Years before he became one of the most high-profile actors in Hollywood, smashing through obstacles like “being unable to act” and “being so Austrian he really shouldn’t work as an American cop/fireman/twin/whatever”, incomprehensible muscleman Arnold Schwarzenegger gave one of his most compelling performances by playing himself. In the 1977 bodybuilding documentary, Pumping Iron, Arnold is the dominant Mr. Olympia, the man all other muscled up weirdos aspire to conquer and his affable arrogance and sneaky tactics make him just as compelling an antagonist as the unstoppable Terminator he would play a few years later.
Although the documentary focuses on numerous bodybuilders, the conceit of the parts that feature Ahnold contrast him, the dominant veteran who has won the Mr Olympia contest for many years in a row, with the young up and comer who seeks to depose him, Lou Ferrigno. Ferrigno would go on to carve out his own niche in Hollywood too, most notably playing the Incredible Hulk, but here he serves as Schwarzenegger’s opposite. Schwarzenegger’s love of the spotlight is shoved in your face as firmly as his oily freak muscles. He surrounds himself with beautiful women and journalists, trains in a high-profile gym, smiles and winks at the camera during bodybuilding contests and dominates conversation. The other bodybuilders look up to him (as far as they’re able to move their necks to look up at him anyway) asking him for advice and treating him as the leader of their peculiar gang. It calls to mind the episode of Malcolm in the Middle where Hal adopted the bodybuilders as his personal army. Looking to Arnold Schwarzenegger for leadership doesn’t say much for the intelligence of the bodybuilders. Or Floridians.
Ferrigno on the other hand, is shy and reserved. He trains with his father and surrounds himself with friends and family. The documentary depicts him as a young man lacking in confidence, needing constant guidance from his father about how to pose, what to lift etc. As much of an underdog as a 6’ 5’, 285lb man can possibly be, I found myself rooting for Ferrigno to take the Mr Olympia crown away from Schwarzenegger, who completely dismisses the idea of losing. Unfortunately, whoever is writing the screenplay for reality has little knowledge of standard storytelling techniques, as the underdog fails to come out on top.
While talking to a reporter, Schwarzenegger recants a story of how he tricked a competitor into undermining himself by telling him to scream all the way through his routine. The man, who Schwarzenegger says had no chance of winning the contest in any case, was led away after a few minutes having made a fool of himself. When he and Ferrigno finally meet in Pretoria for the Mr Olympia contest he engages in similar mind games, all the while portraying himself as Lou’s new buddy. He condescends to Lou’s parents. He keeps asking him if he feels nervous. When Lou grunts while lifting weights, Arnold pretends to think he was asking him a question, then tells him that he makes too much noise. Arnold would be right at home as head cheerleader in a high school and not just because he could grope all the other girls.
The qualities, if you can call them that, which led Arnold to a political career are evident even back in the 70’s. He rejects emotions as a distraction and talks about being so driven that he didn’t attend his father’s funeral back home because it fell too close to a competition. More revealingly, he says “I was always dreaming about very powerful people, dictators and things like that. I was just always impressed by people who could be remembered for hundreds of years, or even, like Jesus, be for thousands of years remembered.” Fairly pompous stuff for a guy who just lifted weights and it would be the most memorable
quote of the movie for me if he didn’t talk about coming so much.
Obnoxious and self-important, nevertheless the villain wins the day and is able to retire from bodybuilding before anyone can topple him. I don’t know if Arnold’s negging tactics worked and psyched Lou out or if he just really did have the superior set of muscles, they both just look like a bag of rocks to me. Still it’s hard not to feel annoyed watching Arnold bask in his victory, smoking a joint and eating steak, wearing a shirt that says ‘ARNOLD IS NUMERO UNO’. I remain disappointed that the film didn’t abandon verisimilitude and have Lou Hulk out and crush this smug bastard. Now I as a doughy blogger I clearly have no reason to be bitter towards a rich meathead who can’t act, so you know I have no agenda when I say that Arnold Schwarzenegger is much more natural as a smug Austrian who lifts things than he’s ever been trying to play likeable, catchphrase-spouting heroes who are American and have names like Jack and have a thick Austrian accent for some reason. In summary, he really is a terrifying evil with no emotions that should be crushed in a hydraulic press.
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