Thursday, December 26, 2013

Stallone and De Niro Celebrate Boxing Day

No, your eyes aren’t deceiving you. The two codgers on the billboards, the ones wearing striped trunks and boxing gloves, really are Robert De Niro and Sylvester Stallone. Their new film, Grudge Match, opened yesterday. But December 26, the day after Christmas, is celebrated in British Commonwealth nations as a time when workers enjoy a well-deserved holiday break. The Brits call it “Boxing Day,” perhaps because this was traditionally when appreciative aristocrats gave gifts to their loyal servants. At any rate, Boxing Day seems a fitting moment to discuss a comedy about two pugilistic rivals who get back in the ring to settle a thirty-year-old score.

I’m not much inclined to see Grudge Match. But I’ve certainly followed the careers of both Stallone and De Niro. I caught Stallone in his first big role as a Brooklyn gang member in a small 1974 indie, The Lords of Flatbush, and cheered his breakout performance in Rocky, for which he also wrote the script. Though I can’t pretend to be acquainted with Stallone’s full array of action flicks, there’s no question in my mind that he’s an indelible figure in Hollywood, one who’s created for himself a unique persona. When I think of De Niro, I remember his dangerous unpredictability in such dark films as The Godfather Part II, The Deer Hunter, and This Boy’s Life. Martin Scorsese entrusted him with powerful roles in some of his most gripping work: Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Cape Fear. The list goes on and on, though he’s recently developed his funny side in goofy comedies like Analyze This and Meet the Parents.

One fact ties these two actors together, and it’s not that they’ve both played boxers. Both Stallone and De Niro got major career boosts through Roger Corman movies. Stallone, then New York-based, was cast by Steve Carver as the very deadly Frank Nitti in Capone, a co-production of New World Pictures and Twentieth-Century Fox, starring Ben Gazzara in the title role. On Steve’s recommendation to Paul Bartel, Stallone nabbed the part of  a lethal racecar driver, Machine Gun Joe Viterbo, in a Corman-produced dark comedy that has gone on to become a cult classic. Of course I’m talking about Death Race 2000. I vividly remember the day in 1974 that several of us involved with the production were eating lunch in a dim coffee shop. Suddenly a large figure dressed all in black loomed over our table. It was Stallone, come to greet his future director.

As for De Niro, he was directed by Roger Corman himself in 1970’s Bloody Mama, a lurid little film about a Depression-era crime spree. Oscar-winner Shelley Winters, who played a fictionalized Ma Barker, recommended to Roger some New York Actors Studio types for the roles of her highly perverse sons and lovers. The cast included Don Stroud (for whom both Roger and Shelley had the highest hopes) as well as a young Bruce Dern. De Niro became Lloyd Barker, a hopeless drug addict. This was three years before he gained national attention as a dying baseball catcher in Bang the Drum Slowly and then as Mean Streets’ volatile Johnny Boy. 

When he made Mean Streets, Martin Scorsese had just finished directing Box Car Bertha for Roger Corman.  Hoping to film his own highly personal New York story, he turned to Roger for financing. Roger’s demand that he transform Mean Streets into a blaxploitation flick made Scorsese look elsewhere for help. Which is why this quintessentially New York film was shot on the mean streets of Los Angeles. But that’s a story for 2014.   

Dedicated to Elena Allen, who provided inspiration.    


  1. I always love the Corman Connection! I probably will see this movie - streaming or on disc down the road.

  2. Do report back, Mr. C. And Happy New Year to you!

  3. At any rate, Boxing Day seems a fitting moment to discuss a comedy about two pugilistic rivals who get back in the ring to settle a thirty-year-old score. KETTLEBELLS.