THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
An Evening with Sylvester Stallone
The London Palladium
January 11, 2014
I will admit, I hadn't kept bang up to date with the creative efforts of that great American icon of the action genre, Sly Stallone. I liked the concept of The Expendables, but had trouble envisioning that loping, slurry, Italian American producing anything watchable beyond the early '90s, despite his recent efforts garnering critical acclaim. Nor did I know what to expect beyond an attempt at self–promotion when I saw the Rocky star interviewed by Jonathan Ross at the London Palladium.
I was pleasantly surprised. Even a little shocked.
What we got, instead of a slow Hollywood celeb whose mental prowess has suffered from too many blows to the head, or an actor just trying to plug his latest work (although that did still happen), was a witty, insightful, sometimes very cerebral look at a life in a grueling industry and about how that industry has changed. It challenged my assumptions about much, and humanized a probably underrated actor for me.
It also made me understand that he is iconic for a reason. I felt no less qualified than anyone there to write about the evening. After all, I had gone to see Rocky III and IV (you know, the cold war one with Dolph Lundgren) in the cinemas with my brothers. We had all memorized the lyrics to Survivor's 'Eye of The Tiger' as New Jersey schoolkids. We ran through the woods in army fatigues and with sticks fashioned in the shape of sidearms and semi–automatic weapons pretending we were Rambo, blissfully ignorant of the complicated and damaged character that John Rambo was.
Stallone reflected on these years of his life and these famous hallmarks of his career, looking back on this particular period with fondness and the subsequent Rambo movies with marked humility, wistfully wishing that the character had not developed into the sort of military superhero that people saw him as in the second two installments, but expressing pride in the most recent outing as the Vietnam Vet, set against the backdrop of the long–running civil war in Burma. In fact, the actor was refreshingly humble to the point of self–deprecation about many things, not least of all the slim chances early on in his career of his success as an actor and the way he felt his ego seemed to rapidly expand with the fame that came from the Rocky films in the late 70s.
He regaled us with lesser–known stories about casting Mr. T as Clubber Lang, the long–standing rivalry between him and fellow '80s action star Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the also unexpected parallels between his career and Robert De Niro's. Stallone's latest two films have him co-starring with Schwarzenegger (in Escape Plan) and De Niro (in Grudge Match), the latter of which, like his successful Expendables franchise, plays somewhat tongue–in–cheek on the perception cinema fans have of him as indelibly connected to fictional characters he has made famous.
The Italian Stallion was less fluid and a tad more prone to clichés in the Q & A with the audience in the second part of the program but there was the sense that it was just the icing on the cake, especially those lucky British fans for whom there was time to get to ask their questions. What was most surprising for me was the authority and the passion with which he spoke about writing, the creative process of putting a story together to tell on the screen and the trials and tribulations therein. Ask people what they think of Sylvester Stallone and not many of them will think, 'writer' off of the top of their heads, but here he was was talking confidence about drafting and redrafting, building character and structure and conveying a very keen ability to shape dialogue and the dynamic between characters.
Uncharacteristically, Jonathan Ross focused all the attention on his interviewee and seemed to demonstrate some skill as an interviewer as well, letting Stallone's stories speak for themselves and drawing out the best material from Stallone. At the same time, the Cop Land star did seem to know his audience. Jason Stratham (a Brit, of course) was his favorite Expendable, to which there was much cheering and applause. I couldn't help wondering if he would have picked Jet Li had this conversation been taking place in Beijing.
And although it did make me want to revisit the more recent body of work done by Stallone, it wasn't because of some effort at self–promotion, although, again, I'm sure that's part of it. It was because I got the sense of a very hardworking human being who had gained success through dedicated hard work on what was in the '70s essentially an indie film on a shoestring budget that told a very essentially American story.