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The thwarted daddy-love – and missing mommy – behind the pump-action hero

I’m not a Sylvester Stallone fan. In fact, I couldn’t bear him back in the day. I spent much of the eighties sniffily ignoring his smash-hit movies and hence missed him single-handedly re-fighting the Vietnam War, with big hair, baby oil and unfeasibly large phallic symbols, over and over again – and two-fistedly winning the Cold War. (I did eventually watch the first Rambo (1982) and Rocky IV (1985) on VHS when I was researching Male Impersonators… in 1993.)

And although I am, as you know, a fan of the worked-out male form, and ‘Sly’ was one of the nearly naked 80s ‘action’ stars that ‘normalised’ male exhibitionism (by disavowing its passivity), his muscular exhibitionism didn’t light my fuse. It was too hysterically hypermasculine – and I say that as a hypermasculine hysteric. I also got the feeling that ‘Sly’ cheated on leg day. (Jean Claude Van Damme on the other hand….)

I didn’t ignore the films of the Italian Stallion’s Austrian Oak rival/double-act. I wasn’t exactly a fan of Arnie’s either, but I did however have a fascination with his on-screen cyborg persona, his super-human size – and his popularity. Arnie was a science fiction special effect and the movies he appeared in often seemed to have a postmodern… bent. Sly on the other hand seemed to have copyrighted kitsch – while determinedly exterminating camp.

Yes, both he and Arnie were, like many movie stars (though even more so), ‘limited’ actors, but at least Arnie’s bad acting wasn’t supposed to represent ‘masculine authenticity’.

Maybe my distaste was just snobbery. Sly was after all, an American blue-collar hero, born in New York’s infamous Hells’ Kitchen in 1946 – scarred for life by a botched forceps delivery that severed a nerve on the lower left side of his face. And unlike Arnie, he frequently wrote the scripts for the films he starred in – including of course his first starring role Rocky (1976).

A script about an underdog heavyweight boxer he penned because Hollywood had decided that the funny-looking Italian American ‘lug’ wasn’t what a leading man should be. Stallone literally changed the narrative so it would accommodate him – and was vindicated massively by the box-office receipts.

He also seems to have mellowed and improved in his dotage – I keep meaning to watch critically acclaimed 2015 Rocky sequel/reboot Creed, which won him a Golden Globe, but somehow never get around to it.

Whatever the reason for my distaste, I’m sure Sly doesn’t mind. In fact, the distaste and/or snobbery of someone like me was part of what made him such a huge, honking success, with his RockyRambo and Expendables franchises. As Wikipedia states: ‘Stallone is one of only two actors in history to have starred in a box-office No.1 film across six consecutive decades.’

I thought that if I can’t watch a Sly movie, I should at least watch Sly, the new Netflix doc about him. Of course, like Arnold, released earlier this year (I review it here), it’s mostly an in-house puff-piece used to promote new Netflix projects he’s involved in that I won’t be watching. But unlike most Sly movies I started, I did watch the doc to the end. I found his ‘real’ persona a lot more engaging and self-mocking than his screen one. (And unlike Arnold, which had three, there’s only one episode.)

Sly speaks from his empty nest palatial LA home – empty except for him and several Rocky Balboa statues. We see movers pack up his furnishings and extensive art collection – including a heavily symbolic shot of one of those Rocky sculptures being trolleyed out on its back into a truck. He’s moving ‘back East’ in search of ‘more challenges’, but the Final adventure/journey is clearly being invoked. Stallone is 77 years old and frequently, frankly, and funnily talks about mortality and feeling like a ‘fig that’s fallen off the tree and is drying out!’

Part of the watchability of the doc is that astonishing thing where Sly’s face should be: an uncanny, craggy, carved simulation of it, complete with rigidly arched eyebrows. He has become his own kitsch statue – or bust. He’s in great shape for his age, but the trademark swole body is, understandably, mostly a memory – apart from his perky nipples poking out insistently underneath his T-shirt.

The sculpted head seems to transform with every new angle. Full profile looks like a completely different person. Sometimes it looks as if he’s become his Spitting Image puppet.

I say this not to mock him so much as to report. Sly’s ‘face’ is in many ways his life’s work. It is certainly a kind of biography and artefact. An impressive one.

He cuts a more sympathetic figure than Arnie – who pops up in this doc in the way that Sly popped up in his, but with his tiring trademark showbiz enthusiasm (though his face does appear to be his own). Perhaps because Stallone never went into politics, or perhaps because his narrative, for all the revenge fantasy, always had more pathos. Arnie doesn’t really do pity.

It turns out that Stallone was the Steeve Reeves fan that I mistook Schwarzenegger for (Reg Park also playing Hercules was the young Austrian’s actual love-object/idol). It was seeing Reeves in Hercules Unchained (1959) that made Sly decide he wanted to be a bodybuilder and a star. Like Schwarzenegger, he fell in love with his ‘incredibly handsome’ big screen bodybuilder ‘role model’ – because his actual father, Frank Stallone, an Italian immigrant hairdresser, was so neglectful, and when not neglectful violently abusive.

Both budding Herculean superstars had to find their own father figures – and construct themselves in their handsome, hunky, invulnerable image. To make themselves worthy of the idolisation they gave their idols.

Sly’s childhood though seems to have been even worse than Schwarzenegger’s:

“The majority of the time I was living in a boarding house. Basically 12 months a year, never went home, ‘cause they just didn’t have time. They were both working.”

“And people say, ‘Oh, you feel deprived and you weren’t nurtured.’ I thought, ‘Yeah that’s true.’ And maybe the nurturing comes from the respect and love of strangers. To feel embraced and loved by an audience, it’s insatiable. I wish I could get over it, but . . . you can’t.”

Neediness is at the root of the steely action-hero persona.

Also like Schwarzenegger, he seems to have spent much of his life trying, vainly, to win the approval of his father. But the more successful Sly became the more his father seemed to resent it, being pathologically competitive. After Sly’s tremendous success with Rocky in 1976, his father tried to hawk a boxing movie script that he described as ‘the real Rocky’.

The final break seems to have come when Stallone was forty, when he spent a great deal of time and money getting into serious Polo, something his father used to play when younger. He went up against his dad in a game at the National Polo Center in Wellington, Florida — the No. 1 field in the world — and included a “super-team” of 10 goal players.

“So I’m out there, playing well. My father, we’re going neck and neck, and I go out for a nearside. My father spears me in the back. Hit me so hard, I went down. ‘Entertainment Tonight’ is there. The horse walked right over. I don’t know how it didn’t kill me. But I see myself getting up, and the first thing was like [groans]. And I think, ‘He just rode away.’

“That was it. I never played polo again from that moment on. I sold everything. I sold every horse, the ranch, the truck, and that was the end.”

Stallone did however have a deathbed reunion and reconciliation with his father in 2011, and a grainy, disarming home movie clip shows him embracing Frank on his sickbed crying, “I love you daddy… this is the happiest day of my life!”.

He also explains how man of his film personas were influenced by his father – Rambo’s stare, for example. And Rocky’s relationship with his trainer (played by Burgess Meredith) was what he wished his had been with his father.

Which makes it even more peculiar that there is no real mention of his mother in the doc, Jackie. who died in 2020. And remember, this is an Italian American we’re talking about here. Or of his wives: he has had three – his current one Jennifer Flavin, 55, since 1997 (though last year she filed for divorce, then withdrew). We do see him very briefly with his unspeaking young daughters.

The doc makes it look as if both Sylvester and Frank reproduced asexually – and there was no room or need for women in their overheated father-son love-hate relationship.

But it’s obvious that Jackie had an enormous influence on Sylvester. And not just because his face now looks as enhanced as hers did when she appeared on UK Celebrity Big Brother in 2005 to torment her former daughter-in-law Brigitte Nielsen – and was suitably monstrous.

She seems to have taught Sly a lot. She was what you might call ‘carny’ – according to Wikipedia she was an ‘astrologer, dancer and wrestling promoter’ as well as a ‘trapeze artist’. As if that wasn’t enough excitement, her family lived with the early bodybuilder Charles Atlas – he of the famous ‘In Just Seven Days I Can Make You a Man’ cartoon strip ads – ‘who trained the family in gymnastics, weightlifting, and jogging when she was a girl’.

Also missing is any mention of steroids (Stallone pleaded guilty to importing HGH into Australia in 2007), or the terrible 1970 softcore porn movie The Party at Kitty and Stud’s that he starred in for $200, six years before Rocky. But these are more understandable omissions.

There are however some salient, enthusiastic emissions – sorry, contributions – from a surprisingly high-pitched Quentin Tarantino. Who was, unlike me, a super Sly fanboy. And appears to be channelling the camp that Stallone so studiously disavowed in his movies.

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