Sylvester Stallone Played Against Type in His First Major Role
Feb 9, 2024
The Big Picture
The Lords of Flatbush
, now streaming on Netflix, showcased Sylvester Stallone’s untapped dramatic chops early in his career.
Stallone improvised scenes and credited himself as a writer to break into the industry.
The film explores themes of coming-of-age and masculinity and serves as a precursor to Stallone’s iconic role in
It’s easy to forget the humble beginnings of Sylvester Stallone’s steady rise to becoming one of the most successful movie stars of the last 50 years. By the mid-1980s, when culture favored maximalist stories with muscular movie stars, Stallone was the face of contemporary cinema. Along with Arnold Schwarzenegger, he was the quintessential Herculean star who was valiant enough to take down an entire army or an android-like boxer from the Soviet Union. In 1974, two years before he triumphantly became America’s favorite underdog in his breakthrough film, Rocky, he starred in the overlooked indie The Lords of Flatbush, which showcased Stallone’s untapped dramatic chops.
The Lords of Flatbush Two members of a social club in 1950s Brooklyn have more interest in romance than in rumbles.Release Date May 1, 1975 Director Martin Davidson , Stephen Verona Runtime 86 minutes
‘The Lords of Flatbush’ Was an Early Showcase for Sylvester Stallone
As part of its celebration of films from 1974 celebrating their 50th anniversary, including Blazing Saddles, The Conversation, and The Parallax View, The Lords of Flatbush is now streaming on Netflix. A strong initiative for the streaming service, which had historically ignored older films in its catalog, Netflix did not merely obtain the rights to the most popular films of the period. The Lords of Flatbush, an amateurish, under-the-radar 1950s period dramedy, has a strong selling point in 2024, as it features a young Sylvester Stallone andHenry Winkler, who also began his iconic tenure as Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli in Happy Days in 1974. The film, by Martin Davidson and Stephen Verona, follows a group of four high school friends who form the gang, the Lords, in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn. They are evocative of “greasers,” street-wise teenagers popularized in The Outsiders and Grease, who drive motorcycles, smoke, and wear leather jackets. While the Lords proudly display their masculinity and rebellious nature, each struggles with the prospect of coming of age into adulthood.
Stallone plays Stanley Rosiello, who disrupts classes and pool halls with his friends, Chico (Perry King), Wimpy (Paul Mace), and Butchey (Winkler). Stanley is pressured to marry his girlfriend Frannie (Maria Smith) after she falsely informs him that she is pregnant. Throughout the film, we see Stanley’s masculine artifice whittled down with the growing anxiety of becoming an adult and family man. The future global superstar, who had little to no experience on the big screen (he can be briefly seen as a subway thug chasing Woody Allen in Bananas), has a distinct physical appearance that attracts all viewers. In a time before Rocky, his unmistakable presence may serve as a distraction. Mumbling his words out of the corner of his mouth is an iconic staple of Stallone’s acting and the slew of impressions that followed, but his performance as Stanley could have feasibly been interpreted as wooden. Subtitles are practically required, as much of Stanley’s dialogue is barely audible (the amateurish production is also a factor here).
Related The Rocky Movie That Put Sylvester Stallone in the ICU The actor spent nine days in the hospital.
Stallone discusses his experience working on the film in the 2023 Netflix documentary Slyabout the star’s rags-to-riches story. Stallonerevealed that he improvised scenes, notably the scene in the classroom where he clashes with his teacher. In the documentary, Henry Winkler confirmed that Stallone, who is officially listed as a writer, credited under “additional dialogue,” was constantly re-writing the script for Flatbush. Stallone attributes this as him taking initiative, as he accepted the unfortunate reality that Hollywood viewed him as “uncastable,” due to his unconventional manner of speaking. The actor knew that he had no choice but to write roles for himself in order to break through in the industry. “I was always cast as a thug,” Stallone said in Sly. “‘Okay, that’s true, I am.’ But I’m also nice. I’m kind of a soft touch.”
Stallone cited Stanley Rosiello of The Lords of Flatbush as the precursor to Rocky Balboa in the Netflix doc. Anyone watching the film may be tricked into thinking that the film was a test reel for Stallone’s audition for Rocky. In one scene in a diner, he jokingly throws jabs at Butchey, which closely mirrors Rocky’s uppercuts in the ring. The disaffected, downbeat, and melancholic style of acting popularized by Marlon Brando was a major influence on the tone of Stallone’s Best Picture-winning film. The Lords of Flatbush, on a shoestring budget, is attempting to replicate the gritty character dramas that made Brando an icon, notably On the Waterfront. The film’s loose structure has a documentary-like authenticity. Generally speaking, this is a euphemism for denoting a film as cheap. Either way, no one on the screen is more comfortable with the raggedy environment of the film than Stallone.
The Struggles with Coming of Age and Masculinity in ‘The Lords of Flatbush’
Overall, The Lords of Flatbush is a tough hang. The passive direction by Davidson and Verona rarely pushes the story into any ounce of narrative momentum or emotional curiosity, but every once in a while throughout the runtime, a scene arises that serves as a genuine acting showcase for Sylvester Stallone. When Frannie tells Stanley that she is pregnant in the pool hall, his tough-guy posture visibly collapses. Fidgeting with a cue ball, he is overwhelmed to the point that he can hardly look at her. While equally apprehensive, Frannie is accepting her grave responsibilities. Stanley can only deflect. “I’m too young to be a father,” he says, with Frannie aptly responding, “But you’re old enough to make me pregnant!” This exchange succinctly crystallizes the film’s core theme of outgrown adolescence clashing with the sobering realities of Stanley’s behavior having adult consequences.
Beneath the sentimentality of the doo-wop soundtrack and nostalgic reminiscence of 1950s culture is the coming-of-age angst anchored by Stallone’s performance. The ’50s experienced a cultural renaissance during the decade in the aftermath of American Graffiti and the impending success of Happy Days. Colliding with the innocence of ’50s iconography is the sensibilities of ’70s New Hollywood malaise, which complemented Stallone’s acting and writing, more so than people would remember if they only consumed him as an indestructible force in the ’80s. Rocky, although a commercially successful film, was far more thematically aligned with a gritty ’70s film like Mean Streets than the pop entertainment of an action blockbuster like Cobra. Flatbush operates more like a continued exercise of stylistic trends of the decade.
Moments in The Lords of Flatbush that should be matched by the innocence of ’50s Americana are undercut by the emotional dread and uncertainty of Stanley’s coming-of-age, as perfectly executed in the scene where Stanley is pressured to buy an engagement ring for Frannie that is well out of his price range. Being badgered by Frannie and her friend Annie (Renee Paris) as he stands in a cold state of disbelief, the sequence inside the jewelry shop is quietly uncomfortable and tense. Stanley tries to defuse the situation with the familiar Stallone affability, but there is no avoiding his future wife’s demands. Afterward, when the ring is purchased, Stanley confronts the ring vendor when Frannie and Annie step outside. “You ever show her a $1,600 ring again, know what’s going to be written on your tombstone? ‘I was dumb enough to show Frannie a $1,600 ring.'” he says. His efforts to intimidate the seller are fraught, as he is incapable of escaping his swarming feelings of embarrassment.
‘The Lords of Flatbush’ Demonstrates Sylvester Stallone’s Untapped Dramatic Chops
Quentin Tarantino, the legendary filmmaker and equally prominent cinephile, weighed in on the legacy and impact of The Lords of Flatbush as a talking head in Sly and in his 2022 film criticism book, Cinema Speculation. His vast knowledge of cinema manifested at a young age, as he recalls a story when he witnessed a TV spot for Rocky that anticipated the rise of Stallone as the next big star in the Netflix doc. At a young age, Tarantino hilariously exclaimed, “Stanley from Lords of Flatbush is Sylvester Stallone?!” The Pulp Fiction writer-director crowns the engagement ring purchase scene as one of the best of the 1970s. “He’s such a lug,” Tarantino says, describing the Stanley character. “In that scene, he makes you fall in love with him,” he elaborates, indicating the character’s three-dimensional complex. In his non-fiction book, Tarantino credits Flatbush for introducing him to the spiritual genre of low-budget New York street movies before being exposed to Mean Streets or the films of Jim Jarmusch.
In Cinema Speculation, Tarantino writes, “In any other movie he’d [Stanley] be the bully bad guy of the piece. It’s only Stallone’s sarcastic witticisms, said out of the corner of his mouth, that keep him vaguely sympathetic.” This symphony of hard-edge masculinity and tender affection makes The Lords of Flatbush a fascinating document of the era and signals the untapped energy of Sylvester Stallone that was underutilized throughout his prolific career. It’s no surprise that in Stallone’s three best performances, Rocky, First Blood, and Creed, he is not only devoid of Herculean characteristics, but he struggles with accepting his fate as a man susceptible to defeat and aging. Once Stallone became a major action star and masculine icon in the 1980s, we rarely saw him in his vulnerable form in The Lords of Flatbush, which actively deconstructs his masculine bravado. General audiences will carry an image of Sylvester Stallone shooting and punching bad guys amid combat or a sporting event, but displaying his wounded heart and disaffected relationship with himself will forever be his calling card as a dramatic actor.
The Lords of Flatbush is available to stream on Netflix in the U.S.
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