The Body That Can't Win

Curator's Note

Sylvester Stallone’s body used to be relatively ordinary looking. Carl Weathers is the superior physical specimen in Rocky (1976) and Rocky II (1979). Likewise, in First Blood (1982), Stallone is shredded, sure, but otherwise there’s nothing especially extraordinary about his physique.

In the early 1980s, however, Stallone transformed his body. The exaggerated musculature people tend to associate with Stallone isn’t fully on display until Rambo: First Blood Part II and Rocky IV in 1985, when Stallone is a decade into his career. The body Stallone built for Rocky/Rambo seemed ill-suited for anything but Rocky/Rambo though. Stallone’s attempts to branch out were, more often than not, met with bemusement followed by indifference, partly, I would argue, because when people looked at Stallone’s body, they saw Rocky/Rambo.

Interestingly, by the 1990s, this body started to arouse concern. Here, for instance, is Michael Atkinson on Stallone’s body in The Specialist (1994): “The average audience’s primary concern will be for Sly’s aging physique; the veins bulge so alarmingly in his shoulders and neck we begin to imagine eventual Cronenbergian implosions. At the very least, a loved one should tell him to ease off the free weights.” In other words, although audiences and critics didn’t buy Stallone as anyone other than Rocky/Rambo, the body Stallone had built for Rocky/Rambo had become so passé it was worrisome.

In 2006 and 2008, respectively, Stallone rebooted the Rocky and Rambo franchises. These films entailed a rebooting of the Rocky/Rambo body as well. In 2007, Stallone was busted for possession of human growth hormone.

The Expendables hits theaters today, and Stallone’s bulging veins are back in the news, along with concern bordering on disgust about them. But there’s also interest in Stallone’s body. The above clip shows Stallone working out furiously prior to filming The Expendables. It’s a trailer, not for the movie but for the body that will be on display in the movie. The body bears a resemblance to the Rocky/Rambo body audiences once felt no compunction about cheering on, but it looks like a crumpled piece of paper version of that body someone’s trying desperately to smooth back out. It’s more vascular. It’s – unexpectedly – festooned with gnarly tattoos.

It’s a body that elicits feelings of concern and awe like no other, and has for three decades now. Once average, then over the top, then unfit for anything but two roles, now repellent and/or revered. Though his characters always do, Stallone’s body, it seems, just can’t win.



Hi Matt - really interesting post: I guess that star bodies change over a career like voices and fashions. You're right that this body defines Stallone's stardom from the 1980s and that its meaning changes over the decades.  The action genre changes significantly in this period too - more emphasis on superheroes and magical powers via digital effects means less need for hard bodies.  So Stallone is admired and also mocked in the popular reporting around the Rocky/Rambo revivals and this latest film, which is also excessive for the shear number of action stars featured!  

But I had another question.  Now that we live in a media culture which emphasises the makeover, the ability or requirement to transform the self (a culture I'd call postfeminist), surely Stallone represents an ideal citizen?  But then the culture that endorses self-care and improvement is also insistent that we shouldn't be seen to be trying too hard. In this context some of the disgust around celebrities more generally is linked not only to exercise regimes but to surgery - and that is a whole other debate.

Thanks, Yvonne, for your comment. I think whatever disgust some people feel toward Stallone's current body is a lot like the disgust some people feel toward bodybuilders, or people who get extreme amounts of plastic surgery. A lot of this probably has to do with Stallone's age. His body doesn't fit our preconceived notions of what a 64-year-old man's body is supposed to look like. Someone that veiny shouldn't be running around with his shirt off. Etc. When Stallone transformed his body in the early ’80s, however, it was OK, he was younger. Also, I think that what makes Stallone so interesting, and what I try to get at above, is that he can't transform himself. At one point he could, but he seems doomed to forever play Rocky/Rambo types. (If The Expendables becomes a franchise, that could be interesting though.) Perhaps Stallone's body illustrates the dark side of makeover culture: Be careful of what you make yourself into, because you might stay that way.

Thanks, Matt, for ending our theme week with another great post!

Stallone is also an interesting figure for our "makeover culture" because, along with being criticized for his physique, he has also been criticized for bad plastic surgery.  If you look at Stallone's face at the end of the clip, he looks a lot like his mother, Jackie, who has also been the subject of plastic surgery condemnation.

Following Yvonne, I think I'd call Stallone "posthuman" rather than "postfeminist."  He seems to embody the idea that the body is malleable, that it can be transformed and designed to fit any ideal that the "user" of the body might have.  The Atkinson quotation that Matt cites illustrates this posthumanism of Stallone through its reference to David Cronenberg, a master of posthuman cinema.  Stallone has tampered with his body too much, which, in a Cronenbergian universe, leads to disaster and the breakdown of the boundaries of the body.

But, as Matt insightfully argues, Stallone is also, paradoxically, trapped by his body.  It's almost as if he has transformed his body into a figure that can't be reversed.  There isn't a makeover that can return Stallone's body to Rocky-era leanness.  I get the sense that no matter what Stallone does at this point, he'll be criticized.  If he's too "un-built" for The Expendables, the headline would be "Aging Action Star No Longer Has What it Takes."  If he's too built, the headline is "Aging Action Star Refuses to Act his Age."

Nice post, Matt.  Thanks for it.  The Stallone film that, to my surprise, stays with me is Cop Land, for which he put on about thirty pounds and in which gives a very un-Rambo/Rocky (IV) performance as a sheriff-lummox.  I bring it up because Stallone makes an effort to, in your terms, escape his body and its demands and because it denotes that part of Stallone's career in which he's worked on films that have some artistic integrity, at least in a Hollywood sense.  Now that you've shown us how Stallone is trapped in his own vascularity, I'd appreicate hearing any thoughts you have on his former (and perhaps future) attempts at escape.      

 Ah, Cop Land. Here's my thinking: it's the exception that proves the rule. Susan Faludi does a nice job covering why in Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man. It was, you're right, Stallone's attempt to escape his body. He saw Bruce Willis branching out with smaller roles in movies like Pulp Fiction and wanted in on the, if you'll pardon the pun, action. Faludi – who did multiple interviews with Stallone – quotes him talking about how freeing the experience of gaining weight was. Sly had high hopes for the film. I don't blame him, he's good in it. But then the film came out. Critics for the most part gave Stallone's performance high marks, but the world shrugged. Audiences just didn't buy Stallone as an overweight cop. In retrospect, maybe it was too drastic a move.

By the end of Faludi's book, Stallone is back in the gym. This passage, I think, says it all: "Settling in his chair, he instructed the waiter to bring him water and a small piece of fish with no sauce. 'This is my only meal of the day,' he said cheerfully. 'I'm down to three-percent body fat. I'm on a mission,' Stallone confided. He was back to daily workouts in the weight room. 'A spiritual rebirth. Well, a rebirth anyway. This is a gift, a new beginning.' He had gotten an idea, suggested to him by the promised return of fifty-year-old former heavyweight champion George Foreman to the ring and seventy-seven-year-old astronaut John Glenn's return to orbit in the Discovery space shuttle. 'If Glenn can go into space again, so can I. People though I was an old guy in Cop Land. Well, I'm going to come back. And I'm going to blow people's minds.' He was thinking about making another Rocky" (592).

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.