The “star system” of Old Hollywood still exists in some form to this day, but in a cinematic landscape where intellectual property is king, it’s not what it once was. A movie star is still encouraged to establish and maintain their own image and persona, if only to get gigs rather than open pictures. After years struggling in the business, Sylvester Stallone finally got his breakout moment with 1976’s Rocky. While the actor had been in a variety of films and roles prior—everything from appearing as an extra in high profile comedies to playing heavies for the likes of producer Roger Corman to, infamously, porn—it was Rocky Balboa that defined his public persona for years after Rocky’s release. A screenwriter and soon to be director and producer, Stallone was savvy and ambitious enough to know that Rocky couldn’t sustain him for long, and he needed to not only show his range but reform his screen image into something else to keep going.
As such, two particular films the star made at the beginning of the ‘80s and ‘90s—1981’s Nighthawks and 1991’s Oscar—act as watershed moments for Stallone mutating his persona into something new. Both movies were not particularly critically or commercially successful, and the reasons why have as much to do with the growing pains of Stallone changing course as the pictures’ other issues. While neither is a masterpiece, both are compelling and, in a way, essential in observing how stars can prosperously change their image.
Nighthawks is a crime thriller that was originally conceived in the tradition of the nuanced, morally ambiguous law enforcement films of the ‘70s; in fact, it even began life as a second sequel to 1971’s The French Connection. But when that fell through, screenwriter David Shaber reworked it into its own film dealing with the subject of urban terrorism. Stallone was hired to play Deke DaSilva, a street detective who is conscripted into an ATAC (Anti-Terrorist Action Command) force when international terrorist Wulfgar (Rutger Hauer) decides to hide out and “audition” his deadly skills in New York City. Originally, DaSilva was meant to be a many-shaded character: in terms of his pursuit of Wulfgar, the former Vietnam soldier would find his law enforcement morals compromised, forced to murder his prey in cold blood if given the chance. In contrast to his macho image on the job, DaSilva’s relationship with his ex-wife, Irene (Lindsay Wagner), would’ve shown a softer and more pitiable side of the character. Their arc originally culminated in a scene where Irene refuses to re-marry Deke, causing the man to break down and cry in public, a further loss of self-image to a person already in crisis.
None of that nuance of character ends up in the final released version of Nighthawks, which makes DaSilva into a prototype for the he-man superhero characters Stallone would go on to play during the rest of the ‘80s. The film had a number of issues during and after production, re-edited and altered by both Stallone himself as well as the studio, so it’s difficult to say who was responsible for what changes. Nevertheless, the movie portrays DaSilva as a man stalwart in his actions and beliefs, initially at odds with the ATAC methodology but eventually accepting it. Not that the capital-H Hero needed his horizons broadened—the film’s finale sees DaSilva using the exact same technique to get the drop on Wulfgar as he does a street perp in the opening sequence, emphasizing his prowess (as well as diminishing his murder of the terrorist, the numerous gory gunshots originally filmed excised from the final cut). His relationship with Irene is left weirdly ambiguous—it’s never exactly clear if she’s his ex-girlfriend or wife, but the two leave things with the promise of a potential reconciliation. As Nighthawks morphed into a more conventional thriller, Stallone’s character had the edges shaven off, turning him into a macho ideal, an early example of the more insanely strong and less conflicted protagonists he would go on to play.
After several years playing such characters in films like Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) and Cobra (1986), Stallone realized that path couldn’t go much further without stretching credulity—starring as an arm-wrestling truck driver in a film titled Over the Top (1987) couldn’t be more on the nose, after all. So, when Al Pacino dropped out of the lead role in director John Landis’ remake of a 1967 French farce, Oscar (1991), Stallone stepped in. The movie would not be the star’s first foray into comedy—the Dolly Parton co-starring pseudo-musical Rhinestone (1984) was Stallone’s initial attempt to trade his natural underdog goofiness for yuks. Rhinestone was thoroughly rejected, in part due to Stallone struggling at singing as well as trying too hard to sell broad gags. By contrast, Oscar is more tailor-made for the star: the character of Angelo “Snaps” Provolone is a ‘30s gangster attempting to go straight thanks to a promise he makes to his dying father.
He’s a put-upon tough guy, harassed and harangued by the wacky characters in his life in classic farcical fashion. That structure takes the burden off Stallone to sell any broad comic gags (save a few exceptions) and makes the comedy of his character more reactive, the steady piling of confusion and mistaken identities and such allowing the actor to be amusing without turning him into a cartoon. The film gets a good deal of comedic tension from essentially neutering John Rambo and Marion Cobretti, Stallone’s ripped physique still apparent beneath his tailored costumes but kept in check like his character. It’s for this reason that audiences and critics didn’t exactly warm to the actor’s performance upon release—according to Landis, at one test screening an audience member complained that Stallone never takes his shirt off and kills someone.
It’s ironic that Oscar’s plot revolves around a guy attempting to change his image, and that both Snaps and Stallone weren’t entirely successful at doing so. Yet, just as Nighthawks had done, Oscar became a major stepping stone in the star’s transmutation of his persona. It allowed audiences to accept a goofier, more self-aware Stallone, leading to a similar fish-out-of-water performance in Demolition Man (1993) as well as appearances in family-friendly fare like Antz (1998) and Spy Kids 3-D (2003). Stallone has always had an issue with the definition of his image precisely because he’s changed and varied it enough times that it’s easy to be misled–one only needs to witness the reaction to this month’s news that the actor had joined Donald Trump’s Mar-A-Lago club for proof (a story that the actor then vehemently denied, further confusing the issue). Stallone’s personal politics seem to be as mercurial as his screen image continues to be malleable: what looked like a washed-up relic of a star from the ‘80s in the Expendables films became a thoughtful veteran actor in both Creed movies and, this year, a hip celebrity voicing a shark-man in the upcoming The Suicide Squad. Perhaps that’s why fans of Stallone who don’t share his politics never count him out completely—if nothing else, his career is proof that the man is able to change.