If you don’t remember the scene, here is what happens, in recap, let’s break it down:
Paulie has invited the press to come and watch Rocky train at the meat locker … without Rocky’s permission. Rocky and Paulie have a small argument, and Rocky – in order to keep the peace with the brother of the girl he is now falling in love with – gives in. He allows himself to be filmed by the local news punching the meat.
Later, we see poor Paulie stumbling home, wasted. He’s holding a Christmas wreath. He staggers along the street. He picks up a trash can and meanders into the house. He is a lost soul. He is lonely. Sad. He has basically set his sister up with Rocky so that maybe Rocky can do something for him. You know, tit for tat. But he didn’t expect it to go so well. He can’t see his sister as a person. A woman. He is abusive to her. Calls her names. He didn’t ever think that this romance would blossom. So Paulie, this man, this pained man, living a life of quiet (and sometimes not so quiet) desperation – feels that he will be left alone. And Paulie is not a man who analyzes himself, or expresses his feelings. He just EATS it. You can see it in the hunched way he holds his shoulders, the jerky gestures of his arms … this guy is holding onto a lot. Just getting through the damn day requires this man to swallow worlds of humiliation. How many people live like that.
Then we cut to the interior.
Rocky and Adrian sit in the living room watching television. Rocky sits in the chair, Adrian on the floor, his arms resting on her shoulders. Their body language says it all. They are now one. They are a unit. Rocky has obviously been telling her about Paulie’s annoying qualities – inviting the press to come, how it threw off his workout, etc. And Adrian pleads for pity and patience for Paulie – that he is only trying to help. Meanwhile, Paulie has entered the back of the room, unnoticed. He doesn’t overhear the whole conversation, but he hears enough.
He comes in. Clutching his cigar and the wreath. He is in a rage.
The best thing about the scene (and the most painful) is that it is not just the rage of that moment. It is his rage, ultimately, at his lot in life. Now is it Adrian’s or Rocky’s fault that Paulie is miserable? Of course not. But Paulie can’t see past his own wounded ego, his own pain. It’s somebody else’s fault. Rocky is going somewhere else now, he is moving out of the same sad narrow circle that Paulie moves in … Rocky is moving on. And what will happen to Paulie? What will become of Paulie now?
It gets ugly. Paulie takes out a baseball bat and demands that Rocky and Adrian leave. “Get outta my house!”
He smashes a lamp. All hell breaks loose.
Burt Young is magnificent. Because it’s not just anger he is expressing. Anger is easy. He’s expressing grief, too. And fear. And the only way this particular character could express it would be to wreck his own house.
Paulie gets nasty – shouting, “I GAVE YOU MY SISTER.” Adrian is now her own woman. She can feel the ground beneath her feet. She has Rocky. She is an individual. She is no longer cowed and submissive. She shouts back, “Only a pig would say that!”
Paulie flips out. “I’m a pig?” He goes over to the nearby dresser – wielding the bat – shouts, “I don’t get married because of you!” He smashes the silver tea set on the dresser. Shouts something else – smashes down again.
Then he goes too far – and shouts something about Adrian being “busted” (meaning, obviously, no longer a virgin).
Like she is supposed to somehow be married to him forever. A spinster. That was what was expected of her. And she has that moment that gives me goosebumps every freakin’ time I see it. She kneels by his chair and shouts, “You made me feel like I was a loser.” And then she takes this huge breath, a breath that starts at her TOES and fills up every space within her, and she screams, “I AM NOT A LOSER!” Adrian races off to her room, crying.
Paulie yells something about how Adrian “let him take your pants off” and that is when Rocky moves – grabs Paulie and shoves him down into a chair. He doesn’t punch him – but man, Paulie is lucky that nothing worse happens to him in retaliation.
They stay there, counterbalanced, for a long tense moment – Paulie is now crying – it’s unbelievable – the thing is a masterpiece of acting, the journey he goes on in that scene … and then Rocky lets Paulie go and goes off to talk to Adrian in her room.
That’s the scene. We all remember it.
Here are some quotes about Burt Young and the filming of that scene. I love, in particular, John Avildsen’s bit of direction to Young about how to swing the bat at the dresser, and Young’s initial resistance … hard to control a scene like that, you just want to GO … and Avildsen was asking Burt to choreograph a bit. Burt didn’t “get it” at first. But when you see that scene … it is SO much more powerful because of those pauses Avildsen asked him to put in, it is SO much more powerful because it is not just a generalized going-apeshit scene that we’ve seen so many actors do. It has depth. It has import. It has theatricality. But I love Young’s not getting it at first. Saying, “John … no …” and then trying it. It is in the DOING of it that things become clear. And we, as actors, are inside it … so we sometimes cannot see what is best. Our job is to lose ourselves in the moment. The director is there to guide us, as we dredge up the unconscious. It’s just a beautiful example of that whole thing.
Sylvester Stallone: “Burt Young is as tough as they get. A man who has great compassion and great violence. He is a man who can cry easily and explode with volcanic rage. So he has that angst that so many men in the world have – that are not being realized, that don’t have that ability to ever shine. They’re always being kept in the background because of economic status, or they didn’t get the right breaks, or perhaps they don’t look a certain way. So they live quiet lives of desperation. And he embodies that desperation.”
Robert Chartoff, producer: “We never considered anyone else for the part of Paulie but Burt Young. When we read the script, we thought he was a natural for it and never offered it to anyone but Burt.”
Burt Young on the smashing-up-apartment scene: “The narcotic of being a fighter is once in a while, for me … you got to find things to make you breathe under duress. And that’s what you need as an actor. At least you don’t get punched in the face as an actor. But you could get punched in the heart when you leave a set, or a stage – and not do honest work.”
Sylvester Stallone: “This explosive scene when he pulls the baseball bat out and destroys everything in the house that has value because he has realized he is going to be left alone…”
Talia Shire on Burt Young smashing up the apartment: “It was ridiculous, it was outrageous, it was amazing, it was beautiful. Burt looks for the contradiction – in the language, in the moment, and in the physical application with his own body and how he is going to handle a prop. The bat … So Burt looks for that, and then he looks for discovery. So that in the moment of doing one of these things, he’s not even sure why he’s doing it. Then you have a moment when he makes the discovery, and it’s usually a vulnerable moment.” —
Burt Young: I was gonna wreak havoc. And John [Avildsen] said, “No, no, Burt … one swing … and then … another swing …” I said, “John! I’m cookin’! I can’t do that! It’s like you’re giving me a line reading!” He said, “Burt. Try it.” It was so painful to me. First of all, it was embarrassing. To show that kind of violence in front of everybody. But it worked. That’s where John became my director. And friend.
Sylvester Stallone: You see this man come from a drunken state to towering rage to a broken child on the couch. I mean, how much better can it get? It can’t get much better.
Robert Chertoff: I feel like I was honored to be present when they did that scene. It was so bloody real, and they did it many times. It was real, and it was scary. Burt Young was just so incredible. The intensity that he brought to it … well. I think it was clearly captured in the scene.