant improvements over the intellectual quality of the Ivy League when it comes to soft sciences).

They’re terrified most of getting caught being gauche. Stallone can be gauche; Eastwood is cool.

 A while ago, I came home and the missus was watching Changeling. Neither of us knew that Eastwood had directed it until the end. My review of the movie: skillful, absurd and cliched. A lot like Million Dollar Baby: heavy handed, moralistic, tear-jerking melodrama with no characterological integrity or continuity. Both movies (and Gran Torino) are a series of disconnected vignettes where what the character does in vignette A is contradicted or unrelated to how he acts in vignette B.

Eastwood can direct great movies when he’s got a great writer (Unforgiven, Gone Baby Gone). But Clint doesn’t know or doesn’t care about the quality of the writing as long as he can direct a really great scene. Scene uber alles.

Rocky Balboa made me misty more than once and Stallone didn’t have to kill little boys and boxing girls to get me there. Sly’s moments were deft and ordinary, unlike Clint’s reliance on one-in-a-million or once-in-a-century tragedies.

As they say, hard cases make bad law. And very often, bad drama. I think I’ve pounded this stake into the ground deep enough, so let’s talk about Rocky Balboa, which you should rent tonight.

For me, the emotional centerpiece of Rocky Balboa is a confrontation between Rocky and his grown son. His son is white-collar to the bone. He weighs 98 pounds. If his dad had ever punched him, he’d have killed him. Son is alternately shamed and gratified by the attention his dad draws.  His dad’s notoriety has been blessing and curse. He’s tossed between embarrassment and pride.

Rocky, in his ’50’s now, suddenly wants to fight again, and son is mortified. Forget the previous ambivalence and ambiguity he’s felt about his famous dad, now his dad’s about to become a laughing-stock and he needs to stop him before the association ruins his already-shaky career.

In most movies, this confrontation goes like this:

  • Parent having some kind of middle-aged crisis announces grand plan to fix life. This can be anything, as long as it upsets the expectations of adult child (not an oxymoron) for emotional or financial support and advantage.
  • Grown child says some form of  You’re off your rocker or Mom/Dad, stop embarrassing me already! or how can you be so selfish!
  • Parent guiltily, desperately pleads for understanding. Strike that–approval. Child says Fuck off! and storms off. Parent goes off and does it anyway. That’s what passes for moral courage in most parents these days.
  • At end of movie, child and parent are reconciled in some dopey sloppy bittersweet way that leaves nobody better off and does nobody any goddamn good.

Well, this stock scene doesn’t turn out like you have been conditioned to expect.  And that’s all I’ll say about it.

Rocky Balboa is a pastiche of cliche movie moments, some of them created by the Rocky franchise,  turned upside down.

 I don’t think Stallone was trying to do a trick–it just happened because he wrote something that’s real and thus the opposite of the usual Hollywood condescending scriptwriting abortions we’ve been conditioned to accept.

Stallone has a lot to say in this movie about giving back to your community, about being a good parent, about what it takes to make it, about how to close the deal and how to make a difference. Actually–he doesn’t have a lot to say–he has a lot to show. He bends over backwards not to be preachy. Watch the deleted scenes, which are mostly great, and you’ll see how he toned it down, down, down in the final cut.

Rocky is blue-collar Jesus in the movie. He never commits a sin and never fails to get people to go and sin no more.  And he does it credibly. He leaves you with the sense that this kind of decency and honor and influence is well within the reach of real human beings.

That’s a whole lot more than we got from the last several of Scorsese’s moral still-births. Or Clint’s all-over-the-road movies.


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