Rocky - the movie - finally makes it inside the Art Museum

Posted: March 13, 2014

Oh, Rocky, hulking pugilistic hero, sloe-eyed Philadelphia underdog. "At least you had a prime!" he laments to his manager. "I didn't have no prime. I didn't have nothin'!"

Rock, beloved bum, you are so having that prime.

Rocky: The Musical debuts on Broadway on Thursday, while Rocky, the Oscar-winning movie, was finally screened for the first time inside the Philadelphia Museum of Art this week, almost four decades after the film memorialized its exterior.

The southpaw scrapper and his legions of imitators (Rockettes?) have raced up the museum's 72 steps countless times, and his statue has become the undisputed star of Philadelphia-centric phone photography.

But one place Rocky the movie, the original father of five - yo, five - sequels, has never been shown is inside the museum synonymous with the boxer's physical rebirth, whose steps symbolize his transformation.

On Monday, that changed. Ostensibly, the occasion was to celebrate the Blu-ray release of all six movies (10 hours, 34 minutes of pure Rockitude), but it was also to invite the outside in, to bridge the gap between high art and low - literally, the statue situated at the northern base of the steps. Star Sylvester Stallone, who wrote the scripts, has described the museum as looking "like another city, an Acropolis," and, to Rocky, "a structure where he really doesn't even understand what's inside, but only what it represents."

The museum staff aims to bridge that sort of misunderstanding. "We thought we would celebrate the original film and the original director, and bring Rocky up the steps and inside the museum," said museum president Gail Harrity. "The Rocky story is an iconic film known worldwide, and this is one of the great film sites that happens to be a world-class museum. A lot of people here have never been inside."

True. Including, as strange as this seemed, the Oscar-winning director John G. Avildsen, who helmed Rocky and Rocky V. (Stallone directed the rest of the oeuvre.) "This place is breathtaking, a work of art in itself," Avildsen said, standing for the first time on the grand (indoor) staircase. "Philadelphia really needs a publicist."

(Actually, as The Inquirer reported this week, it has two, VisitPhiladelphia and Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau, with two websites, two staffs, two slogans, and two handsomely compensated chief executives.)

Prior to the screening, veteran museum guide Deena Gerson offered Avildsen an abbreviated version of her special tour "What If Rocky Came Inside?" including a visit to the museum's only boxing painting, Thomas Eakins' Between Rounds (1898), which depicts a match at the since-demolished Philadelphia Arena at Broad and Cherry.

Avildsen filmed the original movie in 28 days, 10 in Philadelphia and the rest in Los Angeles, often at night to avoid the unions.

"We were shooting under the radar, and we didn't get caught," Avildsen told the audience prior to the screening. "If the police force had been a little bit better, we wouldn't be here." (It should be noted that Frank Rizzo was not the police commissioner at the time, though he was the mayor.)

Watching Rocky for the first time in 38 years produced several revelations. Despite his strong identification with the Italian Market and South Philadelphia (absurdly referred to as "Southside" in the new musical, as though the boxer lived in Chicago), Rocky Balboa is a son of Kensington, living hard by the El at 1818 E. Tusculum St.

The movie depicts the city as insistently gritty, squalid, archaic, and dark, a portrait of urban decline, which makes it all the more telling that Philadelphia embraced the work. The movie, Stallone noted in Michael Vitez and Tom Gralish's Rocky Stories, "is basically a euphemism for the city of Philadelphia." But you would never confuse the film for a piece of tourism propaganda.  

Rocky remains steadfastly simple and old-fashioned, with acting and a story more rooted in the 1930s than the '70s, Capraesque if Capra had a pronounced dark streak. This traditional movie, dated even when it was released, captured best picture, and Avildsen best director, against such classics as Taxi Driver, Network, All the President's Men, and Bound for Glory.

Rocky is unusual in that a series of scenes of intense exercise - the boxer's exuberant march up the museum steps, along Kelly Drive, and around the city - is the movie's actual climax, not (spoiler alert!) the final boxing match against Apollo Creed, which ends in a decision after 15 rounds, to say nothing of the incessant, saccharine yelping of "I love you" between Rocky and his beloved Adrian. The scenes at the museum are among the rare ones filmed in early light, devoid of trash or the El, and they received thunderous applause from the museum crowd.

The trick for the Art Museum is to capitalize on Rocky and draw new patrons inside. Showing the movie, finally, is a start. Stallone, an art collector, has been invited to record an audio tour. Gerson, the guide, told me: "If that statue was brought inside, given that there are always lines of people, we would be one of the wealthiest museums in the country."


kheller@phillynews.com

215-854-2586 @kheller

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