This year, Sylvester Stallone is nominated for an Academy Award for the second time in his career. Also, strangely enough, he’s nominated this year for playing the same character he was nominated for playing originally, Rocky Balboa, first as a lead actor in 1976’s Rocky and now for his supporting work in Creed. And he could very well walk away with an Oscar, because he’s fantastic in Creed, giving one of his greatest roles a new depth and life—it’s not often we get to see a character go through as many evolutions as we’ve seen from Rocky.
Sylvester Stallone has already won a number of trophies this awards season, including a Golden Globe. I’m of the camp that he should have won major awards for movies like Cobra, Demolition Man, Tango and Cash, and more, but I accept that those might be a hard sell to many people. We’ll have to wait until the ceremony to see if he wins, but here are the seven times outside of Creed where Sylvester Stallone could and maybe should have won an Oscar.
This is the easiest, most obvious choice, as it is the only other time Sylvester Stallone was nominated for an Oscar. Sure, the Rocky franchise may have gotten a wee bit nuts in the subsequent years, but there are very good reasons why the 1976 original still stands as a classic. It’s just damn great, and Sly’s performance is what drives the whole thing. It’s a stunning turn that could easily have devolved into schmaltz and sentimentality, but it’s one that led legendary film critic Roger Ebert to call Stallone a "young Marlon Brando," and he’s not far off. In 1977 he was up against the likes of Robert De Niro, who also did not win an Oscar for Taxi Driver, and as we know it’s been while since Stallone got his second nom.
Like with Rocky, Sylvester Stallone wrote the script for F.I.S.T., collaborating with Joe Eszterhaus. In his first movie after his Oscar nomination, Sly plays Johnny Kovak, a Cleveland warehouse worker involved with a fictional trucking union in the 1930s, becoming embroiled in the mob at the same time. Perhaps a bit hammy in certain moments, Stallone’s performance as the Jimmy Hoffa-style union boss shows off an impressive range, departing from his muscle bound image. Directed by Norman Jewison, F.I.S.T. is a movie that works best as the smaller moments build up and coalesce into something much greater than the sum of its parts.
Originally envisioned as The French Connection 3, 1981’s Nighthawks was besieged by production problems and studio interference from day one. Recut at various points by both Sylvester Stallone and Universal, it also battled censors, and lost. Despite the film being a total mess, Stallone’s turn as New York cop Deke DaSilva, who has been tasked with eliminating an international terrorist, is yet another example of the actor doing fantastic dramatic work, even when the picture around him may not stand with it, and it’s a case where he helped elevate what some critics labeled a shallow police thriller.
Along with Rocky Balboa, Sylvester Stallone’s most well known character is Vietnam vet John Rambo, and for good reason. Sly gets tagged as a meathead tough guy far too often, and while there certainly are those roles on his resume, he brings a remarkable subtlety and depth of feeling to the damaged, broken man back from war trying to come to terms with his experiences. First Blood is an especially prescient movie today. Sure, he blows up most of a small town, but in the quiet moments it also has an intelligence and sensitivity, and Rambo is goddamn heartbreaking. Subsequent films (and a Saturday morning children’s cartoon?) turn the character into a caricature, but John Rambo’s first on screen appearance remains a powerhouse.
In the late 1980s and early to mid-1990s Sylvester Stallone basically became renowned as a one-dimensional action star (he also delivered some of my all-time favorite movies in this era). But along came 1997’s Cop Land, which was like Sly raising his hand, chucking his chin, and saying, "Hey, I can act my ass off, remember?" Out of his non-Rocky, non-Rambo roles, his turn as a suburban New Jersey sheriff battling the corrupt cops who run his town may be the best performance of his career. He really got away from simply playing "Sylvester Stallone," stripping away the trappings of stardom, delivering an understated, slow-burn performance that culminates at the perfect time. Cop Land was a total flop—it wasn’t the next Pulp Fiction, which Miramax wanted it to be—but Sly has rarely been better.
Though he may win an Oscar for playing Rocky in Creed, maybe Sylvester Stallone should have a trophy for playing the character a few years earlier. Over the last 40 years, we’ve seen Rocky Balboa grow from a low-level pug and enforcer for a loan shark to a world champ, but in 2006’s Rocky Balboa, which Stallone wrote and directed in addition to starring in, we saw a different portrait of the man. Having retired from the ring, opened a restaurant, and lost his wife to cancer, Rocky is estranged from his son and somewhat adrift. The ending, where he decides to dust off the gloves and get back in the ring, is implausible, but Stallone delivers a sequel that is a fitting follow up to the original, and proves that given the right material, he’s still a gifted actor.
Two years after revisiting one of his most iconic characters, Sylvester Stallone returned to the other, John Rambo, twenty years after he stormed Afghanistan on screen. Rambo, the fourth film in the saga, finds the former soldier living an austere, isolated existence in Thailand. Hired by a group of missionaries to take them into war-torn Burma on a humanitarian mission, he is drawn back to the violence of his past. More than the caricature the character had become, Stallone is grim and raw, a hulking, near-feral savage (he packed on a ton of muscle because he said he wanted Rambo to resemble a wild beast); he’s quiet and stoic on the outside, but burning with rage and pain just below the surface. It gives Sly a chance to play both brute physicality and low-key emotion.
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