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‘Rocky’s’ Oscar TKO in ’76 still echoes, stings

When Jack Nicholson opened the envelope and read "Rocky" as the best-picture winner at the 49th Academy Awards 30 years ago, Sylvester Stallone was caught without his tie.
/ Source: The Associated Press

When Jack Nicholson opened the envelope and read "Rocky" as the best-picture winner at the 49th Academy Awards 30 years ago, Sylvester Stallone was caught without his tie.

The actor's rental bow tie had fallen off on his way to the ceremony, but producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff still dragged Stallone up to the stage. Stallone may have been caught unprepared for the occasion, but he wasn't alone — most of Hollywood was surprised too.

In fitting underdog fashion, "Rocky" upset a legendary class of films. Also up for best picture at the 1977 Oscars were three movies generally considered among the best America has produced: "All the President's Men," "Network" and "Taxi Driver." (Hal Ashby's Woody Guthrie biopic "Bound for Glory" was the fifth nomination.)

As the 30th anniversary of those Oscars nears, there are a few notable parallels. Stallone has again produced a "Rocky" film ("Rocky Balboa"), though it would be fortunate to win one nomination, let alone the 10 that the original did. "Taxi Driver" director Martin Scorsese is again in the hunt with "The Departed."

But for many, the 49th Academy Awards remains Exhibit A in any argument about the academy's less-than-perfect taste — a critique that usually cites the best-picture loss of "Citizen Kane" in 1942 (to John Ford's "How Green Was My Valley"), Alfred Hitchcock's lack of a best-director award or Art Carney's best-actor win in 1975 over Nicholson ("Chinatown"), Al Pacino ("The Godfather: Part II") and Dustin Hoffman ("Lenny").

"In hindsight, it looks crazy that of those nominated films 'Rocky' won — because 'Rocky' is the flimsiest by far, and was so at the time," says film critic and historian David Thomson. "But at the time, there was this stupid notion that Sly Stallone represented a great American success story."

"It's a shining example of how silly (the Oscars) can be," adds Thomson.

Sidney Lumet directed "Network," the darkly satirical portrait of TV news. It won three acting Oscars and best screenplay for Paddy Chayefsky, but the best-picture loss still stings for Lumet.

"I've been nominated five times," the director told The Associated Press last year. "But on two occasions, I got so pissed off about what beat us. With 'Network,' we were beaten out by 'Rocky,' for Christ's sake." (Lumet, who was finally awarded an honorary Oscar in 2005, also mentions the best picture win for "Gandhi" over his "The Verdict" in 1983.)

"Rocky" has almost certainly affected American culture more than the other three nominees — there is a statue of the film's main character in Philadelphia, after all. Propelled by Stallone's passion for it, the movie opened in limited release in late November 1976 with modest hopes. Winkler says, "It just kind of got momentum as it went along." It won the Golden Globe for best drama and eventually landed two Oscars besides best picture: best director (John G. Avildsen) and best film editing.

But "All the President's Men," "Network" and "Taxi Driver" all are considered gems from one of the most vibrant periods of American cinema: the 1970s. It was then that directors — newly labeled as "auteurs" — like Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Robert Altman flourished.

1976, when these films opened, was the bicentennial, which many think affected the Oscar voting. "Rocky" was wrapped up in the flag — the boxer literally drapes it over himself in the movie's finale: a bicentennial bout against Apollo Creed.

"I think there was a kind of feeling in the country at the time — we had just gone through a decade of terrible social problems in America," says Winkler, who went on to produce films including "Raging Bull," "The Right Stuff" and "Goodfellas."

"And all of a sudden this movie came along and said, 'You know, if you believe in yourself, you'll be OK.' And suddenly it became part of what America was about. I think maybe if the picture had come out two years later or two years earlier, it might not have caught on the way it did."

Some would say, though, that "Taxi Driver," "Network" and "All the President's Men" all said more about America than "Rocky."

"All the President's Men," which was nominated for eight Oscars and won four, depicted in step-by-step detail the reporting of Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Hoffman) that exposed the depth of President Nixon's Watergate scandal.

Remembering "All the President's Men," Redford told the AP on the film's 30th anniversary: "It was very much about hard work that won the day, and that's an American ethic."

It was also an election year in 1976, and some think "All the President's Men" helped Jimmy Carter defeat incumbent Gerald Ford, who pardoned Nixon.

"Taxi Driver," which failed to win any of its four nominations, was the darkest of the best picture films from 1976. The story of Travis Bickle's (Robert De Niro) festering anger in New York City culminates in a bloody conclusion — which even among the edgy cinema of the '70s likely made some academy members uncomfortable.

"I think 'Rocky' won because it had a good feeling. It was an uplifting film," says Tim Dirks, who runs the "Greatest Films" Web site "The other films were a little bit too heavy or too edgy for the time, and 'Rocky' was a million-to-one shot — and it went the distance."

According to Dirks (whose site lists the "Rocky" best-picture win as one of the "worst of the worst" awards), the theme is a familiar one: The academy often goes for less edgy material. There are always many factors in Oscar voting, but examples of cautiousness can perhaps be seen as recently as last year, when "Crash" upset "Brokeback Mountain" — and as early as "Citizen Kane."

"Even 'Citizen Kane' was a little edgy," Dirks says. "It had a lot of controversy over its portrayal of someone who looked a lot like William Randolph Hearst."

The academy can be proud that it managed to at least nominate "Taxi Driver," "All the President's Men" and "Network." Some very well-regarded movies never were nominated at all, among them Howard Hawks' "His Girl Friday" (1940) and John Ford's "The Searchers" (1956).

Despite the questionable victory by "Rocky," 1976 remains an impressive class for American films, which most years — 2006 included — would have difficulty living up to.

"We don't have those kind of pictures anymore," says Thomson. "We don't have the big entertainment that deals with serious subjects.

"Today, 'Network' would be an independent film."