Friday 7 April 2017

Stay Hungry (1976)

Director: Bob Rafelson
Writers: Charles Gaines and Bob Rafelson, from the novel by Charles Gaines
Stars: Jeff Bridges, Sally Field and Arnold Schwarzenegger

Index: 2017 Centennials.

I’m a child of the eighties, which means I grew up with Arnold Schwarzenegger. I saw every one of his eighties movies soon after release and that continued on into the nineties until I gave up and tried to avoid things like Jingle All the Way. However, I find that I never consciously went back to the seventies, which surprises me. I’d seen Hercules in New York, because it’s one of those so bad it’s good movies that I can’t resist, and I’d seen The Long Goodbye, in which he isn’t even credited, but I hadn’t seen The Villain until this project last year, watching for Kirk Douglas’s centennial, and I hadn’t seen Stay Hungry until now, watching for R. G. Armstrong’s. I wonder if I’ll find myself reviewing Scavenger Hunt next year, watching for someone else’s! In fact, the entire Stay Hungry cast looks like my childhood: Jeff Bridges from Starman, Sally Field from Smokey and the Bandit, Robert Englund from V (and, later, A Nightmare on Elm Street), Roger E. Mosley from Magnum, P.I. and Scatman Crothers from, well, Hong Kong Phooey (yeah, and The Shining).

What I found from this long overdue catchup was that my idea of what this movie was and what it actually is only just intersected and the maybe ten per cent that did includes duh facts like it’s a feature film and Arnie is a bodybuilder. I think my expectations of Stay Hungry were more like the reality of Pumping Iron, shot months later but not released until 1977, though they do play together well. That’s a docudrama narrated by Charles Gaines and based on his photo-essay about the 1975 Mr. Universe and Mr. Olympia competitions, with the Austrian Oak winning the latter. This is a comedy drama adapted by Gaines from his original novel and the title refers only in part to Arnie who, as Joe Santo, a bodybuilder preparing for Mr. Universe, is the one to speak it aloud. He says it to a rather young Jeff Bridges, playing the lead role of Craig Blake, because he’s the one who needs the advice. I’ve seen Bridges a lot younger than this, in The Last Picture Show, Fat City and Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, but I guess I’ve got used to him being old.

When we first meet him, in the pastoral and peaceful countryside behind the mansion he recently inherited, Blake doesn’t have a clue who he really is, deep in his heart. He has some ideas, but they’re not his. Now that his parents are dead, in a plane crash, the family has expectations of him, to join the steel business that brought them their wealth and status. He’s just not ready, so he gets involved in an inadvisable real estate deal instead. Jabo and his stereotypically entitled slimebags plan to build a new skyscraper in Birmingham, AL, and they’re buying up all the properties within a whole city block to make that possible. Blake’s part is to talk or pressure the owner of the Olympic Spa into selling to him but, even to us, he’s clearly as uncomfortable with Jabo as he is settling down in the family business for a long, boring career. He wanders off anyway, down to the Olympic, unaware that it will become the catalyst that sees him define who he is and what he plans to do with the rest of his life.

So far, so good. Bridges is a good lead, as always, but his character is lost so he needs people of substance to help him find his way forward. That’s certainly not Joe Spinell, who plays Jabo, because if I’ve learned anything from the movies, it’s that any character played by Joe Spinell is someone from whom you should never take direction. It’ll have to be the people he meets at the Olympia and they all come out of the woodwork the moment he walks in. First up is Sally Field, also looking younger here than I know her because this is effectively the beginning of her career, even if she was in two films in the sixties. She’s Mary Kate Farnsworth and she’s the cute little welcoming face of the gym, presumably a receptionist and secretary. Blake feels an immediate attraction and she soon becomes his girl, however oddly she fits in his world of country clubs and high society. Field always did play well as the free spirit or the fish out of water, comfortable at being uncomfortable, and here she gets to play both of them at once.
The bundle of energy who gives Blake a tour of the Olympia is Franklin, in the surprising form of Robert Englund. He’s loose here, utterly unlike anyone else I’ve seen him play, though he did play a lot of rednecks early on before he found his niche. He was calm and passive in V as Willie the gentle alien and, of course, evil and controlling as Freddy Krueger, but this is something else again. I have to say that he’s the least impactful of the lead actors but that’s the character’s fault rather than his. He’s a joy to watch every time he gets screen time, not least because we know that something unexpected is likely to happen, whether it’s a brawl or a cool pool shot. Among other tasks, he’s Joe Santo’s grease man, which means he oils him up before competitions. And Joe is in training for the Mr. Universe competition, which means a lot of working out. We see surprisingly little of that and what there is has Arnie dressed in strange costumes, like a sort of Mexican Batman outfit that successfully hides his physique.

That’s the weirdest thing about this film, but it all makes sense when you realise the timing. While bodybuilding was a thoroughly established sport in the mid-seventies, with Schwarzenegger retiring in 1975 after his sixth consecutive win as Mr. Olympia, not long after shooting this picture. It’s odd to consider today, but Joe Q. Public had absolutely no idea who he was when Stay Hungry hit theatres, so he had to be kept covered up until competition time, near the end of the picture, when he could be unveiled and, along with a collection of the best of the best, shock everyone, as indeed they do, running around the streets of Birmingham in a hilarious finalĂ©. With Stay Hungry and Pumping Iron, Charles Gaines let the world in on the secret, making Arnie and Lou Ferrigno, among others, household names. Incidentally, Gaines made another major contribution to pop culture by inventing paintball. He and Bob Gurnsey came up with it and he and eleven others played the first game, in New Hampshire in 1981.
Now, with Sally Field cute as a button, Robert Englund bouncing around like a rubber ball and Arnie working out in the strangest costumes, you might think we’re set, but the place belongs to Thor Erickson and he’s played by our birthday boy, R. G. Armstrong, in an unusual but highly memorable performance. He was a versatile actor, who was acclaimed for playing Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on Broadway in 1955, but the roles he was given on screen, whether working in film or on television, tended to be in westerns. He found his way into almost every TV western that I’ve heard of, plus a few others: Have Gun - Will Travel, The Rifleman, Wanted: Dead or Alive, Maverick, Wagon Train, Rawhide, Bonanza, Gunsmoke, The High Chaparral, you name it, even Walker, Texas Ranger! On film, he became a regular for Sam Peckinpah, often as an off-kilter preacher in pictures like Ride the High Country, Major Dundee and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. He may not have been the star, but he was a highly memorable mainstay of the genre.

That’s not to say that westerns were all he made. His first picture, Garden of Eden in 1954, was a nudie cutie and he’d run the gamut of exploitation sub-genres in the seventies, including Angels Die Hard, Boss Nigger and Dixie Dynamite, not to forget Race with the Devil. Later films were as varied as Reds, Children of the Corn and Predator, but I wonder if he ever had another role with quite as wild an opportunity as Thor Erickson provides him here. He’s a businessman, running a gym that’s surviving, if not particularly successful; he’s a trainer, with real hopes of Joe Santo bringing back the Mr. Olympia title; and he’s a big dude, which we notice when we see that even Arnie has to look up at him. However, he has a dark side that goes far beyond the inferiority complex that prompts him to wear a horrendous wig: he spends much of his time drunk; he has a hole in his office floor that allows him to peep on the ladies karate class getting changed; and he goes utterly off his rocker on an amyl nitrate binge late in the film.
It’s a fantastic part for someone willing to go to those places for the sake of art and it pays off for him. I won’t spoil the scenes late in the movie when he turns into a dangerous madman, but I will say that they go much further than I ever expected and the fight scene is blistering, not as much for the choreography but because it looks utterly believable; my eyes were wide wondering if the actors got hurt for real during shooting. I’d have been impressed even if he wasn’t almost sixty at the time, but then he was still a busy actor after he turned eighty. His final appearance was as the lead in a 2001 horror movie called The Waking or Keeper of Souls, whose ratings suggest was not a good way to go out. He continued to act on stage off-Broadway, retiring in 2005 because cataracts had made him almost blind. He still found time for a few years in retirement before he died in 2012 at the ripe old age of 95, less than a month after his oldest collaborator, Andy Griffith, with whom he’d acted in university in the Carolina Playmakers.

Even the most reliable actor can be brought down by a bad script or a bad director, but Gaines gave them plenty of opportunity to find quirky ways for their characters to shine and Bob Rafelson kept things under control while seeming improvisationally loose. The cast honestly seemed to enjoy themselves, a highly appropriate aspect given that we’re supposed to buy into our leading rich boy being seduced by the family aspect of the gym and the life that they lead. We see as much of Mary Kate, Franklin and even Joe outside the Olympia as inside it, each of them forging memorable scenes for themselves that surprised. I wasn’t expecting to see a bare butt shot from Sally Field, an enjoyable game of pool from Robert Englund or Arnold Schwarzenegger sawing on a fiddle and playing it hot in a bluegrass band, of all things. At one point, Mary Kate sees a painting through an office window, Blake goes in to steal it and they give it to a passer by; it’s of sunflowers, but she thought it was a lion. It’s only one of many feelgood scenes.
Of course, with Joe Spinell hovering in the shadows, a host of entitled rich kids without manners (including Ed Begley, Jr.) pushing Blake even further away from his upbringing and that blistering descent into drug-fuelled debauchery by Erickson, we know that not everything is going to end up sweetness and light. There are also aspects that seem odd. I get why Blake brings Santo and his bluegrass playing buddies to play at a high class party but everything about it feels wrong, including why he thought it was such a bright idea to begin with. Some recognisable faces are given far too little to do: Helena Kallianiotes should have had more chance at action as Anita, the Olympia’s karate teacher Joanna Cassidy seemed wasted as a society girl who briefly hooks up with Joe and Scatman Crothers’s role as the Blakes’ butler of many decades felt too clichĂ©d for the film and his talents both. I was also shocked at how thin Sally Field was; I know my boobs are bigger, but I believed I could lift her up with one arm here and I don’t work out.

Appropriately, given that he would have been a hundred years old today and I’m watching for him, it may be fair to say that this film fades out with R. G. Armstrong’s part. Arnie gets to unveil his amazing physique on stage and battle poses with Ken Waller, a long-standing rival of the era, to the theme from Exodus; and Armstrong goes off the deep end back at the gym, doing all sorts of things I’m not going to spoil in the run-up to his big fight with Blake. And then... well, the rest is enjoyable but notably lesser. The bodybuilders launching a chase scene through the streets, only to be waylaid by the general public and distracted into posing for them, is glorious fun but it’s a distraction for us too, while the plot threads are wrapped up in the safest of all Hollywood endings. I’m not unhappy that we went there, but the one could have been less like a music video without music and the other could have contained at least a little salt to go with the sugar. Maybe that would have helped us stay hungry too.

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