How Rocky Turned the Common Man Into a Hero


Sylvester Stallone wasn’t born a leading man. Complications at birth left the son of a hairdresser with nerve damage that slurred his speech and curled his lips into a permanent snarl. His childhood wasn’t easy. His parents fought constantly, and he and his brother slipped in and out of foster care. By high school, they’d moved back in with their mother in Philadelphia, but Stallone’s emotional problems followed him. He struggled academically and was expelled from multiple schools. The arts became his refuge. He spent his free time painting and writing poetry, but his real dream was the silver screen. By the time he was 18, he knew he wanted to act.

Stallone studied drama at the American College of Switzerland and then at the University of Miami, but then abandoned school to pursue a career in New York City. By his mid-twenties, he was getting by on odd jobs like cleaning lion cages and ushering at movie theaters. The bit parts he did manage to land were few and far between. Once, when funds were short, he took a role in an adult film to keep from living in a bus station. When Stallone landed bigger parts, it was because his drooping, stone-chiseled face made him the perfect heavy (Subway Thug No. 1. wasn’t an uncommon credit). By 1975, the 29-year-old actor was desperate for something bigger, so his agent sent him to the L.A. offices of Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff, two producers who had a standing deal with United Artists.

The meeting didn’t go as planned. When Winkler and Chartoff met Stallone, they didn’t see a movie star. Dejected, Stallone had his hand on the doorknob when he turned and made one last pitch. “You know,” he said, “I also write.”

The script Stallone turned in was an underdog tale, the story of Rocky, a streetwise palooka who gets an unlikely opportunity to fight the heavyweight champion of the world. But the story of how the film itself got made is even more improbable.

Earlier that same year, a boxer named Chuck Wepner had silenced the world. Pitted 40:1 against the heavily favored Muhammad Ali, Wepner landed a blow that knocked Ali down. Though Ali ultimately knocked out Wepner in the 15th round, Stallone was riveted by those moments in which it seemed like Wepner stood a chance. When he sat down to write a screenplay, it took him just three days to dash it off.

Stallone centered his story around Rocky Balboa, a club boxer plucked from obscurity and eager to go the distance. But Rocky would have the odds stacked against him. Even his trainer, a salty old cynic named Mickey, would write him off—until a once-in-a-lifetime chance to fight against brash champion (and Ali stand-in) Apollo Creed arises.

To ground his story, Stallone drummed up a love interest for Rocky: Adrian, a shy pet store employee. The unlikely romance allowed the film to become as much a character study as a genre slugfest. But when Stallone’s wife, Sasha, read an early draft, she pushed him to sand down his hero’s rough edges even more. In the rewrites, Rocky, who had started out as a violent thug, emerged as a gentle and deceptively wise soul who, in the actor’s words, “was good-natured, even though nature had never been good to him.”

Impressed by the story’s heart, Winkler and Chartoff agreed to produce the film with United Artists, which gave them creative freedom for any picture budgeted under $1.5 million. But the studio balked. A boxing picture and all its trappings—extras, location, and arena shooting—just couldn’t be made for so little money. And with a nobody in the lead role, the flick seemed doomed to box office failure. Chartoff and Winkler countered by offering to make the movie for less than a million, promising to cover any overages out of pocket, and the producers sent the studio a print of Stallone’s recent independent film, The Lords of Flatbush, to seal the deal. With no one in the screening room to recognize him, the executives assumed handsome costar Perry King was the young nobody who had written the script.

Fine, they said. Go make your boxing movie.

The small budget meant that the production team had to get creative. Interiors were shot in L.A., since a full 28-day shoot in Philadelphia was too pricey. Instead, the team spent less than a week on location, quietly shooting exteriors using a nonunion crew. Driving around in a nondescript van, director John Avildsen would spot an interesting locale—a portside ship, a food market—and usher Stallone out to jog, sometimes for miles, while he rolled film. It wasn’t long before the actor gave up smoking.

The slim budget was evident everywhere. Stallone’s wardrobe was plucked from his own closet. His wife worked as the set photographer. But it was more than that— the movie’s finances also meant that the director had to be choosy about how many shots to film. A crucial scene where Rocky confesses his fears about the fight to Adrian (played by Talia Shire) was almost cut before Stallone begged the producers to give him just one take. The scene became the film’s emotional spine.

When the director proposed shooting a date between Rocky and Adrian at an ice rink, the producers laughed. A rink full of extras, combined with the costs of filming all the takes, seemed risky. But when Stallone convinced them of the scene’s worth, they wrote around it. In the movie, Rocky pays off a manager to let the duo skate in an empty rink. The result was easier to shoot and made for a beautiful metaphor: a clumsy dance between two misfits, each holding the other up.

But improvisation wasn’t always an option. For Rocky’s climactic bout with Creed, Stallone and actor Carl Weathers rehearsed five hours a day for a week. Though both were incredible physical specimens, neither had ever boxed and their earliest attempts were exhausting. (Ironically, only Burt Young, cast as Rocky’s sad-sack pal Paulie, had any actual ring experience: He was 14–0 as a pro.) When the director saw their first sparring efforts, he told Stallone to go home and write out the beats. Stallone returned with 14 pages of lefts, rights, counters, and hooks, all delivered using camera-friendly gloves too small to be legal in a real prizefight. As they practiced, Avildsen circled them with an 8mm camera, recording them to point out their weaknesses. He even zoomed in on Stallone’s waistline to remind him he needed to shape up.

Studying all that footage paid off. The fight was shot in front of 4,000 restless extras, corralled with the promise of a free chicken dinner. In the original ending, Rocky walks off with Adrian backstage. But composer Bill Conti’s score was so soaring that the director decided to reshoot the finale, despite having run out of funds. The producers paid for the overage themselves, allowing for the unforgettable final scene: Rocky in the ring, with Adrian fighting through the crowd to reach him, her hat pulled off by a crew member using fishing wire. The image freezes with Rocky embracing her— stopping at what Stallone later called the pinnacle of Rocky’s life. It was the perfect crescendo to an emotional journey—not only for Rocky, but for his alter ego.

The parallels between the actor’s story and Rocky’s were not lost on United Artists’ marketing strategist, Gabe Sumner. A clever publicist, Sumner knew he had quite the task in front of him: selling an old-fashioned boxing movie starring a nobody. Rocky’s competition at the box office didn’t make it any easier. Late 1976 was filled with blockbusters, and Stallone’s hero had to battle with King Kong, a new Dirty Harry sequel, and Carrie for ticket sales.

To compete, Sumner turned up the volume on Stallone’s shaggy-dog story. He sold the narrative about Stallone, a self-made actor-writer who had scraped and clawed his way to the top, as irresistibly American. And he bent the facts a little, too. In Sumner’s version, studio execs offered Stallone hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep the script if they could cast a bankable movie star in the role. The impoverished actor, despite having a pregnant wife and just $106 in the bank, stood his ground. He hitchhiked to auditions. He had to sell his dog. But Stallone wasn’t a sellout, and this was his one chance to break through. The truth, Sumner later admitted, was that the studio had never met Stallone. None of it mattered, though—this was Madison Avenue mythmaking at its best.

The marketing strategy struck a chord. The actor’s tale so perfectly mirrored his onscreen role that the film received significant attention from both the media and audiences. And as word of mouth spread, Rocky became the highest-grossing picture of 1976, earning more than $117 million at the box office (the average ticket price at the time was just over $2). Audiences were equally captivated by the soundtrack. “Gonna Fly Now,” Conti’s trumpet-heavy theme, which accompanied Rocky’s training montage, moved more than 500,000 units.

Though some critics, including The New York Times’ reviewer, panned the flick for its sentimentality, most media embraced it. "Rocky KOs Hollywood," crowed a Newsweek cover. The Academy agreed. At the 1977 Academy Awards, Rocky became the first sports film to win Best Picture, beating out heavy hitters Network, All the President’s Men, and Taxi Driver. Frank Capra and Charlie Chaplin wrote Stallone congratulatory letters. He became a bona fide movie star, anointed by two Hollywood legends who had built their careers making heroes of the common man.

Today, Rocky's boxing trunks hang in the Smithsonian. Wedding ceremonies have been held at his statue near Philadelphia’s Museum of Art. Fans still run up the adjacent steps, mimicking his sprint to glory. As for Stallone, he was inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame in 2011, making him the only actor ever to receive the honor. In his vision of a gentle slugger searching for an opportunity to shine despite the longest odds, Stallone crafted a story that continues to resonate with millions of moviegoers: It’s the American dream played out at 24 frames per second.

When Sumner’s publicity exaggerations were discovered in 2006, few seemed to care. Perhaps that’s because as a character, Rocky did more than go toe-to-toe with Apollo Creed. At a time when Taxi Driver’s sociopathic antihero Travis Bickle preyed on audience fears and Network played to the bleak pessimism of a struggling nation, Rocky reminded the country what it means to hope. As Sylvester Stallone once said, “If I say it, you won’t believe it. But when Rocky said it, it was the truth.”

The Boy Who Saved Batman

Michael Uslan lived and breathed comic books. When he was a teenager, his collection was so vast, it consumed his parents’ New Jersey garage. In seventh grade, he co-founded a comic book club that coordinated a field trip to DC Comics’ Manhattan headquarters. He even completed a script for a daily comic strip about the Cricket, a superhero he invented, and submitted drafts to newspapers. An employee at The Sacramento Union was so impressed, he suggested they collaborate—until he realized the author was in junior high.

No superhero fascinated Uslan like Batman. Unlike Superman, Batman didn’t have special powers. His strength came from his will, training, and armored flying suit. Batman was human and damaged—as a child, he’d watched a stranger murder his parents and swore to avenge their deaths. That origin story deeply affected Uslan, who couldn’t consider a world in which his mom and dad didn’t exist.

So it was with great excitement that he tuned in to the ABC premiere of Batman on January 12, 1966. Watching it, Uslan’s heart sank. Portrayed by Adam West, TV’s Batman was stilted, overly earnest, and almost buffoonish. Paired with his guileless sidekick, Robin, he wore tights and spoke in corny adages (“Crime never pays!”) while imparting good-citizen lessons about proper grammar and paying taxes. Even the bad guys were ham-handed jokes, nothing like the terrifying, unhinged criminal overlords of the comic. The fight scenes? Slapstick routines replete with full-screen flashes of onomatopoeic gibberish (“Pow! Crash! Boff!”).

“Society was laughing at Batman—and that just killed me,” Uslan said in the 2013 documentary Legends of the Knight. To him, Batman was an orphan whose vigilantism was a civic and emotional reconciliation, not a campy pop-art punch line. There and then, teenage Uslan made his own Bruce Wayne–like vow: “I would restore Batman to his true and rightful identity as the Dark Knight, a creature of the night stalking criminals from the shadows...a master detective who survived and thrived more by his wits than by his fists.”

He would do this by making his own Batman movie.


Born in Jersey City, New Jersey, to a mason contractor father and a bookkeeper mother, Uslan learned to read by thumbing through his older brother’s comics. At 5, his brother brought him to a candy shop and let him pick two comics, one of which was Detective Comics #236, a 1956 title featuring Batman and Robin battling mobsters in a purple armored Bat-Tank.

Batman quickly became an obsession. Soon, Uslan was dutifully purchasing every title in which the Caped Crusader appeared. “In my heart of hearts, I believed that if I studied really hard and worked out really hard, and if my dad bought me a cool car, I could be this guy!” Uslan remembers in his 2011 memoir, The Boy Who Loved Batman. By the time he was a high-school senior, he’d amassed a collection of 30,000 comic books.

In 1972, the College of Arts and Sciences at Indiana University, Bloomington, offered an experimental program allowing students to pitch entirely new classes for credit. As a junior undergrad, Uslan drew up a syllabus outlining the scholarly merits of comic books and presented it to the department’s board, arguing that superheroes were modern mythological gods. The attendant dean cut him off, insisting “funny books” were entertainment for children.

Thinking quickly, Uslan, who wore a Spider-Man T-shirt to the meeting, asked the administrator to recite the story of Moses: “Moses was an endangered Hebrew infant sent to safety in a river basket and recovered by a couple who raised him as their own. Later, he became a heroic figure to his people after learning his heritage.” Then Uslan asked him to recall Superman’s genesis: “Superman was an endangered Krypton son sent to safety by his parents in a rocket ship, then recovered by a couple who raised”—there, the dean cut himself off, and the 20-year-old became the world’s first professor of a college-accredited comic-books course.

The United Press International ran a story about Uslan’s course, and soon he was fielding television and radio requests from around the globe. Journalists were sitting in his class, which became so popular that the university asked Uslan to adapt it into a correspondence course. They even paid him to write a textbook on the subject. DC Comics also called. The company’s execs had heard Uslan on the radio and wanted to offer him a job. He could work in DC’s Manhattan office in the summer; during his senior year, they’d keep him on retainer. Uslan was beside himself.

Before graduating, Uslan sent 372 résumés to industry names he’d found while scouring Variety, hoping to land a position working in movies or television cartoons. The responses—all two of them—were dismal. Discouraged, Uslan applied to law school, calculating it as a backdoor to Hollywood, and funded his further education (along with his wedding to his college sweetheart) by selling 20,000 comics from his collection.

After law school, he took a position in the legal department of movie studio United Artists, where he drafted contracts for smashes like Raging Bull, Apocalypse Now, and Rocky. He also busied himself plotting out his purchase of the rights to Batman.

The world wasn’t cooperating, though. The DC exec who’d hired him back in college advised Uslan not to waste the money. Batman was considered a “dead brand.” After ABC canceled the TV show, the Caped Crusader’s merchandising sales took a nosedive and never recovered. Warner Publishing had recently negotiated the deal for Superman: The Movie, and would expect the same pricey terms, even though Batman was worth less.

But Uslan wouldn’t be talked out of his dream. He convinced the father of a co-worker, former MGM executive Benjamin Melniker, of the project’s commercial potential, and in October 1979, after six months of negotiation, against all advice or logic, the production partners acquired Batman’s film rights for a reported $50,000. Uslan immediately quit his day job.

That year, the partners started pitching Hollywood studios. One by one, each declined. Execs told Uslan that he was crazy: Outdated TV shows weren’t being remade into movies. Besides, this was TV’s cheesiest character. How could this story be turned into a serious film? Superman’s success proved superheroes needed to be pure and almighty (not dark and internally conflicted).

Eventually, Uslan and Melniker signed a deal to make Batman with the producers behind Midnight Express and A Star Is Born—but they still couldn’t get a studio on board. Meanwhile, Uslan needed cash to get by, so he and Melniker got a different project off the ground: Swamp Thing, a popcorn flick featuring a rubber-suited monster.

The movie was a success, which only strengthened Uslan’s resolve. “You could either chalk it up to stubbornness or abject stupidity,” he says now, “but every time my back was against the wall, I went back to that one question: ‘Is the rest of the world right and I’m wrong, and I’m just being stubborn?’ Or do I truly believe in this? I kept coming up with [the answer]: ‘This is the right way.’”

The right way demanded years of conversations about distribution, contracts, and filmmakers. Gremlins director Joe Dante was attached to the project, and then he wasn’t. Ivan Reitman was on board, as they waited for him to finish Ghostbusters—and then he wasn’t. At one point, Uslan’s former intern urged him to stop telling people about the project because it made him sound like a joke.

By 1986, Swamp Thing’s earnings were dwindling. Uslan—now in his thirties, with two children—bet everything on his next undertaking, a historical miniseries for CBS pegged to the Texas Revolution’s sesquicentennial. When executive reshuffling killed the project, Uslan stubbornly insisted he was less than six months away from securing enough money to tide him over until a studio signed on to make Batman a reality. His father-in-law made him a deal: He’d pay the family’s bills for five months, but if his son-in-law didn’t have that six-figure paycheck by the end of the grace period, Uslan would return to practicing law and stop this Batman nonsense. “That was my lowest moment,” he says. He accepted the deal.

As the clock ticked, Uslan grasped for salable ideas. Then one day, he had an epiphany: What about dinosaurs from outer space? The kid-friendly lightning bolt resulted in Dinosaucers, a 1987 animated television series that provided just enough cash to get by. On the exact date of his father-in-law’s deadline, a paycheck came to his house.


Around the time Uslan made that last-ditch deal with his father-in-law, a graphic novelist named Frank Miller published a new Batman title called The Dark Knight Returns. It revived the darker, grittier origins of Batman that Uslan loved. Other people were drawn to it too: It was an instant, huge success, breaking out of comic book shops into mainstream bookstores. Suddenly, the appeal of a dark Batman didn’t seem so far-fetched.

By this time, the producers with whom Uslan and Melniker had partnered were signed to Warner Bros., and an imaginative director who’d recently worked on Warner Bros.’ Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was also interested. His name was Tim Burton, and his second project for the studio, the one that could give him the credibility to make a big, expensive tentpole movie, was right around the corner: Beetlejuice. (It starred Michael Keaton, who the director thought was versatile enough to play Batman too.) Burton had a script inspired by The Dark Knight Returns, and he approached Sam Hamm, a 31-year-old Warner Bros. screenwriter (and longtime Batman fan), about working on it. Finally, the stars had aligned. Batman got the green light for pre-production in the spring of 1988. In October, the movie went into production.

On June 23, 1989—almost a decade after Uslan and Melniker obtained the rights—Batman opened, starring Keaton as the title character, Jack Nicholson as the Joker (Uslan’s idea), and Gotham City as a steaming apocalypse of metropolitan corruption. Anticipation was so high people smashed the glass at bus stops to steal the poster, even if—in a twist of delicious irony—diehard Batman fans fretted that Keaton, known as a comic actor, was too goofy to play Batman. Those fears soon proved unfounded. In its opening weekend, Batman raked in a record-breaking $43.6 million.

Batman’s cultural impact was enormous. In November, Uslan watched the Berlin Wall fall on CNN and saw a boy in the wreckage wearing a Batman hat. “This had become more than just a movie,” he writes. “It was, indeed, revolutionary.” In North America, the film was the highest-grossing movie of 1989.

Over the next decade, follow-ups rained down with varied success (Uslan has a producer credit on all of them). The choice to hire auteur Christopher Nolan to reboot the franchise was, according to Uslan, “a godsend for hardcore fanboys, as well as mainstream audiences around the world.” Nolan’s gothic Dark Knight trilogy (2005’s Batman Begins, 2008’s The Dark Knight, 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises) accomplished the nearly impossible feat of achieving both critical and commercial acclaim, depicting Bruce Wayne as a psychologically complex figure and pulling in nearly $2.5 billion worldwide.

Next year brings Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which Uslan and Melniker executive produced. “My greatest wish is that I could have a narrow tube into the past, so I could yell to Michael at age 8, 12, 16, and 20: ‘Hey, guess what I’m doing?!’” says Uslan, now 64. “But I know in my heart of hearts I always believed.”

He also believed that the world needed new role models. The Golden Age of comics took place during World War II, when Americans were desperate for stories of good overcoming evil. As the 20th century progressed, they’d realize the enemy wasn’t simply abroad, but sometimes within. Someone larger than life had to embody existential conflicts over justice, selflessness, and purpose. Uslan had known this since he was a teenager: Batman might not be the superhero everybody wanted, but he was the one that would speak to a new generation.

Getty Images
Grant Wood's American Gothic
Getty Images
Getty Images

No American artwork has been parodied more than American Gothic. Zombies, dogs, Beavis and Butt-Head, the Muppets, Lego figures, and even Nicole Richie and Paris Hilton have taken a turn with the pitchfork. But the painting itself is no joke—American Gothic is as recognizable as the Mona Lisa and The Scream.

During the Great Depression, the masterpiece gave hope to a desperate nation, and it helped shape the notion of the Midwest as a land of hard work and honest values. Today, the painting is firmly embedded in our cultural vocabulary. Yet, for all its fame, few people know the story of Grant Wood and how the piece also unraveled his life.

That Quirky Wood Kid

In 1929, Grant Wood was a 38-year-old unknown. The artist was living in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in the attic of a funeral-home carriage house. Though the location may seem morbid, Wood spruced up his home with whimsical decorations. He replaced the front door with a repurposed coffin lid and outfitted the entrance with a dial that indicated if he was in, out, asleep, painting, or having a party. Wood wasn’t the only one stuffed into this loft space: He shared the studio with his mother and sister, all three sleeping side by side on pull-out beds.

Oddly enough, none of this shocked the neighbors. As a closeted gay man, Wood avoided what his sister, Nan, called “any earmarks of the artist.” He dressed exclusively in overalls, a signifier that the painting he did was gritty—man’s work. And he benefited from being a local. People in Cedar Rapids found Wood’s eccentricities charming. Friends shook their heads and smiled when he forgot to pay his bills. They even ignored his flimsy excuses for avoiding marriage. Wood was a lovable bachelor who wanted to take care of his widowed mother, that’s all.

Painting was just another of Wood’s harmless quirks—at least now that he’d given up living in Europe. The artist had spent good chunks of the 1920s in Paris and Munich, but announced upon his 1928 return that he was back for good. The freewheeling and permissive nature of the European art scene had fascinated him. But when a solo show in Paris was met with critical indifference, it put a damper on the continent’s shine.

Still, Wood’s style benefited from his experiences abroad. His previously atmospheric, Impressionistic painting took on a hard-edged, Old Master quality. He drew inspiration from the work of the Flemish Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder, who recast biblical narratives as scenes from his own time. And he took composition cues from 15th-century Flemish painter Jan van Eyck. After three stints in Europe, Wood was ready for home. As the artist told the Chicago Tribune, “I spent 20 years wandering around the world hunting ‘arty’ subjects to paint. I came back ... and the first thing I noticed was the cross-stitched embroidery of my mother’s kitchen apron.” That moment changed him. Armed with new technique, and a new appreciation for the mundane, Wood no longer needed to travel. What he needed was right there, in Iowa.

Going Goth

In August 1930, Wood spotted an unusual farmhouse on a drive through the tiny town of Eldon, Iowa. The house had a strange and compelling feature: a high, arched window in the Carpenter Gothic style. The artist was immediately transfixed by the structure. He needed to know what sort of people resided there. But instead of simply knocking on the door, Wood decided to capture the farmhouse in paint and tease out the story for himself. Piece by piece, he sorted through the puzzle.

Wood started by asking his dentist, 62-year-old Byron McKeeby, to serve as the male model. Throughout his life, Wood had suffered from an incurable sweet tooth—he took half a cup of sugar with his coffee, and even poured sugar on his lettuce. Over the years, he spent plenty of time in McKeeby’s chair studying and admiring the dentist’s grim, oval face. Now seemed like the perfect time to paint it. For the farmer’s companion, Wood intended to use his mother, Hattie, as a model. But when he realized that posing would be too exhausting for her, he asked his 32-year-old sister, Nan, to don Hattie’s rickrack-trimmed apron and cameo pin.

While the cast was familiar, the composition was something completely new. The couple stands posed before their simple farmhouse, its only flourish an arched window purchased from Sears. The man stares almost directly at the viewer while clutching his pitchfork; his thin lips and arched eyebrows give him a stern, slightly quizzical look. The woman looks off to the side as if unwilling to meet the viewer’s gaze, a single curled tendril of hair escaping from her bun. Both have unnaturally long faces and thin necks, as if to emphasize their uprightness. They are hardworking and humorless, dignified and honest.

Wood submitted American Gothic—the name a nod to the house’s architectural style—to a 1930 competition at the Art Institute of Chicago. Overnight, the painting became a hit. American Gothic won a bronze medal and a $300 prize, was acquired by the museum, and was reproduced in newspapers around the country. Something about it resonated with audiences, and in that mysterious process by which paintings become famous, it quickly achieved near-universal recognition.

Not everyone saw the same thing. Some perceived the work as a scathing parody of the Midwest—one outraged farm wife even threatened to bite off Wood’s ear. Meanwhile, Gertrude Stein and other critics praised the painting as a cutting small-town satire, the visual equivalent of Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street. Still others saw the painting as honoring the Midwest and its strong values. As the Great Depression bore down on the country, Americans yearned for positive depictions of themselves, and Wood’s work provided the nation with a pair of ready-made secular saints of the American heartland.

Perhaps the strangest reaction, however, was from an audience focused on the age disparity between the husband and wife in the picture. Protests poured in. Nan, too, became increasingly concerned—she didn’t want to be memorialized as “married” to a much older man. So Wood altered his initial stance to claim that the painting depicted a father and daughter. In fact, Wood frequently rewrote the artwork’s history. When the painting was hailed as a satire, he went along; when it was declared an homage to the Midwest, he agreed with that, too. Finally, he came out with a bold statement that clarified nothing: “There is satire in it, but only as there is satire in any realistic statement. These are types of people I have known all my life. I tried to characterize them truthfully—to make them more like themselves than they were in actual life.”

A Mixed Legacy

With the success of American Gothic, Wood finally received the validation of his talent that he’d been seeking all his life. He was declared the founder of a new school of art, called Regionalism, and he was quick to embrace the narrative. “All the good ideas I’ve ever had came to me while I was milking a cow,” Wood famously told the press. In truth, he hated life on the farm, and was repulsed by cow udders and freshly laid chicken eggs.

For Wood, the trade-off for fame was steep, and the artist was ill-equipped to deal with the scrutiny. He and his family lost all of their privacy. Strange fans began showing up at his apartment, ignoring the dial on the door and walking right inside. People started asking pointed questions about his bachelor status. A blackmailer even confronted Wood, threatening to reveal lurid secrets from his past. And as a nation looked to Wood as the embodiment of the Midwestern man, Wood found it harder and harder to negotiate his double life. By 1935, he was desperate. He married an older divorcée and fled Cedar Rapids. While the marriage was one of convenience, the strains of the arrangement left him both financially and creatively bankrupt.

Meanwhile, Wood’s tricks had finally worn thin. People were tiring of Regionalism, and Wood found it increasingly difficult to conceal his sexuality. He spent more and more time drawing the male figure, and in 1937, he produced Sultry Night. The piece showed a naked man standing next to a trough pouring a bucket of water over his body. When questioned, Wood defended the work as depicting the ordinary bathing habits of hired men on farms. The explanation fooled no one. Things got worse: When Wood submitted the painting to a national juried show, he was asked to withdraw it. Then, the piece was barred from being sent through the mail after the Post Office deemed it “pornographic.”

Wood was mortified. He sawed the canvas in half, burned the nude portion of the painting, and didn’t paint another picture for more than a year. The artist’s life was complicated by a divorce. And when Time magazine launched an investigation into the truth about his sexuality, Wood was forced to abandon a coveted teaching position at the University of Iowa.

Wood might have pulled through all these challenges, but he never got the chance. In 1941, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He died on February 12, 1942, one day before his 51st birthday and not quite 12 years after the completion of American Gothic.

As for his masterpiece, its fame continued to grow after Wood’s death. Easily parodied, it’s been reimagined in movies, TV shows, marketing campaigns, even pornography. And audiences seem unable to put away the painting—to assign it a single, easy interpretation and just let it be. American Gothic remains inscrutable: satire and homage, highbrow and lowbrow, honest and creepy all at the same time. In the end, what makes the painting so successful is that it begs you to look closer and ask questions—the very thing Wood never wanted for himself.

American Gothic 101

Truly Gothic
Wood was inspired by the Old Masters of Northern Europe, and elements of the painting make it a modern version of Late Gothic art: the clear blue sky like those typically painted above Christ or the Virgin Mary; the woman’s elongated face like that of a Madonna; and the flat, finished surface, an effect Wood created by painstakingly smoothing the surface of the canvas with a razor blade.
Windows of the Soul?
Viewers often come away from American Gothic with a sense of disquiet, unable to stop thinking about the most disturbing element—the closed and curtained window. Biographer R. Tripp Evans called the window “a vanishing point in more than one sense,” adding, “Family secrets, dead bodies, incest, and murder all haunt this work, and they enter the painting here.”
Making a Cameo
The pin on the woman’s dress had been a gift from Grant Wood to his mother, Hattie. Some read the painting as a one-step-removed portrait of Wood’s parents, the stern, humorless father being a stand-in for his own dad.
On One Hand
Critics have noted that the farmer’s clenched fist anchors the painting (without it, the pitchfork fades into the background). Wood was enamored with his dentist’s hand, once gripping it tight and remarking, “This is a marvelous hand. This has strength. This has character.”
Fever Pitch
When Iowans complained that pitchforks typically have four tines, not three, Wood defended his depiction. He claimed the tool he drew was the kind used for pitching hay. But the argument misses the point. The verticals of the three tines are echoed throughout the painting: in the pocket, windows, the man’s shirt and face, and the roof of the barn.

This article first appeared in mental_floss magazine, available wherever brilliant/lots of magazines are sold. Get a risk-free issue here!


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