When I saw that Somebody Up There Likes Me was one of the Paul Newman films TCM would feature the first week of the month, I knew it was the one I would watch and review!
Somebody Up There Likes Me is a boxing movie, based on the life of middleweight champion Rocky Graziano, who earned the title in 1946. (In so many ways, this movie feels like the precursor to the Sylvester Stallone Rocky series!) Just read the film plot below, and you will be amazed that all of this actually happened to one man, and that this man decided to rise above his circumstances and mistakes.
Newman plays Rocky Graziano, and we are immediately drawn into the film when we see Rocky as a young boy getting beat up by his dad. Like literally getting punched in the face until he bleeds. It is hard to watch, but the scene really gets the point across: the deck was stacked against Rocky from the beginning.
Cool cinematography effect: as he is running down the streets of New York, where the story is set, Rocky the boy turns into Rocky the young man, and that is when our guy Paul Newman enters the film. And boy does he look just so incredibly modern from the moment he comes on screen! Seriously, you could transplant Paul Newman in this 1956 film to a picture or movie from today, and no one would be able to tell the difference.
The Delinquent Rocky and Some Familiar Faces
Growing up in New York City of the 1920s and 1930s, Rocky is constantly getting into all sorts of trouble with his gang—which includes a very very young Steve McQueen, billed in the film as “Steven McQueen” (!!!!)—and Sal Mineo.
Eventually, Rocky ends up in a reformatory, then Rikers, then he gets drafted into military service for WWII, then he deserts the army after knocking out a captain. In the 4-month time he is a deserter, Rocky discovers he has a natural talent for boxing.
There is a hilarious scene at this point in the film when Rocky walks into a gym, and volunteers to sub for a boxer in a match that night. The trainer says ok, and tells him to make sure he gets all the necessary gear for the ring, including a cup to protect… certain vulnerable parts. To which Rocky, in his lack of formal boxing experience, replies,
“That’s ok I don’t need no cup, I’ll drink out of the bottle.”
Newman’s cocky delivery of this line in his New Yorker accent is GREAT! His Rocky clearly has no idea what he is in for. But Rocky ends up wining the match just the same.
The Beginning of his Boxing Career
The army tracks Rocky down, he is dishonorably discharged, and sent to Leavenworth for nine months. But it is at Leavenworth that Rocky gets his formal boxing training. When he leaves Leavenworth, Rocky becomes virtually unbeatable in the boxing ring.
Rocky is a free man set on the straight and narrow by boxing, which has finally given him a way to earn an honest living, and a way to feel like he is a person of worth. Rocky gains many fans and becomes a favorite to win the title of middleweight champion. He also meets, falls in love with, and marries the silently strong Norma, played very nicely (if maybe a little annoyingly—I seriously couldn’t take her voice at times!) by Pier Angeli.
Rocky’s newly virtuous path is thrown off course when a former prison buddy blackmails him to throw a fight. Rocky fakes an injury to avoid throwing the fight, or turning his slimy friend in. But he loses his license to box in New York nonetheless.
Luckily, his manager is still able to arrange for Rocky to fight his nemesis in the ring, the reigning middleweight champion, Tony Zale, in a match in Chicago.
With the love and support of Norma, boosting his morale every step of the way, Rocky rises to the challenge. After five tough rounds in the ring, where it looks like Zale will come out the clean victor, Rocky turns things around, and beats Zale in the 6th round, making him the new middleweight champion. And on that high note, the film ends!
Other Contenders for the role of Rocky
Paul Newman was not the original choice to play Rocky Graziano. There was talk of Montgomery Clift. James Dean was the favorite choice for a long time, but his untimely death led to other actors being considered once again. Even Marlon Brando, who had actually used Graziano as his inspiration for the role of Stanley Kowalski in a little play called A Streetcar Named Desire, seemed a promising choice for the part. (Reportedly, when Graziano and his wife went to see Brando in Streetcar on Broadway, Brando’s inspiration for the role didn’t escape him, and Graziano exclaimed,
“That kid is playin’ me!”
But in the end, it was Newman who won the coveted role. And if you ask me, he took the opportunity and ran with it.
Newman’s Big Break
Somebody Up There Likes Me truly was Paul Newman’s big chance to make it in films. He actually already had one feature film release under his belt, The Silver Chalice (1954), a biblical drama. The film did so poorly and was such a personal embarrassment, Newman actually took out a few ads in 1963—when the film was to play on television—to publically apologize for what he thought was the most terrible performance of his career. So when he was given a chance at redemption with Somebody Up There Likes Me, Newman knew he had to give it his all.
Becoming Sexy for the Film
Did you read my post on Newman last week? Did you catch the part about how his director in the 1953 Broadway run of Picnic told him he wasn’t sexy enough to be a leading man? Newman really took that to heart, and in his own words,
“The way I translated that was six hours in the gym every day.”
Six hours in the gym everyday was also not a bad way to bulk up for his role in Somebody Up There Likes Me. It’s a boxing film after all, and being ripped would make Newman more believable as a boxer. Duh! So training and getting some muscle for the film was a no brainer. Newman even trained at Stillman’s, the Manhattan boxing gym where Graziano himself worked out.
Newman put so much tenacious work behind his training that he got pretty proficient at boxing himself!
Newman fought the Real Tony Zale
Originally, Warner Brothers wanted Tony Zale to play himself in Somebody Up There Likes Me. How neat would that have been? To see Newman as Rocky Graziano boxing against the real Tony Zale, the man Graziano took the middleweight champion title from? So they did a trial match, and put Newman and Zale in the ring together.
But since Newman was trying his hardest to win the match, Zale decided to do the same, and ended up giving Newman a punch that was a little too strong for the studio’s liking.
“I don’t mind waltzing a little bit, but you gotta show who the boss is”
Zale said of the match. Well the studio understandably didn’t look kindly at this—heaven forbid anything happen to their handsome star’s face! So the offer for Zale to play himself in the film was revoked. Probably for the best, given Zale’s attitude!
Again, Newman gave the role his all. He spent countless hours with the real Rocky Graziano, trying to emulate Graziano’s mannerisms, the way he talked, walked, etc. Newman’s stated goal was to
“Find universal physical things that he did, or emotional responses that he had to certain things, that would allow me to create not the Rocky Graziano but a Graziano.”
All of the observation and hard work paid off, for Newman delivered a performance that was so nuanced and layered, he captured the terrifying, comical, and admirable sides of Graziano’s character. And the critics took notice. His reviews were universally positive, even from the all-important Bosley Crowther of the New York Times.
But the Brando Comparisons!
One thing Newman did not appreciate from the positive critical reviews of the film: the constant Marlon Brando comparisons! Some critics went so far as to say Paul Newman even looked like Marlon Brando. REALLY???????
Obviously there are worse people to have your acting skills compared to, but this was the beginning of a career-long comparison between Newman and Brando, and it understandably got on his nerves! In fact, Newman would later swear that in this early period of his acting career when fans often mistook him for Brando, he signed at least 500 autographs “Best wishes, Marlon Brando.”
Well there you go! My thoughts and some fun facts about Somebody Up There Likes Me. Did any of you watch the film last week? If you missed it but are interested in getting your hands on the film, it is available on Amazon. Watch it! I promise you won’t be disappointed. And be sure to check out the TCM film schedule for the Paul Newman films TCM will feature tonight!