In anticipation of the Academy Awards, we polled our contributors to see who they thought should win the Oscar. Once we had our winners, we asked various writers to make the case for our selection in each category. Here, Sheila O'Malley makes the case for the Best Supporting Actor of 2015, a man often referred to only as Sly. Two winners will be announced Monday through Thursday, ending in our choices for Best Director and Best Picture on Friday.
There's a tendency (in some circles) to say, when Sylvester Stallone comes up, "He was really good in 'Copland'" (without ever mentioning "Rocky.") And, of course, he was wonderful in "Copland," But the really extraordinary work from Stallone was not "Copland." Nor did he rise through traditional channels. Stallone was not "cast well" by a director or "given a big break." He became successful because of a script he wrote himself over a long weekend; because of a character he created that quickly became an icon, spawning a 40+ year franchise. It's a mistake to view the immensely popular with suspicion. "Rocky" is a great and schmaltzy-effective piece of populist art/show-biz which has struck emotional chords for four generations (and counting). That's the real accomplishment. Very few ever achieve something like that.
In "Creed," directed by the gifted and lifelong "Rocky" fan Ryan Coogler, Stallone returned to the screen as Rocky Balboa. In an interview with The New York Times, Stallone says that he hired an acting coach to "get in shape" for "Creed." He knew the risks and challenges. Rocky is now elderly. Rocky is facing mortality. Rocky still mourns for his wife. Stallone needed to shed his carapace for all of that, let his vulnerability be seen, and, perhaps, snickered at, dismissed, or ignored.
Stallone brings to the table his entire life experience, emotions beyond his control, surging up into his eyes, hot as lava and sharp as a knife. The performance startles, not because it is surprising that Stallone is so good, but because of how deep Stallone has allowed himself to go.
Success can calcify talent. Big stars can grow risk-averse. Stallone spoke about how he had allowed that to happen to him. And so he put himself into the hands of a new director and in service of a "Rocky" script he did not write. Of such risks great performances are made. Grounded, funny, touching, subtle, not only is it the best performance of Stallone's career, it's one of the best performances of the year.