The case for ‘Creed’: Could Sylvester Stallone step into the Supporting Actor ring?

Sandra Bullock in 'The Blind Side' comes to mind
Michael B. Jordan and Sylvester Stallone in "Creed"

The usual late season surprise didn’t come from AFI Fest this month.  No films debuted with any of the buzz that met “American Sniper,” “Selma” and, at the time, “A Most Violent Year.”  Instead, a franchise reboot that was mostly expected to be just a commercial play, “Creed,” looks like it may raise some eyebrows in Oscar land.

Ryan Coogler’s “Rocky” universe spinoff has earned strong reviews (81 on Metacritic, 92% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes) and, more importantly, rave reviews from the Hollywood industry papers of record, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.  It appears as though it will have a very good Thanksgiving frame at the box office (possibly $30-35 million) and play through Christmas with significant word of mouth.  It’s an obvious crowdpleaser and not just for the audience at your local multiplex.

Warner Bros and New Line, who partially co-financed and are distributing the MGM produced flick, have been somewhat cagey in their awards season campaign for “Creed.” Even though I’ve spoken to journalists who saw it over two months ago and loved it (and could not understand why there was such a late embargo) the studio held out on showing it to awards pundits and other media for as long as possible.  There are likely a number of reasons for this.  First, the movie needed to be a hit above all else.  WB has struggled this year even with hits such as “San Andreas,” “Get Hard,” “Mad Max” and “The Intern.” A late season success would make Wall Street forget the pain of “Pan,” “Jupiter Ascending” and “Our Brand Is Crisis” to the bottom line.  MGM also reports to an investor base and with so few releases every hit counts exponentially (“Spectre” and Bond can’t be their be all end all).  Positioning “Creed” as prestige fare could be dicey for a flick like this and may have confused ticket buyers (although you could argue if you do it the right way it won’t).  Second, this isn’t the first time the current incarnation of MGM came to the awards game slightly late to the party.  “Skyfall” potentially missed out on a Best Picture nomination over MGM’s initial reluctance to spend on an awards campaign against what turned out to be a billion dollar blockbuster.  Third, for all the love “Creed” is a borderline Oscar play for Best Picture.  Even with the possibility of 10 nominees it may just be too much of a nod to the original for some members to list on their ballot.  But then there’s Sly.

The veteran, i.e. legendary Stallone has rarely played the prestige game since earning Academy Award nominations for Best Actor and Original Screenplay in 1977.  He had a shot with a now underrated performance in James Mangold’s “Copland” almost 20 years ago, but he’s also wracked up a long list of Razzie wins and nods in the decades since that has diminished his legacy.  And, let’s be honest, a lot of those Razzie nods were clearly deserved.  But, when Stallone puts his mind to it he can deliver a nuanced and layered performance that can surprise his detractors.  He did so in the original “Rocky” (and arguably “Rocky II”), the aforementioned “Copland” and some might even say “First Blood” (although I’m not sure I’m one of them).  He’s never been consistent, but there have always been moments – even in his most movie star of movie star roles – where Stallone shows a glimmer of something more.  With “Creed” Fogler serves him a late career showcase on a silver platter.

This is a Rocky Balboa who is seemingly alone in his late ‘60s. His best friend Paulie and his beloved wife Adrian have both passed.  His grown son is living Vancouver, Canada, almost as far as possible from Philadelphia as Balboa wistfully admits to Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) that it’s hard to grow up in Rocky’s shadow.  Stallone is at his most poignant, however, when Balboa is given a diagnosis that could effectively change his life.  The pain in his reaction is nuanced, deep and wonderfully real.  In fact, much of Balboa’s arc is more grounded than the title character’s own journey.   Is this the best work of Stallone’s career?  It certainly is up there and that might just be enough in this unsettled field.

Things get interesting when you realize this year’s Best Supporting Actor race is still pretty much wide open.  Mark Rylance (“Bridge of Spies”) and Michael Keaton (“Spotlight”) seem like the only two locks for a nomination and if either didn’t make the cut it would be a snub, but not a historical one.  Tom Hardy (“The Revenant”), Idris Elba (“Beasts of No Nation”), Tom Hardy (“The Revenant”), Paul Dano (“Love & Mercy”), Benicio Del Toro (“Sicaro”) and Jacob Tremblay (“Room”) all have a shot at making the top five…or not.

Stallone, a man who has never wanted to wax on age or goodbyes (he and Madonna should sponsor anti-ageism legislation), has started to campaign outside the movie’s consumer push.  He’s shot an actor’s roundtable cover with some potential other nominees and has done the mandatory SAG nom com screenings.  If he can pull of a SAG nomination he may not need to do much more (it would be shocking if he didn’t earn a Golden Globe).  And if that happens we might just be talking about a Sandra Bullock-esque ride to Oscar night.

As for the rest of “Creed,” Michael B. Jordan has a slim shot at a Best Actor nomination.  He’s very good, but he’s missing a truly, um, knockout scene for The Academy to take his work here more seriously.  Original Song, Sound and Editing could also be in the mix.

What did you think of “Creed”?  Does Sly have a shot at Oscar? Share your thoughts below.

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With over a decade of experience in the movie industry, Ellwood survived working for two major studios, has written for Variety, MSN and the LA Times and co-founded HitFix, Inc. serving as its first Editor-in-Chief and President. Ellwood spends his time relaxing hitting 3’s on the basketball court and following his beloved Clippers.

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