John G. Avildsen was one of the the great filmmakers, and now he is with us no more. The director of the inspirational dramas Rocky, The Karate Kid and Lean On Me has died at the age of 81.
It’s nearly impossible to describe just how important John G. Avildsen has been to the world of cinema. Sylvester Stallone famously wrote and starred in the greatest underdog movie ever told, but it was the humanist director of Joe and Save the Tiger who brought the film to vivid life on camera, and imbued what could have been a simple melodrama with powerful realism. With Rocky, John G. Avildsen directed one of the best films ever made, and helped shape the genre of sports movies as we have come to know them.
Sports movies existed before Rocky, but the template that Rocky set was so dramatically powerful that it would soon be appropriated by practically every sports movie made afterwards, including several by John G. Avildsen himself, like The Karate Kid (also brilliant), Rocky V (not so much), The Karate Kid Part II (a very good sequel), The Karate Kid Part III (another very good sequel), and the rodeo drama 8 Seconds (which was okay). Any filmmaker telling a tale of an underdog who gets their shot, or even just a story of personal redemption, or heck, a a movie in which people play sports, has watched Rocky and paid close attention.
John G. Avildsen won an Academy Award for Best Director for Rocky, over a spectacular list of nominees including Ingmar Bergman, Sidney Lumet, Alan J. Pakula and Lina Wertmuller. It was such an important, successful, influential drama that it more-or-less defined Avildsen’s career. And although anyone would be fortunate to have made such a fantastic motion picture, even once in their lives, Rocky has perhaps overshadowed many of the filmmaker’s other great accomplishments.
Fans of the filmmaker would do well to watch the Oscar-nominated drama Joe, the breakout film of the brilliant actor Peter Boyle, as well as the Oscar-winning drama Save the Tiger, starring Jack Lemmon as a WWII veteran struggling with his conscience, and also Lean On Me, an inspirational drama starring Morgan Freeman as a tough-as-nails principle trying to fix a floundering public school. All of these films are impressive dramas that showed just how deft Avildsen was at turning realistic situations into emotionally satisfying motion pictures.
John G. Avildsen was one of the greats. He will be missed.
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William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.