ROCKY FORUM | The De-Italianization of Rocky Balboa: The Italian Stallion’s Path to Becoming an American Hero
Author: Juan Rodríguez Santos University of Alcalá
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If you polled Americans to identify which character in all cinema best represents American values, it is quite likely that many would choose Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone). Without a doubt, the image of Rocky fighting with the colors of the American flag and defeating the Soviet boxer Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) is already a Hollywood icon.
In Rocky Road: The Hero’s Journey of Rocky Balboa Through the “Rocky” Anthology (Salyer Jr. 2009), the author describes Rocky Balboa as one of the greatest heroes the film industry has produced. Rocky is a self-made, hard-working, humble, and disciplined man who, above all else, loves his family and friends. Curiously, this perception of an all-American Rocky Balboa is mostly associated with his depiction in Rocky IV (1985) rather than the Rocky Balboa that appears in the first two installments of the saga. In Rocky (1976) and Rocky II (1979), the character still exhibits many of the heroic qualities outlined above. However, an in-depth analysis of these films reveals significantly different characterizations of Rocky across the same, classic franchise. Several studies have dissected the Rocky saga. Most notably, Hollywood Italians: Dagos, Palookas, Romeos, Wise Guys and Sopranos (Bondanella 2004) explores the influence of Rocky Balboa as a faithful representation of the character of the Italian American boxer in Hollywood.
The plot of Rocky centers on the story of Rocky Balboa, a humble boxer of Italian American descent who works for the mafia and is, by chance, named the new contender for the world heavyweight championship. While training hard for his confrontation against the champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), Balboa begins a romantic relationship with Adrian Peninno (Talia Shire), the sister of his best friend Paulie Peninno (Burt Young). Despite losing the match by a split decision, Rocky wins the respect of all by going toe-to-toe with Apollo. In Rocky II, Apollo claims that Rocky was lucky in his previous fight and challenges him to a rematch. At first, Rocky refuses to fight, but, after his marriage to Adrian and the birth of their son, he accepts Apollo’s challenge. In the process, Rocky manages to leave the criminal world and focus permanently on his boxing career. At the climax of the film, Rocky manages to defeat Apollo in agony and becomes the heavyweight champion. In comparison to the first two films, the plot of Rocky III (1982) and Rocky IV differs significantly. Both deemphasize Rocky’s Italian American heritage. While Rocky and Rocky II foreground the Italian Stallion’s roots, the sequels virtually erase them. This phenomenon is evidenced by the development of other Italian Americans in the series, including Adrian and Rocky’s brother-in-law, Paulie.
This article aims to demonstrate how the first four Rocky films influenced the construction of a particular image of the Italian American community (i.e., people born in America and of Italian descent). As in all cinematographic analyses, it is important to consider several factors that structure the filmic language, such as the development of the characters, the dialogues, the setting, and the soundtrack. First, it is necessary to understand a series of concepts such as “identity” and “stereotype” that will be discussed frequently in this essay.
“Identity” is a term that encompasses many ideas and definitions. Its form that interest us most is “national identity”, a concept best described by historian Benedict Anderson in Imagined Communities (1991). Anderson argues that identity is a set of imaginary features that define a certain community and its individuals. Thus, a community´s identity is defined by a series of characteristics, customs, or traditions that link similar individuals together. As such, identity is imaginary since it is a mental construction made up of various symbolic elements (Anderson 1991). Performing these elements contribute to the development of a social group’s image, positively or negatively. A stereotype is a perception or image that one has about a certain social group and, generally, it is structured around a series of prejudices (Cavallero and Plasketes 2004)). We will see below that culture, through its various variants such as literature, theater, or cinema, can contribute to the consolidation of the stereotypes about a certain social or ethnic group in the popular imagination.
The books Women of the Shadows: Italian American Women, Ethnicity and Racism in American Cinema (Sautman 1994), Gangsters, Fessos, Tricksters, and Sopranos: The Historical Roots of Italian American Stereotype Anxiety(Cavallero and Plasketes 2004), Psychological Perspectives on the Stigmatization of Italian Americans in the American Media (Messina 2004) and Portrayals of Italian Americans in US-Produced Films (Piersanti 2019 among others, inform this article. Each includes studies of how Hollywood cinema helped nurture images of Italian American communities. In the Rocky saga, we can analyze how Italian Americans have been represented per these parameters that appear within Hollywood´s narrative discourses.
In the first film of the series, Rocky is part time boxer who works as a bully for a local mobster named Tony Gazzo (John Spinell) (figure 1). Rocky admits that his own father described him as a brainless brute who must use his strength to assert himself in life: “Yeah, my old man, who was never the sharpest,” Rocky explains, “told me I weren’t born with much brain, so I better use my body” (Avildsen 1976). As a result, Rocky suggests that he remains n the criminal world because he has no alternative. In this way, Rocky Balboa fulfills the profile of a common Hollywood trope: a suburb dwelling Italian American who lacks education (even basic literacy), lives in a marginal environment, and is related to the criminal world (Piersanti 2019, 115). The 1970s film industry nurtured an image of Italian Americans that, regardless of one’s social class, was directly or indirectly associated with the underworld. Such discourse feeds prejudices that affect this community.
Like other Italian American characters (e.g., Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull ), Rocky engages in sports to escape from his everyday reality and to ntegrate into the American society by progressing up the social ladder. In fact, Rocky leaves that criminal environment thanks to the call he receives from Apollo Creed to fight. Ultimately, boxing liberates Rocky by entrenching him in American sports culture. The movie’s message emphasizes the idea that America is a land of opportunities. If one delves further into this theme, Rocky’s Italian American heritage influences his selection by Apollo. The champion chooses Balboa as his adversary after learning Rocky’s nickname: the “Italian Stallion”. Apollo believes the match up will make for a good advertising campaign. Rocky’s Italian ancestry is cast as something “exotic” and “different” that sets him apart from other Americans.
The nickname “Italian Stallion” encompasses a whole series of concepts and preconceived notions about the Italian American community. For example, it projects an “exuberant masculinity” in which the Italian American man is depicted as a person who constantly shows off his virility, aggressiveness, and physical abilities (DiPaolo 2009). In other films like Who’s That Knocking at My Door? (1967), The Godfather (1972), Raging Bull, or Once upon a time in America (1984), this conception of masculinity is ever-present.
The character of Rocky in the saga’s first film is a vivid portrait of an Italian American stereotype. He shares the screen with two other characters, Adrian and Paulie, who are similarly tropified. Adrian is played by actress Talia Shire, who is best known for her role as Connie Corleone in the Godfather trilogy. It is significant that both of Shire´s most iconic roles are two Italian American characters.
Adrian and Connie represent classic Hollywood stereotypes of Italian American women. Despite the fact that both character´s personalities are quite different, they share similarities with other female Italian American characters in feature films of this cinematographic era (e.g., Maria di Coco in BloodBrothers , Vickie LaMotta in Raging Bull, or Teresa in Absence of Malice ). In these films, female characters appear as housewives whose lives are linked to male figures, be they fathers, husbands, boyfriends, or brothers. Sometimes, the women are subjected to physical or verbal violence by their male peers. Ultimately, 1970s Hollywood constructs a portrait of weak, submissive Italian American women who lack empowerment. The same characterizations appear in Rocky, with some differences (Sautman 1994, 224).
In Rocky, Adrian’s character is a clerk in a small pet store who lives with her brother, Paulie, in a poor Philadelphia neighborhood. The fact that Adrian works outside the home is an anecdotal detail within this cinematographic stage. Usually, female Italian American characters are typically represented as housewives or people linked solely and exclusively to the family environment. However, this does not mean that Adrian defies Hollywood´s persistent portrait of an Italian American woman. In the first film, Adrian is submissive and lives under the influence of her brother, Paulie, who psychologically abuses her:
Adrian: Paulie, please.
Paulie: Hey, I want ya outinstamaticly. I’m sicka lookin’ at ya hangin’ around like a friggin’ spider. Go out Live! Do, enjoy life.
Adrian: Like you?
Paulie: “Don’t get wise with me. I want ya to stop being a loser. (Avildsen 1976)
Her character evolves as she dates Rocky, even going so far as to confront Paulie, who subsequently lets her act freely. However, Adrian’s shy personality is an obvious contrast to Rocky’s gregariousness, a narrative difference that enhances the male image of the Italian American boxer.
Paulie is also a clear example of an Italian American stereotype from this cinematographic decade. He is macho, impulsive, has a problem with alcohol, and aspires to work in the criminal world. As the protagonist, Rocky does not have as many negative traits as Paulie, but the latter still exhibits a series of characteristics that conform to cinema´s Italian American tropes.
All the Italian American characters in the film are directly or indirectly related to each other. They are members of an independent community and reside in a very limited area (i.e., their neighborhood). In this environment, family, religion, and the mafia become three fundamental pillars by which the entire community is structured. These three pillars are also present in the rest of the cinematographic productions focused on Italian Americans, fueling stereotypes about this group. In Rocky, Italian Americans appear as a closed community that rarely mixes with the rest of society.
Beginning with Rocky II, Balboa and his family leave their Philadelphia neighborhood and abandon any contact with their old community. Rocky becomes a successful athlete who appears on television programs and the covers of magazines as an advertising icon. To consumers, the image of Rocky as the “Italian Stallion” is transformed into a model hero who embodies American values.
In a telling scene, Balboa is hired to make an advertisement for an aftershave lotion (figure 2). While filming the commercial, viewers learn that Rocky was hired because of the image promoted, during the first film, by Creed’s team: a tough, violent, and primitive Philadelphia boxer. Rocky is dressed as a caveman who appears locked in a cage like a wild animal. Additionally, members of the film team treat him in a rather derogatory way when Rocky confuses the words of his script. The caveman costume is a clear parody of the macho, illiterate Italian American stereotype developed in the first two films.
In Rocky III, the same scene is repeated, but in a remarkable different way (figure 3). At the beginning of the film, Rocky stars in a credit card advertisement as the famous theme music “Eye of the Tiger” plays. Unlike its prequel, where the boxer was represented in a completely stereotypical way, here Balboa appears dressed in an elegant suit and with the attitude of a successful businessman who has achieved the American dream.
Tony Gazzo completely disappears from the saga after Rocky II and, with him, the entire mafia plot that was a major pillar in the first Rocky film. Even the soundtrack plays an important role in this message of transformation of the boxer´s identity (Uvodich 2016). In the first two films, songs by the Italian American musician Bill Conti stand out. However, in Rocky III and Rocky IV, mainstream 1980s rock predominates with songs by bands like Survivor.
The renunciation of Rocky’s Italian identity continues in the boxing ring. In the first film, Rocky faces an Apollo Creed dressed in red, white, and blue to accentuate his American identity against the opposing, foreign “Italian Stallion.” In the fight´s preview, Apollo appears disguised as George Washington and is accompanied by two women representing the Statue of Liberty, further emphasizing the immigrant status of his Italian Americans challenger (figure 4).
Before the fight, Apollo highlights Rocky’s Italian ancestry, characterizing the event as a battle between an American boxer against a foreign boxer, effectively minimizing Rocky’s native-born American citizenship. This contrast is heightened when, in the next film, Rocky is massively supported by thousands of Italian Americans who flock to the ring to cheer him on in his fight against Apollo Creed:
Apollo: Don’t matter -That name. The Italian Stallion,’ it’s right on. Who discovered America? An Italian, right? So, man, what could be better than to get it on with one of his ancestors. (Avildsen 1976)
Everything radically changes in Rocky III and Rocky IV when Balboa faces his opponents wearing an imitation of Creed´s patriotic uniform. Unlike his fights against Apollo, Rocky’s entrance is accompanied by the United States Navy who play “Yankee Doodle.” The eighteenth-century song symbolizes American nationhood. However, it acquires an additional meaning in the film when examining Rocky´s transformation. For example, consider the term “macaroni” from the song´s chorus:
Yankee Doodle went to town,
A-Riding on a pony;
He stuck a feather in his hat,
And called it macaroni (“Yankee Doodle”)
The origin of “macaroni” is not at all associated with the Italian people, but a pejorative term that mocked those who dressed in an ostentatious and effeminate way. However, when Apollo in Rocky uses this song as his opening theme, he likely intended to make fun of Rocky’s Italian American ancestry with this same expression. For Creed, “Yankee Doodle” parodied the excessive masculinity that defines the Italian American stereotype. Ironically, it is Rocky who uses this song in the third film to “Americanize” his image and move further away from his Italian roots.
We must not forget that Apollo Creed also suffered discrimination as an African American. His persistent manifestation of overt nationalism through his clothing and entrance may also be an attempt to appear integrated within a predominately white American society. It is possible that Rocky Balboa assumes this same attitude to rebuke discrimination against his Italian American identity.
In Rocky IV, Balboa’s transformation as a protagonist intensifies. Once a tough boxer from the slums of Philadelphia, he is now an American hero preparing to face the Soviet enemy in hostile territory. Rocky’s rebranding is evidenced best by a shift in the American commentators’ tone. In the first film, they constantly emphasize Balboa’s Italian roots. However, they cast Rocky as an ideal American athlete when he squares off against Soviet boxer (figure 5):
Comentator: We’re in Moscow. I’m Barry Tompkins, along with Al Bandiero and this promises to be the most watched event in boxing history. The Iron Horse from America, Rocky Balboa, comes here to the Soviet Union. (Stallone 1985)
Rocky IV was filmed in 1985 at a time marked politically in the United States by President Ronald Reagan´s strong foreign policy against the Soviet Union. His policy directly influenced Hollywood film productions. Movies began addressing the Cold War from an openly anti-communist and anti-Soviet point of view (e.g., Red Dawn , Rambo II, Rambo III , Red Heat , among others).
Producers of Rocky IV wanted to promote a more patriotic image of Balboa, effectively omitting most of the elements that defined his Italian American identity. For example, Rocky´s speech following his fight with Drago reaffirms the Reaganist message that the Cold War is a conflict that must end. In Rocky II, the nuance is different, and it is very important to understand the background of the story. Here, the boxer dedicates his entire speech to thanking his supportive family and friends. The message centers the family nucleus as a support on which Italian American society is structured:
Rocky: Yeah, I love yous too. Most of all, I wanna thank God. Except for my kid bein’ born, this is the greatest night in the history of my life. I just wanna say one thing to my wife who’s home: ¡YO, ADRIAN! ¡¡I DID IT!! (Stallone 1979)
Hollywood had fed the negative image of the Italian American as violent, illiterate, a macho, a criminal, and an extremely religious individual to viewers in the 1970s, only to contradict its narrative with the patriotic portraits of the 1980s. That “Americanization” of Balboa in Rocky III and Rocky IV was done by minimizing the Italian influence of the boxer, due to the fact that in this cinematographic stage (years 70-80) the Italian American collective, in general, was represented in a fairly stereotyped way (Luconi 2010).
After the end of the Cold War, we see a significant change in the discourse of the film industry that is reflected in the Rocky Balboa saga. In the franchise´s subsequent films, Rocky, after having definitively retired from the world of boxing, returns to his old neighborhood in Philadelphia and reconnects with his community. In Rocky VI, Rocky opens an Italian American restaurant that becomes a representative place for the city. In these films, the image of the Italian American collective has significantly changed. Rocky V, Rocky Balboa, and Creed no longer present the Italian American as an individual who is related to the mafia or illegal activities, but an honest, hard-working member of a tight community.
The very image of the Philadelphia neighborhood is different between the first two Rocky films and those of the later films in the series. Thus, in Rocky I and Rocky II, the Balboa neighborhood is gray, dirty, and marginal, a place where criminal activities are normal (figure 6, right). In contrast, the same neighborhood in Rocky V is described as humble and predominated by small businesses with robust local activity (figure 6, left).
From the first film to the last, the neighborhood setting plays a fundamental role in developing the image of an Italian American. In Rocky, Balboa is defined by the bonds he has with his community. He cultivates relationships with his fellow citizens, Adrian and Paulie, works for the gangster Gazzo, prays with the local priest before matches, and is cheered on by dozens of people from his community while training to fight Apollo Creed. The first four films reflect a process of cultural assimilation because Rocky becomes an American icon as he progressively abandons the Italian traditions that defined his own identity. In the first two films, the American society sees Rocky almost as a foreigner, but this perception changes in Rocky III and Rocky IV when the boxer leaves his Philadelphia neighborhood and becomes part of the hegemonic Anglo-American culture. Therefore, the Americanization of Rocky Balboa was based on a process of de-Italianization.
These movies are significant examples of how the Hollywood film industry has shaped a rather negative image of the Italian American citizenship in conflict with the hegemonic American values. In the first movies, Italian Americans are represented by a series of cultural traditions and stereotypes that juxtapose them with other United States citizens. However, it must be said that such stereotypes gradually disappear in the most recent Rocky films and others produced by the American industry. Now, Italian Americans are represented in more plural and diverse ways, without reducing them to those prejudices that have been present in previous stages of the history of cinema.
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SUGGESTED CITATION: Rodríguez Santos, Juan. 2020. “The De-Italianization of Rocky Balboa: The Italian Stallion´s Path to Becoming an American Hero.” PopMeC Research Blog. Published December 10.
Juan Rodríguez Santos is a Historian from the University of Alcalá (UAH) and he obtained a Master’s degree in Strategic Cooperation between Latin America and European Union by the IELAT. Currently, he is doing a doctorate about the Spanish nationalism and populism, focusing on right- wing political discourses.. firstname.lastname@example.org