by Jason Koenigsberg
Academy Award winning director John G. Avildsen passed away today from pancreatic cancer at the age of 81. Known mostly for specializing in uplifting dramas, in particular sports movies and films that involve an underdog overcoming all odds and emerging triumphant. He was most well known for being the director of the original Rocky (1976), the genre-defining underdog sports movie that made Sylvester Stallone a movie star, won Best Picture and earned Avildsen an Academy Award for Best Director. In many ways Rocky is the quintessential sports film and even today, over forty years later filmmakers use it as inspiration and few have ever come close to harnessing the magic Avildsen was able to create with his talented cast and Stallone’s superb screenplay.
The movie that put John G. Avildsen on the map was the 1970 drama Joe starring Peter Boyle and featuring a young Susan Sarandon in her first major role in a motion picture. The screenplay by Norman Wexler earned an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay and producers started to take note of Avildsen. His next movie that made an impression on critics and audiences was Save the Tiger (1973) which earned the legendary Jack Lemmon the Best Actor Oscar, his second Academy Award. Lemmon beat out an extremely impressive group of nominees, Brando for The Last Tango in Paris, Nicholson for The Last Detail, Pacino for Serpico and Redford for The Sting. That may be one of the most loaded Best Actor categories from any year. This marked a huge victory for both its actor Jack Lemmon and a high point in the career for Avildsen, having directed one of the screens most valuable actors to a Best Actor trophy.
Three years later John G. Avildsen would eclipse what he accomplished with Save the Tiger and directed Rocky. This would be the crowning achievement of Avildsen’s career and honestly, it is the crowning achievement for everyone involved in that film, that is how great Rocky is. Actor/director Sylvester Stallone has yet to top it, and the same can be said for producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler, composer Bill Conti, and actors Burgess Meredith, Carl Weathers, Burt Young and even Talia Shire. Rocky captured audiences, critics and Oscar voters hearts in a way few films ever have. From looking at the nominees it is a small miracle that Rocky, a low-budget, little movie that could about an underdog boxer from the streets of Philly won Best Picture and Best Director over All the President’s Men, Bound for Glory, Network and Taxi Driver. That group of Best Picture nominees is easily one of the best ever assembled in Academy Awards history. From a pure acting and technical filmmaking standpoint one could argue that Rocky is maybe the fourth best of the nominees. But as great as the acting, directing, editing and photography of the other nominees were they did not capture audiences hearts and omit an emotional response as much as Rocky did. Cinema may have peaked in 1976.
Avildsen would direct a few films after Rocky that were not commercial or critical successes but then in 1984 he returned to the uplifting sports genre that he helped define and directed The Karate Kid. Another huge hit at the box office that earned critical acclaim as well as a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Pat Morita as the now iconic Mr. Miyagi. John G. Avildsen would return to direct the same cast and crew for the equally impressive Karate Kid Part II (1986) and return to the well once more, when maybe he should not have but sometimes money speaks louder than quality of screenplay, and directed The Karate Kid Part III (1989).
In 1989 Avildsen also directed Morgan Freeman in Lean on Me, one of Freeman’s first leading roles as Joe Clark. A true story of the controversial, hard edged principal of a rough high school in Paterson, New Jersey. The following year he reunited with Stallone and directed Rocky V (1990), but for the sake of this article the less we say about that film, the better. The last film Avildsen directed that people should discover is The Power of One (1992) starring Morgan Freeman, Stephen Dorff and John Gielgud. A little known drama about World War II and the horrors of growing up in South Africa during Apartheid. This criminally under-seen movie demands more attention and now is the perfect time to discover The Power of One.
The last twenty-five years of Mr. Avildsen’s life he was not very active directing movies. Most filmmakers could hang their hat on the fact that they made Rocky, the most iconic and important sports movie of all time, but John G. Avildsen gave us more. He directed seven actors to Oscar nominations, Jack Lemmon, Jack Gilford, Sylvester Stallone, Burgess Meredith, Talia Shire, Burt Young, and Pat Morita. Only Lemmon won the Oscar for an Avildsen picture. With Rocky, The Karate Kid, Lean on Me and many other films that may not have found universal love from critics, audiences, or Oscar voters, but they still contain indelible moments, found audiences and managed to entertain many movie goers for decades.
Here he is winning Best Director against Sidney Lumet, Alan J. Pakula, Ingmar Bergman and Lina Wertmuller, all very prolific filmmakers.
He also directed some awe-inspiring montages, here is one from Rocky:
And here is one everybody loves from The Karate Kid:
Here is my favorite scene from The Karate Kid Part II. I love the way Avildsen tells the audience so much by using the whole screen and having actors occupy the background. He did this a lot in Rocky and Karate Kid I and II. No superfluous cuts, just long shots that relied on good acting.
Here is the trailer for The Power of One. See if you can spot a young Daniel Craig in the trailer.