After seeing Creed earlier this year, I wanted to go and watch the original Rocky again. I don’t think I’ve watched it since the 1980s, but over time the memory of the film has stuck with me. Or at least, parts of the film had stuck with me. I watched it again yesterday evening, and I came away from the experience somewhat shaken. The film is brutal. Not because of the last fight scene, which is just as raw and exhausting as I remember, but because of the abusive relationships that drive the characters: Paulie’s horrific treatment of his younger sister Adrian; Mickey’s contempt for Rocky right up to the point where he sees Rocky’s big chance as an opportunity to validate himself; and Rocky, gentle and simple soul that he is, trying to see the best in people, overlooking and forgiving their transgressions because they are family to him.
These things are upsetting and hard to watch now that I’m not a teenager, and I understand more about how the world works. But the worst part was the scene where Rocky invites the shy and uncomfortable Adrian up to his dingy apartment after their first date, and coerces her into intimacy against her will.
I had remembered Rocky as a love story above all. Awkward Rocky, shy Adrian, starting a relationship, and growing to care more about each other than about the big fight. A naive, male-biased reading of that apartment scene would consider it a fumbling, well-meaning lead-in to their first kiss. The other view is that it’s a textbook case of date rape. Rocky takes Adrian out on a date she didn’t want to go on, but was forced into by her angry brother. Rocky buys her an expensive treat (special treatment at the ice rink). Adrian knows that Rocky is a boxer and an enforcer for a loan shark: a physically imposing man obviously capable of violence, just like her abusive brother. She demurs at every opportunity, but Rocky consistently ignores her signals and overrides her requests to leave. She is terrified. Finally, he literally corners her in his apartment, and asks her to take off her glasses and hat, and kiss him. Despite a veneer of gentleness an respectability, he manages to get exactly what he wants.
I was stunned by the scene. With the naive interpretation, the relationship between Rocky and Adrian is a patch of light in a sea of darkness. Without it, the relationship is just as broken and terrible as all the others in the film.
Now, for the sake of nostalgia and argument I’m willing to go along with the idea that this is not how the scene was intended. But if so, it allows the film to be used as a stark example of how well-intended behaviour can be dreadfully wrong and harmful. It can also be used as a history lesson about how, in a male-dominated culture, that naive interpretation used to be pervasive (in his review, Roger Ebert says of the apartment scene, “When she hesitates before kissing Rocky for the first time, it’s a moment so poignant it’s like no other.”); and how acceptance of such a naive interpretation can lead to this kind of unacceptable behaviour being normalized in popular media and real life.
The upshot is that watching Rocky has left me with far more things to ponder than I had expected. I still think it’s a genuinely great film, but it’s not for casual watching. It’s not just an underdog sports movie. It has become a problematic thing, ripe for discussion and dissection.