Articulate and charming, introspective and inspiring, intelligent and refreshingly down-to-earth, Sylvester Stallone lit up the stage of the Arlington Theater like few before him on Tuesday night, when his 40-plus-year career was celebrated as part of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s Montecito Award tribute event.
The actor/director/writer hit the Hollywood scene with a bang back in 1976 by writing and starring in Rocky, the multiple Academy Award-winning film, and continues to wow critical and popular audiences to this day, most recently winning a Golden Globe and the Oscar nomination for best supporting actor in the 2015 film Creed, the seventh film of the Rocky series. In the usual SBIFF tribute format, Stallone subjected himself to nearly two hours of personal, anecdote-laden banter with critic Pete Hammond, watched clips from more than one dozen of his films, and then graciously accepted the Montecito Award from his friend Carl Weathers, who starred as Apollo Creed in Rocky.
Dressed in a slick suit with a red-orange tie that nearly matched the color of his bronzed skin, Stallone was greeted with a standing ovation upon walking onto the Arlington stage, and proceeded to crack jokes about seeing his hairline recede in technicolor. His reflective tone quickly got inspiring, though, in describing the endurance of his career. “I just feel very close to this sort of Rocky attitude, this philosophy,” said Stallone. “I think the majority of the world, perhaps all of us, are underdogs in some way. Just when we think we have it together, something happens, which we call life. And we don’t have it together, and we have to struggle and fight to keep some equilibrium.”
The discussion jumped all the way back to Stallone’s birth on a crosstown bus in Hell’s Kitchen and how the forceps used in his delivery severed nerves in his face, resulting in his characteristic snarl and slur. In mentioning his first audition for Woody Allen and the film Bananas, he recounted how failure and rejection leads to personal and professional development — and how Vaseline can cure everything, including convincing Allen to cast him as a mugger in the movie. Stallone laughed about struggling in the early days of his career, living in the train station at one time. “I lived in my coat,” said Stallone seriously. “You call it a coat, I call it a house….My coat was my best friend. It was my house.”
The development of Rocky came next, which Stallone wrote in three days after some producers met him as a favor. He had to fight hard to be cast as the protagonist, but the rest is history. In one particularly honest aside after watching a Rocky clip, Stallone quipped, “I needed subtitles. I didn’t even know what I was saying.”
Anecdotes about John Huston, Dolly Parton, Dolph Lundgren, Krik Douglas, Arnold Schwarzenegger, common sense-lacking stunt men, the dangers of early special effects, one very dumb sound guy, and more ensued, as did clips from F.I.S.T., Victory, Rhinestone, Rambo:First Blood II, Tango & Cash, Oscar, Cliffhanger, Copland, The Expendables, Escape Plan, and Creed. There were lots of laughs, plenty of catcalls, and repeated rounds of applause from the crowd, one of the most appreciative and entertained of any to ever attend a SBIFF tribute.
Hammond made a special point of recognizing Stallone’s willingness to engage with Ryan Coogler, the young director and writer of Creed who was just a young student at USC when he approached Stallone. “There’s a lot of talk about diversity, but where the talk should be going is giving people the chance to see their dream and make the movies,” said Hammond, “and that is what you did.”
After almost two hours, SBIFF’s artistic director Roger Durling came on stage to announce the award, remarking that Stallone was an inspiration in his life, despite being a gay Latino man rather than a jock. “You have given a voice to all of us who have felt like outcasts, like underdogs,” said Durling. “Rocky showed us we could be anything we wanted to be. I have the eye of the tiger because of you.”
Carl Weathers then delivered a heartfelt speech about Stallone, calling the Montecito Award presentation one of his greatest honors. Weathers told the story of how he landed the role in Rocky, essentially by insulting Stallone’s acting chops, thinking he was just the writer, not the star. “I believe to this day the only reason this man allowed me to play this role is because he wanted to beat the hell out of me!” said Weathers, who then expressed gratitude for the chance, encouraged Stallone to direct more films, and said that Stallone epitomized what it keeps to “keep punching and keep punching and keep punching” in a Hollywood career.
In accepting the award, Stallone thanked his very shy wife, who was in attendance, and said he’s been “very, very blessed” to be surrounded by great colleagues in the uniquely “collective” film industry. “I think of myself as a very, very fortunate man, but I don’t forget when I came from, and I know a lot of you don’t either,” said Stallone to the standing crowd. “Life is a struggle. We think we have it all together, but in a sense we don’t. We are underdogs, but every day, we pull together and go through another day and hope that it turns out alright. I love the idea that we are part of this human experience, and if we as actors…can somehow tap into that universal quest for just peace of mind and for just some respect in our life, then we have what is known as a dream. And everyone needs a dream. It’s what keeps us going, I just want to thank you for making my dream come true, and I keep hoping to interpret your dreams in future films.”