Watching the Rocky series was a good decision, as it helped me see how inspired it was by the golden era of pugilist propaganda. The problem is, if you’ve watched one boxing drama you’ve watched them all. Each one follows a tried and true method of delivery and characterization with little deviation from the norm. The only fluctuation is the individual actor’s work outside the ring. Somebody Up There Likes Me is a more mediocre, by the numbers take on boxing with a performance by Paul Newman both laughably watchable and terribly tragic.
The true story of boxer Rocky Graziano (Newman), follows him as he commits crimes, does a stint in jail and the Army, and eventually becomes the middleweight champion of the world.
Somebody certainly wasn’t looking down on this production; it’s very start was mired in tragedy after original leading man, James Dean, was killed right before production. The story of Rocky Graziano was one close to Dean’s heart and would have reteamed him with Rebel Without a Cause co-star Sal Mineo, and pairing him for the first time with off-screen girlfriend, Pier Angeli. At 31-years-old Paul Newman was considered too old and unbankable (his début, The Silver Chalice, was a flop), but the success of this film put him on the map.
Going in blind on knowledge of Graziano, the film’s first lines of text endorse this as “the way I remember it.” If it’s the case, this is a sanitized version of Graziano’s life because tragedies or obstacles never last long, anyone who isn’t Graziano’s yes man is against him (or, in the case of Angeli’s, Norma is trying to better him), and Graziano lives happily ever after – the film implies he stayed middleweight champion forever but according to IMDB he was quickly defeated and never regained the title. The biggest issue is there’s no deviation from the norm for these movies. A male lead who society rejects and thus gives him a bad rep: Check. A long-suffering wife who provides inspiration and motivation but desperately wishes her husband would hang up the gloves: Check. Graziano’s story, as put down in this film, makes him no different from Rocky Balboa or Jake LaMotta. Those movies are younger, but show how long this same story’s been told and each boasts a better performance than Newman. When your movie has a scene wherein the lead says he’s gotta go “to be somethin'” you can’t help but roll your eyes and say, “A contender?”
I apologize to any Paul Newman fans, but he’s just no good in this film. Grossly miscast he plays Graziano like the bastard love child of Marlon Brando and that little dog paired up with the big dog in the old Looney Tunes shorts. Rocky lives in a New York populated with Italians who’d make Mario and Luigi look out-of-place, and his hoodlum friends – one played by Steve McQueen in his cinematic début – all look and sound like Lee Strasberg rejects. Look at the way Newman scrunches up his face, pushing his lips out like Mick Jagger, revealing to his cronies his wife just had a baby “guiol.” Newman captures the romantic, personal side of Graziano’s life. His moments with Pier Angeli are sensitive and delicate; there’s a rather cute moment with him continually frightening his daughter with his increasingly more beaten face. Finally, his daughter responds “Mommy, it’s only Daddy” when Norma is shocked by his appearance. Newman, unfortunately, is never more than a pretty boy playing dress-up and although he eventually proved he was a great actor, this isn’t his finest two-hours.
The rest of the cast is good; this is a film where the supporting cast outboxes the leads. Pier Angeli as the distressed Norma looks like the frightened lamb of Florence. She’s gorgeous and her waif-like countenance suppresses a woman of spirit, especially when Rocky starts whining about losing. She’s as much a yes man as Rocky’s manager (Everett Sloan), but she’s constructive in her praise, probably the reason why everyone thinks she’s a nuisance. Rocky is a coddled child, and Norma does so to a point. Sloan is the father figure Rocky never had as manager Irving Cohen. He’s warm and sensitive to Rocky’s needs, but still requires him to win. And don’t forget Eileen Heckart, Mrs. Daigle of Bad Seed fame, as Rocky’s distressed mother. The women of this film all care about Rocky, even when he believes they don’t; Mrs. Graziano more than any. Her plaintive acceptance of Rocky is endearing as she “promises” she’ll give up on him, “maybe tomorrow.”
Take away the mixed acting. What about the boxing? The actual boxing scenes in the ring are shot well, but too often there’s a falsity to the action. A big street fight between Rocky, his gang, and some other guys starts and stops with no introduction, and plays like the director yelled “Action.” The punches always look soft or pulled, and there’s too much choreography between everyone’s movements.
It’s doubtful that James Dean would have done better. At the very least, his method style acting would have been expected, if just as misplaced within the movie as Newman’s. Pier Angeli and Everett Sloan, along with Eileen Heckart as Rocky’s mom are worth the watch. Watch the first Rocky instead.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.