In the last week of October, Netflix released “Sly,” a biopic documentary starring Sylvester Stallone and featuring his co-stars, family members, critics and directors to help tell his story. From the get-go, it was clear that Stallone was pensive and had done a lot of reflection on his own past. He’d managed to formulate his roots and succinctly explain his unique success story.
Stallone grew up in the Hell’s Kitchen district of Manhattan, one of the roughest areas of New York City at the time. Perpetually in and out of schools, he was the child of a broken marriage and a father who continually abused him, even at points in his adulthood. The documentary describes Stallone’s entry into acting as almost serendipitous – when he just so happened to try out for a play in college, and a Harvard professor mentioned that he should consider a career in acting. At first, Stallone had no luck; he was deemed “uncastable” and received roles that were often thuggish. Fatefully, Sly refused to give up. He moved to Hollywood, broke, and began to write with a friend. Ultimately, in the words of film critic Wesley Morris, he would be the first superstar to write and direct himself into key acting roles.
He received perhaps the biggest break with the defining film of his career, “Rocky.” When it initially came out, it was nothing short of a flop that prompted most of the audience in his first screening to leave part
Perhaps one of the most revealing elements of the biography occurred as Stallone explained how some of his major films were connected as reflections of his personal life. Often writing, modifying or improvising the scripts of movies in which he starred, Stallone’s character and supporting roles often bore allegorical relationships to his family members and reflected the childhood trauma he endured. In “Rocky,” Mickey ignores and refuses to mentor the young character until he goes up against Creed. With all the fame that the contest brings, Mickey is eager to offer Rocky aid. For Stallone, this was reflective of the relationship between himself and his father. Throughout his childhood, his father was rarely present, and when he was, it was in the role of an abusive, not nurturing, father. When Sly caught success, his father tried to write his own spin-off screenplay, jealous of his son’s fame. The twist was that in the films Stallone wrote, he could have any ending he chose. As Mickey walked away, Rocky chased after him, and the two united in a relationship that would bring success in the face of evil.
In this respect, Stallone pointed out that while his movies often reflected his real experiences, their endings were often contrary to reality – more hopeful and happy than the truth.
Like many of the greatest actors, Sly grappled with the dark side of success. Perhaps in the most Stallone fashion imaginable, it was his family life where the problems seemed to accrue. From an envious father to a sibling who was overshadowed as “Rocky’s brother,” Stallone suffered in his personal life. After Rocky made waves, Stallone’s status essentially went from a nobody to the “next biggest actor” in the words of legendary film director Quentin Tarantino, who was a key appearance in the documentary. The wave of success and the need to be better tormented the actor, who struggled to produce another screenplay of similar magnitude. He was soon working on the production of a sequel to “Rocky,” despite the dangers of tainting a masterpiece.
Luckily, “Rocky II” exploded with success paramount only to the original, but Stallone’s victory didn’t last. The role of being both a writer and an actor consumed him as the jobs seemed to deprive him of any time for family and personal life. Each sequel was harder, as Stallone explained that he didn’t have the “freshness of a new artist.” While agencies and critics told him to play it safe and try out smaller, newer roles, Stallone stuck to his gut and forged on. At the end of the day, Stallone recognized that to get each little victory, he would need to go through a gauntlet of emotional and mental hardship. The fear that it was all serendipitous seemed to tug at him.
This all goes to demonstrate another major theme featured in “Sly:” failing after trying is better than quitting before trying. Whether it was attending a casting for the first time, moving west to Hollywood nearly penniless or attempting to write himself into stardom, Stallone’s boldness in the face of adversity – his real life position as an underdog – was paralleled by that of “Rocky.”
The documentary then went on to describe the background behind “Rambo,” an action film featuring a Vietnam veteran who couldn’t quite turn off the carnage switch. Stallone initially hated the ending, in which Rambo is killed in slow motion. In a time where thousands upon thousands of Vietnam veterans were dying by suicide each month, Sly felt that the death of his character would send a pessimistic message of “no hope.” Taking things into his own hands with a daring mid-film walkout, Sly eventually had his way and the movie and sequels that it spawned shot him into superstardom once again.
The closure of the documentary is mixed. There’s a clear sense of resentment that seeps through as Sly describes his main regret: the lack of a family life as a result of his acting career. In a sense, the film highlighted his guilt in depriving his children of a father figure in some ways that were similar to his own upbringing. In the end, Stallone concludes that all the money and fame that his career brought him are nothing if he can’t have a family to love and support. Nonetheless, he remains hopeful that his characters – the ones that live on as the best parts of himself – will inspire others from a broken background similar to his own.