Sylvester Stallone's Gallic Oscar -- The actor received a lifetime achievement honor at the Cesar Awards in Paris

When Roman Polanski walked on stage the night of Feb. 22 to present an honorary César, the French equivalent of the Academy Award, to Sylvester Stallone, he wore an expression of disbelief: Stallone a special guest of honor at France’s top film awards? Then again, Polanski told the crowd in French, ”I would never have thought that Poland would become capitalist, that the USSR would fall into pieces…” It was all a Sly tribute from the Polish director, who listed Stallone’s Cold Warrior incarnations and added that such personae as Rocky and Rambo are really the work of a creative artist. ”You have even created your own body,” Polanski exclaimed, taking in the broad shoulders that strained through the fabric of Stallone’s tux.

Despite appearances, Stallone has not been fished out of the trash heap of American pop culture and put on the same lofty shelf as adopted French icons Jerry Lewis and Mickey Rourke. The special award seems above all to have been a canny move on the part of the César organizers to focus world attention on the French prizes.

The process had already taken on surreal proportions the night before, when Stallone, 45, was drummed into France’s elite Order of Arts and Letters. While his latest effort, Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, was being critically pulverized back home, Sly stood on a pedestal at the French Ministry of Culture, expounding his credo: ”I believe life should be grabbed like a strong enemy and never let go,” he proclaimed, then, moving from Rambo to Rimbaud, he added, ”Art consists of the battle between man and his limitations.” Photographers pressed forward eagerly to catch the noble profile, calling, ”Rocky! Seelvestaire! Monsieur Stallone!”

That’s Officer Stallone to you, messieurs: With the pinning of a green-and-white medal and some air kisses from Minister of Culture Jack Lang, the man who punched and blasted his way into audiences’ hearts received a suitably military induction into the prestigious order. In its foreign legion of honorees, he joins Commanders Martin Scorsese and Warren Beatty, Officers Mel Brooks and Lou Reed. ”This is overwhelming,” Stallone could be heard whispering to his manager. For Lang, who spent most of his early tenure fuming at American cultural imperialism, it must have been a fête worse than death.

During a brief chat after the ceremony, the newly decorated Stallone gave French film a gracious nod. ”There’s a lot more speaking — they lay a great emphasis on words. But,” he shrugged, ”moviegoers are moviegoers.”

Moviegoers all over the French-speaking world watched the next night’s Césars ceremony, which resembles the Oscars in everything but the statue. Like many of the films it honors, the César is heavier and harder to get a grip on than its American counterpart — it weighs close to 10 pounds, in fact, which made 64-year-old actress Jeanne Moreau stumble as she lugged hers away from the podium. Not Sly: He grabbed le grand César like any strong enemy and thrust it aloft. Sly could do two sets of 10 reps with a César in each hand in the time it took an ordinary actor to thank his producer and his grandmother. In that moment, all those years of creating himself, all that battling between man and his limitations, ended in triumph.