Screen Duos: Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger
Sylvester Stallone’s early acting career was a difficult one. After studying drama at the University of Miami in the late ‘60s, he started out on stage before making his screen debut in a softcore porno called The Party at Kitty and Stud’s (1970). He took the role out of desperation because he was broke and homeless: “It was either do that movie or rob someone.” The film was later re-released as The Italian Stallion to cash in on the success of Rocky.
Before his most famous role, Stallone made ends meet as a jobbing actor, with bit parts in M*A*S*H, Woody Allen’s Bananas, and the Donald Sutherland/Jane Fonda thriller Klute. The roles gradually got bigger, such as in the cult sci-fi actioner Death Race 2000, although he was only retrospectively added to its posters after he found fame.
While Stallone was struggling, Arnold Schwarzenegger took a different route to the big screen. Born in the village of Thal in Austria, he started out as a bodybuilder and powerlifter in his teens, competing in the Olympics and winning numerous Mr. Universe and Mr. Olympia titles.
After moving to the United States, he took an interest in acting and was encouraged to audition for a fantasy comedy called Hercules in New York (1970). To grease the wheels, his agent said he had plenty of stage experience, referring to his time in sports rather than playing Ibsen or Beckett. Landing the title role, the movie made the most of his incredible physique, although his lines had to be dubbed.
The poster sold the movie on his physical qualities, showing him bare-chested and riding a chariot through the streets of the Big Apple.
After Hercules, Schwarzenegger still focused on his bodybuilding career, only taking a bit part in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) before the film that led to his long-standing beef with Stallone.
1970s: Showdown at the Golden Globes
The genesis of Rocky is an underdog tale to rival the movie itself. Still finding it hard to make his mark on Hollywood, Stallone’s fortunes changed when he saw journeyman fighter Chuck Wepner take Muhammad Ali to within 19 seconds of the full distance, knocking down the champ along the way.
Inspired, Stallone dashed out a screenplay about a slugger from Philadelphia who gets a crack at the Heavyweight Championship against a far superior fighter. Trying to sell the script, he displayed guts worthy of The Italian Stallion, holding out for the lead role while the studios fancied more marketable stars like Robert Redford, Ryan O’Neal, or James Caan.
Stallone held his nerve and the rest is history, although you can tell from the original Rocky posters that the studio’s marketing people weren’t trying to promote the movie on Stallone himself. In these two one sheets (pre and post Oscars success), he even has his back to the camera…
Rocky was a massive box office success and received nine Oscar nominations, including two for Stallone (Best Actor, Best Original Screenplay). He didn’t win either, but the film took Best Director for John G. Avildsen and Best Picture
The film also received six Golden Globe nominations, including Best Actor and Best Screenplay. At the 1977 ceremony, Stallone found himself seated at the same table as Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Arnie was up for the Best Acting Debut award in Bob Rafelson’s Stay Hungry, where he played part of an ensemble including Jeff Bridges, Sally Field, and future Freddy Krueger, Robert Englund.
With his gong already in the bag, Schwarzenegger sat smirking as Stallone missed out on his nominations, losing out on Best Actor to Peter Finch in Network, and screenplay to Paddy Chayefksy for the same movie. When Rocky pipped Sidney Lumet’s media satire to Best Picture, Stallone celebrated by hurling a bowl of flowers at the churlish bodybuilder.
Rocky made Stallone a star, which meant he got to show his face on the posters for his two subsequent movies, F.I.S.T and Paradise Alley. He wrote both movies, reworking a script from Joe Esztherhas (Basic Instinct) for the first, and also making his directorial debut with the second.
Meanwhile, Schwarzenegger starred in the bodybuilding documentary Pumping Iron, which brought him to wider attention and beginning his ascent to becoming one of the biggest action stars of the ‘80s. Once again, the poster was all about those muscles…
After the success of Rocky, a sequel was inevitable. Stallone wrote and directed as well as reprising his role in Rocky II, but there was still a sense from the posters that United Artists still didn’t trust his marketability for their fledgling franchise. One focuses more on Carl Weathers as Apollo Creed, while another just has the film’s title on a black background…
1980s: Battle of the Muscle Men
With their careers on the rise, the rivalry between Stallone and Schwarzenegger really heated up in the ‘80s. It was a high-profile game of one upmanship as they competed for the best physique, biggest body count, and highest box office returns.
Both actors took pot-shots at each other in the media. Some of it was petty, such as Arnie’s suggestion that Sly used a body double. Some of it was more vindictive, like a scurrilous rumour started by Stallone that Schwarzenegger’s father was a Nazi personally involved in sending Jews to concentration camps during the Holocaust. When Stallone married Brigitte Nielsen (who co-starred with him in Rocky IV and Arnie in Red Sonja) the Austrian Oak claimed he had set them up together to get rid of her after their fling.
The battle for action hero supremacy began in earnest in 1982. Schwarzenegger staked his claim with a lunkheaded swords-and-sorcery flick, Conan the Barbarian, followed by Conan the Destroyer two years later. Arnie’s awesome physique was a big selling point for these movies. For the first, he is depicted holding a sword triumphantly aloft, while the second gives us a better look at his chiselled jawline.
Meanwhile, 1982 was a huge year for Stallone. Rocky III pitted the Italian Stallion against two other musclebound ‘80s icons, Hulk Hogan and Mr. T., and First Blood introduced his second iconic character, troubled Vietnam veteran John Rambo.
You can see how Stallone was trying to match his rival in the body and the action stakes with these posters. He underwent an insane training regime to get himself totally ripped for Rocky III, and the artwork for First Blood really emphasises the action element of the otherwise low-key survival thriller by showing Rambo with a very big gun.
If Stallone won round 1982, then Schwarzenegger unanimously took 1984. It was the year of his Conan sequel and an unheralded killer cyborg movie from the director of Piranha II: The Spawning called The Terminator. Arnie later said that he had reservations about taking the part but the film was a sleeper hit and catapulted his career to the next level. The poster, showing him looking mean in shades and leather, became one of the iconic images of ‘80s action cinema.
Over the next few years, Arnie continued to build his action credentials with movies like Commando, Raw Deal, and Red Heat, and also made a successful foray into comedy with Twins. Comedy always seemed more natural to the Austrian, whose monotone delivery quickly became essential to his trademark kiss-off lines.
By contrast, 1984 was a disaster for Stallone. He reportedly turned down Romancing the Stone and Beverly Hills Cop to star alongside Dolly Parton in the musical comedy Rhinestone. It came with a cringey poster showing Sly arm-wrestling with the country singer and highlighted two things: Stallone’s trend for picking bad projects and his frequent struggles crossing over into comedy vehicles.
The movie was a box office failure and started Stallone’s long-running relationship with the Golden Raspberry Awards. He received the Razzie for Worst Actor, the first of ten. To date, he is the most “Awarded” actor in the alternative film award’s history.
Stallone bounced back the following year with two huge box office hits, Rambo: First Blood Part II and Rocky IV. Clearly trying to match Arnie’s prowess with deadly weapons, Stallone’s traumatised veteran became a one man army in the sequel. While Rambo only killed one person by accident in the first movie, he racked up 70 kills this time around (according to All Outta Bubblegum).
The posters once again upped the ante. For the Rambo movie, Stallone has switched out the machine gun for an RPG launcher with an explosion consuming the background, while Rocky is now draped in the Stars and Stripes, pitching him as a true American hero.
1985 may have been Stallone’s year, but Schwarzenegger still got one good punch in. John Rambo’s bloody rampage still didn’t top John Matrix in Commando, which was released a few months later. The film’s producers learned of Rambo’s exploits and ramped up the carnage, resulting in a body count of 130 for Arnie’s unstoppable hero.
Some critics suggested that Ivan Drago in Rocky IV was essentially a Schwarzenegger proxy for Stallone to beat up on. If that really was the case, then the Austrian Oak had the last laugh: The film inadvertently provided inspiration for another big Arnie hit.
After Rocky Balboa defeated the daunting Soviet fighter in his own backyard, a joke circulated in Hollywood that the next logical step was for the Italian Stallion to fight an alien from outer space.
Writers Jim and John Thomas took that idea on board and wrote Predator. It was a box office success in 1987, the same year that Stallone earned another Razzie nomination for his arm wrestling flick Over the Top. By now, they were both so famous that their surnames were all that was needed on the poster to promise plenty of action.
Before all that, Stallone had another hit in 1986 with Cobra, and I can’t escape the feeling that he’s trying to copy Arnie’s Terminator look with this poster…
The ‘90s: The End of an Era
Action cinema was changing at the beginning of the ‘90s. The roaring success of Bruce Willis and Die Hard had a major impact on the genre, giving us a hero who seemed more like an ordinary bloke than a bulging muscleman like Sly or Arnie. This was reflected in the casting of some of the biggest action movies of the ‘90s: Keanu Reeves in Speed and The Matrix; Will Smith in Bad Boys and Independence Day; and the unlikely reinvention of Nicolas Cage as an action star in The Rock, Con Air, and Face/Off.
Ordinary(ish) looking action stars might have been in vogue, but Stallone and Schwarzenegger weren’t finished yet. At the start of the decade, there was a clear sense that Sly was on the wane and Arnie had won the battle to become Hollywood’s biggest action superstar.
Stallone made a poor start to the new decade. While Rocky V (1990) was still a substantial box office success, it was a monumental buzzkill after the fourth movie and looked like the end of the franchise. He then starred in two more comedy disasters: Oscar (1991) and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot (1992).
The latter sums up the dominance Schwarzenegger had over his rival at that point. Stallone admits that he was tricked into taking the part by Arnie himself, who feigned interest in the movie anticipating that Stallone would leap at the part to beat his archenemy to the punch.
As Stallone faltered, Arnie cemented his status as the biggest action star in the world. First came Total Recall (1990) before reprising his iconic performance in the blockbuster sequel Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1992).
Arnie was such a household name by this stage that a big sci-fi action movie like Total Recall could be sold on just his face, without a glimpse of the hulking body that helped him gain stardom in the first place.
As for T2, the image of Arnie wielding a shotgun while sitting astride a motorcycle in his Terminator gear was one of the defining posters of the ‘90s.
As he had after the calamity of Rhinestone, Stallone clawed his way back into contention once again. In 1993, he starred in the double-whammy of Cliffhanger and Demolition Man, finally proving in the latter that he was capable of making a funny movie.
Over the next few years, he showed that he still had significant action clout, with The Specialist, Judge Dredd, Assassins, and Daylight. His marketability wasn’t what it was, though, and he wasn’t the central focus on posters any more, often sharing space with co-stars or barely visible at all.
In the same year that Stallone bounced back with Cliffhanger and Demolition Man, Schwarzenegger made an uncharacteristic misstep, starring in John McTiernan’s overblown Last Action Hero. Going up against Jurassic Park didn’t help its chances at the box office and it was generally perceived as a hubristic mess, earning Arnie his first Razzie nomination since Conan the Barbarian.
The comparative failure of Last Action Hero didn’t manage to dislodge Arnie’s status as the top old-school action star. Like Total Recall, the poster for James Cameron’s mega-budget True Lies sold the movie on Schwarzenegger’s face.
By the second half of the ‘90s, it was the end of an era for two of Hollywood’s most bankable action stars. Arnie’s latter action movies like Eraser (1996) were still successful but no classics. Perhaps acknowledging his waning powers, End of Days (1999) gave us his first human character to die on screen.
Despite the inevitable decline, Arnie was still big enough to secure a whopping $25 million payday and top billing as Mr. Freeze in the atrocious Batman & Robin (1997), which is a lot of money for spending a whole movie making ice-related puns.
While Arnie was helping kill off the bat-franchise for almost a decade, Stallone was making a renewed bid for respectability. In James Mangold’s Cop Land (1997) he acquitted himself very well in a quality ensemble alongside Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, and Ray Liotta, leading to whispers about a possible Oscar nomination. It certainly wouldn’t have been unwarranted, but the nod didn’t emerge.
The 21st Century: Together at Last
After Stallone’s critically-acclaimed performance in Cop Land, his credibility took a huge hit once again in the early years of the new century. He starred in the appalling Get Carter remake (2000), Renny Harlin’s flop Driven (2001), and the direct-to-video actioner Avenging Angelo. The tagline for Get Carter said it all: Stallone seemed all washed up.
Meanwhile, Arnie was winding down his screen career as he prepared to make a move into politics. In 2003, he gave an encore as the T-800 cyborg in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and symbolically handed over his action hero crown to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson with a cameo in The Rundown. Those would be his last movie appearances for seven years as he was elected the Republican governor of California, aka “The Governator.”
While Arnie was dabbling with politics, Sly was busily trying to resuscitate his career. To this end, he returned to the well of his two most famous characters, Rocky Balboa and John Rambo.
When I first heard about Rocky Balboa, I thought it sounded pretty desperate. How could Rocky make another comeback in his 60s? Stallone proved naysayers like myself wrong: the movie was another hit for his lovable slugger and became one of the better films in the franchise, returning to the character-driven drama of the original. It also struck just the right amount of nostalgia, demonstrated by the poster which emulated the black-and white style of the Rocky artwork.
Rambo (2008) wasn’t quite as well loved, but it performed well at the box office and was seen by some critics as an appropriately grizzled version of the character. As with Rocky Balboa, the poster went back to the old “Let’s show Sylvester Stallone from behind” format.
For his next trick, Stallone continued to mine nostalgia with The Expendables franchise, a series of ensemble men-on-a-mission action adventures that harked back to the ‘80s and ‘90s heyday of the genre. To pull this off, Stallone needed to put together a crack team of his own, and the movies combined old heads like himself with younger action stars. For the first film, he was joined by Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Mickey Rourke, Jet Li, Eric Roberts, wrestler Steve Austin, and UFC champ Randy Couture. In the sequel, Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme completed the dream team.
While the casts were suitably stacked, the big talking point in the first movie was a cameo from Arnold Schwarzenegger, who would soon conclude his tenure as governor and return to acting. The moment wasn’t exactly Pacino and De Niro in Heat, but it gave action fans what they had craved for so long: Sly and Arnie sharing a scene together for the first time.
In the intervening years, Stallone and Schwarzenegger had put their rivalry to bed and become friends. With the beef now over, it was prudent for Sly to make sure that his rival was in The Expendables, albeit in a small role. The movie leans heavily into nostalgia for the old days of gung-ho action heroes, and it wouldn’t have been the same without Arnie involved.
After meeting onscreen for the first time since their acting careers began 40 years earlier, they made a proper screen partnership in Escape Plan (2012). It’s an amiable enough prison break thriller that only exists so we can watch Arnie and Sly trade clunky banter, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
Indeed, after so long of them being apart, watching these two redoubtable old stars in their advancing years play off each other is comforting, a bit like Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau re-teaming in the Grumpy Old Men movies. It’s a shame we never got to see them work together when they were in their ‘80s pomp, because that would have really been something. Let’s hope they make some more movies together in their old age.
So there you have it, the story of how two rival superstars finally came together on screen. Who had the better career, Sly or Arnie? What are your favourite movies from each? Let us know!