Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!
Alan’s shining piece on why Shelley Duvall is the true star of The Shining, Stanley Kubrick’s masterful Stephen King adaptation, reminded me of another late ’70s star almost forgotten for the emotional impact she had on audiences while staying in the background of strong male leads – and doing it twice in the most successful and critically acclaimed films of the decade: Talia Shire in The Godfather and Rocky series of films.
Shire, born Talia Rose Coppola in 1946, was used to being in the potential shadow of important men all her life: daughter of composer Carmine Coppola, sister to director Francis Ford Coppola, wife to composer David Shire and mother of actor/director Jason Schwartzman (Garden State), she could have easily bathed in the glory of her enormously successful film family, which of course also includes one successful female film star, actress/writer Sofia Coppola.
Yet by the time her brother set out to adapt Mario Puzo’s mafia bestseller The Godfather in 1972, she auditioned for the role of daughter Connie Corleone under her married name Shire – and got the part. Starting off as the princess bride from the first wedding scene to becoming the murdering master schemer in The Godfather Part II (gaining her her first of two Oscar nominations) and Part III, she received much acclaim for exposing the suffering, the reslilience and the consequences of being a mafia wife and daughter. Where she could have been standing in the shadow of Marlon Brando, Al Pacino and Robert de Niro’s towering performances (among many others, not least of all Diane Keaton), her scenes were powerhouse vignettes of great supporting acting.
Her second big break came just one year after the first Godfather sequel, when Silvester Stallone cast her alongside himself in his underdog writer/director debut Rocky in 1976. The smash hit, which turned the cliché of the beaten-down boxer on its head and made him the inspiration of a generation, was all about Stallone’s Rocky Balboa, it seemed. When I watched it for the first time only recently, however, quite a different story was revealed: as much as it appears to be the story of Rocky punching his way up to facing champion Apollo Creed, it’s just as well the love story that gives the film its emotional centre.
Talia Shire is Adrian, a nerdy assistant at a pet shop where Rocky buys supplies for his turtles. When he finally convinces the bespectacled young woman to go on a date with him, things are at first awkward and the movie draws some of its best moments from their clumsy dynamic (Rocky quibs “They’re all the same” when Adrian says she’s never been in a man’s apartment). As their relationship grows, she slowly takes off her glasses and turns from supposed ugly duckling to vital partner, supporting Rocky’s big project and giving him emotional strength while completing him.
The famous finale, which sees Rocky narrowly beat Apollo Creed in the ring, is just as spectacular for its boxing match as it is for the final moment, when a desperate Rocky calls out for Adrian to join him in a blood-stained near-victory. When she finally manages to fight her way through the crowds and they embrace, finally confessing their love for each other, Bill Conti’s riveting soundtrack ends on a crescendo as the image slows down and freezes on the two of them: Rocky without Adrian is no longer complete. The scene was so perfectly impactful that it opened the first (of seven direct and indirect, to date) Rocky sequel with a verbatim repeat of the exact same scene.
Shire – just like Shelley Duvall – has had the questionable honour of being awarded with several Razzies (two of them for her turns in the Rocky franchise) for worst performance, but looking at her wonderfully supporting acts in two of the arguably favourite and most successful film series of the 1970s and beyond, one can safely say that she has had much recompensation. Asked in a 2004 interview how she saw her role in Rocky, she stated: “What resonated for me was the idea of being in someone’s corner but truly as an equal partner. The identity of the woman is not lost. That meant a lot to me, because for me and for many other women that was what we were trying to achieve. Women’s liberation certainly was my generation.”
Her identity as a resourceful, increasingly powerful Corleone family matron and an equal partner at Rocky’s side, has certainly not been lost on audiences!