After last year’s sellout An Evening With Al Pacino, now a for-one-night-only event with Sylvester Stallone. How is a dismal, rain-soaked London to cope? In the Palladium, champagne is being knocked back like lemon cordial by glamorous forty-something women and black T-shirted male action fans during a montage of famous Stallone moments projected on to the massive screen behind: Sly wearing a glistening mullet, Sly considering his wounds in a jungle, Sly yelling “nobody is gonna hit as hard as life!”
By the time the 67-year-old actor makes his appearance – inevitably, to the Rocky theme music – the audience is wild with love. And when he walks to the front of the stage, opens his arms like Moses and smiles – the ageing face so familiarly peculiar, so bashed and squashed – he is clearly overwhelmed. His dark grey pinstriped suit is close-fitting and pristine, his thighs like steel, his ankles, when he takes his seat on a deep leather sofa, revealed as surprisingly skinny.
Speaking to broadcaster Jonathan Ross, sitting opposite, Stallone goes right into his tough 1950s childhood, growing up in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen neighbourhood with a speech deformity after a doctor’s forceps severed a facial nerve at birth. “My mouth was crooked, my speech was slurred, I was … Quasimodo.” How did he get through? Who was his hero? Brando? “I don’t know about that,” says Stallone, “but Steve Reeves … yeah.”
Not many actors would admit to exalting a beefcake from Hercules over Brando but, throughout these 90 minutes of conversation and questions from the triumphantly diverse audience of whole families, whooping teenagers, snogging couples and lone fanboy nerds, you sense a man who knows exactly who he is, and of a monster ego that has long been controlled. Stallone is only the third person in Hollywood history, after Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles, to receive two Academy Award nominations for the same film, and the only person to have had a number one box office hit in each of five consecutive decades. Despite this, people are still snooty about him. An air of 1980s naffness may perpetually obtain.
For the most part, the actor is modesty itself – courtly, even – and an excellent (if occasionally incomprehensible) talker, consistently sincere and tender. He is never better than when remembering the dog days as a bit-part actor writing the screenplay for his 1976 breakout smash Rocky. He was broke, living in a flat with no air conditioning during a summer so hot and close that his wife’s nose bled at night. First, producers offered him $10,000 for the material. The offers rose to $360,000 and he still said no, holding out to play the lead too, knowing he would never have this chance again.
By now Ross is curled up in his seat agog and you could hear a feather drop. But there is possibly something more going on here. Like a stone in everyone’s shoe, we are all aware that, despite the hoopla, the 2,290-seat theatre is only two-thirds full. Is there a slight air of overcompensation in the extreme response to everything Stallone says? There is something persistently vulnerable about this multimillionaire. And is there not something rather retrogressive about the whole “evening with” anyway? Traditionally, it has been an emblem of hasbeenness. And yet this evening – so friendly, so euphoric – feels almost like a reinvention of the form. There is little doubt that the event is a triumph.
Moments before the end, someone asks Stallone if he has any ambitions to play Shakespeare. He puts his hand over his heart and starts shyly to speak, almost hiding his face. For a while it’s not clear what he is saying, it’s quite slurred, but whatever it is, it’s sincerely meant. “… to bear the extremity of dire mishap …” Is he doing Duke Solinus in The Comedy of Errors? “Against my crown, my oath, my dignity …” He stops and bows low. The theatre erupts.