Let’s Talk About This Moment In ‘Rocky’ When Paulie Wants Nothing For Christmas
Rocky is a 1976 sports drama about a small-time Philadelphia boxer who gets a supremely rare chance to try and go the distance against the heavyweight champion of the world.
In the annals of the all-time greatest Christmas movies ever, the Sylvester Stallone boxing movie Rocky ranks right up there with, um, well, I don’t know … The World is Not Enough? Christmas Snow is that one, right? I guess that sort of counts. My point is, Rocky ain’t a Christmas movie, at least not one most anyone has on their annual holiday watching list. However, Christmas does make an appearance, a brief one, but it’s crucial, and by jingle, I’m going to talk about it.
THE STORY: You know it by heart, but let’s recap. A small-time southpaw fighter named Rocky Balboa (Stallone) throws punches in the ring for a few measly bucks at night while working as an enforcer on the docks for a local loan shark. He lives in a beat-up apartment with a couple of turtles and is considered a bum but most everyone at the gym where he works out, including the club manager Mickey (Burgess Meredith). He’s got a crush on the mousy girl at the pet store across the street, named Adrian (Talia Shire), but can’t seem to get her attention, mostly ‘cuz she’s far too shy.
One day though, all that changes when he gets the chance to fight the world heavyweight boxing champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) in a title bout arranged after the real contender gets injured. Now he’s got to train and prepare himself for the biggest fight of his life, one that takes place more outside the ring than in as he faces off against his lifelong demons and a world turned against him.
PAULIE: Adrian eventually succumbs to Rocky’s innocent charms, a tender romance blossoming as Rocky is taken under Mickey’s wing when the oldtimer has a change of heart. We then meet Paulie (Burt Young), Adrian’s older brother, a butcher and wannabe legbreaker at the docks, needing more money. He’s a boozer, an unhappy man with skeletons in his closet and a massive chip on his shoulder, seeing his sister as more burden than a real person. Adrian lives with him in the neighborhood, sharing the old family home. Rocky befriends him because … well, Rocky is just about the nicest guy you’ll ever want to meet.
THE MOMENT: So Adrian and Rocky are getting along keenly. They really like each other and Rocky is smitten, something Mickey’s a little wary about, you know, since “women weaken legs.” That’s just science. Anyway, Rocky’s been privately training for the fight at the meatpackers where Paulie works, punching on cow carcasses to toughen up his hands. Without Rocky’s consent though, Paulie calls in a TV reporter to get him some exposure, and while Rocky concedes to have his mug and technique shown on television, he’s a little unhappy with Paulie, using him for a publicity stunt.
Later on, Christmas Eve night, Paulie gets drunk, as he often does. He’s a jealous man, angered over just about everything going sour on him, and so when he gets home through the back door, he notices Rocky and Adrian are already there, cuddled up in front of a Christmas movie. They are chatting, not aware Paulie’s in the house. Rocky’s still fussing over the TV reporter thing but he’s more frustrated about how Paulie keeps asking for work but says he ‘don’t know nothing about fightin’ and he in truth, he just doesn’t know what he wants from him.
Well in walks Paulie, a Christmas wreath slipped over his arm, and he’s fuming. He comes right out and says he doesn’t want nothing from Rocky, that this ain’t no charity case. Then he demands Rocky to get out of his house. And Adrian, too. Adrian says it isn’t just his house and this only fuels the fire. Telling Rocky he isn’t a friend no more, he picks up a baseball bat from the corner and threatens to break Rocky’s arms. He then smashes the table lamp and then end table next to Rocky, shouting his real feelings, that Rocky’s ignored him, not even giving him a chance now that he’s gonna be a big shot fighter, saying he won’t even throw a crumb to his friend Paulie. This is raw stuff.
He then turns his rage on his sister, blaming her for why he never married, saying she can’t take care of herself, that she owes him, all the while slamming his bat on a pewter pitcher and mugs, destroying them. She screams back that she is the one that takes care of him, asking what does he want from her? “You’re supposed to be good to me,” he begins to cry, and she throws herself at him in fury, listing off all the things she does do that are good. She says he made her feel like a loser. Hurtful words are exchanged and she soon runs off into her room, leaving Rocky to spring up from the sofa and take hold of Paulie.
AFTERMATH: I love this moment. Some often wonder why a Rocky movie ever won the Academy Award for Best Picture but it’s moments like this that make it all so clear. Directed by John G. Avildsen, everything about this scene is reason why Rocky is as timeless as it is, a film entirely about the characters rather than the action, and with dialogue and acting as good as this, it’s no wonder this is considered a classic. What I really like is how authentic it feels, from Paulie’s lived in house, to the setup and payoff. Pay attention to Stallone here, as he sits for almost the entire scene, letting no movement be his movement. He lets Rocky wait in silence as Paulie and Adrian fight, recognizing how important this exchange is for her.
Notice how Paulie is never really a threat, even as he tries to be, pounding away on his furniture, his rage directed at demons long festering within. How great is that wreath on his arm? The juxtaposition of joy draped on the arm of a man far from it, a sensational visual that helps greatly in coloring in what Paulie has become. Young is a great actor and while Paulie became – like many of the characters in the series – a cartoon of sorts, here, he is a richly drawn, troubled figure, a bitter, depressed man who holds his achingly timid sister as fault for his own failures.
This moment is absolutely crucial to the arc of Rocky, the following scene bringing Adrian to Rocky’s home where they decide to take their next steps. In essence, Paulie as acted as the catalyst for further growth of his sister, and naturally, like any big storm, it has washed clean the stage per se and let everything be cleared. The film shifts after this, where Rocky commits to all things in his life and the real Rocky takes on the world. One heck of a Christmas.