Sylvester Stallone remembers the exact moment when he realized that he was a self-aggrandizing asshole. He was purring along in his Clénet, which is a car priced above $80,000, and he had owned it for two weeks and thought it was a beautiful machine right up until he glanced out and saw the image of that extraordinary vehicle reflected in a store window, and he said to himself: “What self-aggrandizing asshole would drive a car like that?”
The answer arrived with startling rapidity. The next day the car went. He took a terrible beating, but he didn’t care. The hell with it, he said, and boom, adieu Clénet. More sales followed. The Porsche. The Mercedes. Auf Wiedersehen. Soon there was only a Toyota wagon standing between him and immobility.
But Sylvester Stallone had learned something.
Fancy cars were not the solution to the Mystery.
Sylvester was being hard on himself. “The farther down I was,” he was saying, “the more I tried to claw to get back. It brought out the most base qualities in my nature. Maybe in human nature in general. That of greed, envy, vindication, spite.”
In suite 305 of the Sherry Netherland Hotel in New York City, Sylvester was sitting before me and confessing all: his mistakes, his hostility, his egomania, his general obnoxiousness, his betrayal of friends and family, his wasting of energy and money, his excessive wine-song-and-womanizing. In short, every awful cliché of the classic saga known as Blowing Success. It was a tale of dissipation, degradation, pain, self-hatred and terror.
I sat happily encouraging him to blab still more of his fall from grace, as he called it.
How we love to wallow in the misfortune of others.
And what a story it was, spooling onto my disbelieving Sony. A brief outline: (1) Our hero goes from rags to riches. (2) He reaches the pinnacle of success, only to succumb to temptation and plunge into an abyss of bitterness and despair. (3) Then he rallies and fights his way back to the top! (4) Then —– get this —– he makes the same mistakes all over again that he made back at step two and plunges back into that same damn abyss! (5) Then, unbelievable as it may seem, he struggles back to that pinnacle of success for the third time! And finally achieves, at age thirty-six, (6) Peace of mind. (7) Whew!
What a movie all this would make, I marveled.
Oops, forgot. It already has. Three movies to be exact. All with the same name.
After Rocky knocked out the world in 1976, Sylvester starred in F.I.S.T., the story of a working-class hero not named Jimmy Hoffa. It was not a success. “I take a lot of the blame for that,” Sylvester said. Then came Paradise Alley, as close to a one-man show as a movie can get. Sylvester wrote it, starred in it, directed it. He sang in it. This film made a very strong impression. Almost everyone agreed. It stank.
“I received the worst reviews since Hitler,” he reminisced. “They would actually ignite, they were so hot. They would say, ‘The egomaniac has made a film that warrants nothing but banishment from the archives of any cinema student.’ Or, ‘He’s taken every bad habit since film began, since Birth of a Nation, and made it worse…. His voice is reminiscent of the guttural echoings of a mafioso pallbearer, and we could only recommend that he cut his vocal cords and stand as far away as he can in a crowd scene.’ And these were the ones who were writing nice reviews for Rocky. I mean, it was unbelievable.”
The reviews had thrown Stallone into a black rage. On talk shows he issued threats to the critics: Why don’t you say it to my face? Let’s settle this man to man. Any time. Any place. I’ll pay your fare.
Now he’s embarrassed to think about it. In fact, he’s embarrassed to think about Paradise Alley. “Now that I look back on it, they were right. Because the character was really despicable. No redeeming qualities at all. There’re a couple of moments at the end, but that isn’t enough. The character I portrayed should’ve been the lively, effervescent comedic part of the ensemble piece. But instead of being the supplier of the energy, I was the foul spark plug, just sputtering. When I watch Paradise Alley at home, I have to look at it with one eye. It’s too much to take with two eyes. Ow! It hurts!”