Posted on Fri, Aug. 01, 2003
Stallone Courts Controversy in Comeback Attempt
By Eric Harrison
Settling in for an interview in an Austin hotel suite recently, Sylvester Stallone bypasses a nearby couch and instead chooses a straight-backed desk chair across the room.
“I’ll get too comfortable if I sit in one of those,” he says.
It seems too easy, this ready-made metaphor, but comfort is a commodity Stallone no longer can afford. A box-office heavyweight in the 1970s and ’80s thanks to his Rocky and Rambo movies, the 57-year-old actor-writer-director has spent the past decade on the ropes. Studios balk at hiring him. Distributors won’t touch his movies.
In this summer of comebacks, Stallone joins Demi Moore and fellow strongman Arnold Schwarzenegger in making bids for continued viability. His is modest: He plays the villain in Spy Kids 3D: Game Over. His real hopes reside in his next project, an ambitious film he calls Thugz Lives, about the murders of rappers Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. that Stallone wrote and hopes to direct and star in. It’s a risky proposition, unlike anything he’s ever done, with the potential to resuscitate his career or blow up in his face.
It isn’t his first comeback attempt. He tried in 1997, in Cop Land, an intelligent drama about police corruption that co-starred Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel and Ray Liotta. Stallone spent six weeks gorging on pancakes to gain 40 pounds. His character found a core of courage and became heroic at the end, but for most of the movie he played a mope, looked down on by nearly everyone.
Stallone hoped the role would show that the early promise he displayed as an actor was real, that he could do more than cartoon action heroes. But despite the stellar cast and good reviews, the movie did middling business. Stallone took that as evidence his audience didn’t want to see him flex his acting muscles; they wanted the old familiar Sly, talking tough and cracking heads.
“Nobody wants to see John Wayne perform The Nutcracker, you know,” Stallone says. “He may be the best ballet dancer in the world, but nobody wants to see him like that.”
After Cop Land, things went from bad to worse with a string of flops.
“It can eat you up,” he says of failure. “It just does a number on your self-esteem. The acting part is easy. The hard part of this business is maintaining your equilibrium and confidence. That’s why so many actors get hooked on alcohol and drugs.”
And maintaining that confidence has indeed been hard lately. Shade, the last movie in which he starred, languishes without a distributor. D-Tox (also known as Eye See You) opened on a handful of screens last year, earning $79,000, before going to video. Avenging Angelo, the film before that, never got an American theatrical release.
Driven, Stallone‘s last film to open wide, earned back less than half of its production costs before it vanished from domestic screens in 2001. And the total U.S. gross of Get Carter ($15 million) was less than some major movies make on opening night.
Stallone isn’t the only one who wants to change that run of failure. Robert Rodriguez, the Austin filmmaker who created the Spy Kids franchise, met Stallone in 1997 at the Venice Film Festival. Following the premiere party for Cop Land, they hung out together, and Rodriguez was surprised to see a side of Stallone that rarely came through on film.
“I’d always been a fan of his, but I’d never known how funny he really is,” says Rodriguez, adding sheepishly, “I wondered why his comedies weren’t any good.” Then he realized Stallone was always a hired hand in the comedies, working for other directors from scripts he didn’t write.
“He was always funny in the Rocky movies,” Rodriguez says.
So when it came time to cast the role of the Toymaker, the villain in Spy Kids 3D, he thought of Stallone. For his part, Stallone says he had no choice but to accept. His kids (he has three with his third wife, former model Jennifer Flavin) are big Spy Kids fans.
“I had to do it,” he says. “Otherwise, I’d be disowned by a 6-year-old.
“He had a ball, he says. He loved not being the center of attention, not being the star who has to carry the picture.
Now, as he begins to plan a sixth Rocky film, Stallone is pushing ahead with Thugz Lives. The movie, like a previous documentary and book on the cases, will link the murders of Shakur and Biggie to corruption in the Los Angeles Police Department and to geographical rivalries within the hip-hop record business. Stallone, who hopes to start filming in September, hints there also will be a suggestion of FBI involvement.
“This is like the JFK assassination to the black community,” Stallone says. “And like the JFK assassination, they’ll be battling this out for the next 100 years, trying to figure out what happened.”Which is exactly what Stallone wants: to be back in the middle of a big fight.
– Craig Zablo