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Pumping up Arnold

Stewart Oksenhorn

Everyone knows that Arnold Schwarzenegger ascended from bodybuilding icon to action-movie hero to California governor. And film fans probably know that Schwarzenegger was a movie star of sorts before he became an actor of sorts: His biceps were the centerpiece of “Pumping Iron,” George Butler’s 1977 bodybuilding documentary.

And then there is what must be the most underexposed aspect of the muscle man/action hero/politician’s career: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Golden Globe-winning actor.

Schwarzenegger won the Golden Globe Award for Best Acting Debut for his work in the 1976 comedy-drama “Stay Hungry,” directed by Aspenite Bob Rafelson. The film is set in the world of bodybuilding, and Schwarzenegger does indeed play a muscle man ” Joe Santo, a competitor for the Mr. Universe title.

That doesn’t sound like Schwarzenegger had to do much to get in character. But Rafelson says that Schwarzenegger showed acting chops he never exhibited again, as he took machinelike roles in “The Terminator” and “Conan” films, and acted mechanically against type in “Kindergarten Cop” and “Junior.” Yes, his Joe Santo is a bodybuilder. But he is also sensitive and philosophical, and a bluegrass fiddler (!).

“Whether you think he is brilliant or not, he has never been better in a movie,” said the 71-year-old Rafelson. “He had nuance and sensitivity when he gets rejected, when he talks about how this guy” ” gym owner Thor Erickson, played by R.G. Armstrong ” “‘owns’ him.”

“Stay Hungry” received a memorable launch. In his first stab at editing, Rafelson edited the film in Aspen, then previewed the film here at the old Playhouse (now Stage 3). Among those in attendance were the film’s co-stars Sally Field, who soon after bought a house in Aspen, and Jeff Bridges, who became a frequent visitor.

The audience, said Rafelson, “was jumping up and down, laughing and howling, I thought somewhat excessively. I hadn’t realized they’d all taken acid. You throw a free movie in Aspen then, and people took it as an opportunity to get loaded. So I had a deranged experience of how much people liked this movie.”

“Stay Hungry” earned generally favorable reviews upon its release, earned modest attendance, and was promptly forgotten.

A new, old film

Some five years ago, Rafelson was itching to have a new print of “Stay Hungry” made. The film was screened occasionally at festivals and the worn, old print looked lousy, with heavy tints of red and pink. Rafelson pressed MGM, which owned the film, to make a restored copy; he found that the youngsters in the marketing department hadn’t even heard of “Stay Hungry.” His efforts went nowhere.

Around that time, Schwarzenegger asked Rafelson to attend a Hollywood ceremony at which he was to receive an award from the American Film Institute. “I said, I don’t own a tuxedo,” said Rafelson. “I don’t have a mind to go to this kind of event. I don’t go to the Academy Awards, even when I’m nominated.”

The two made a deal. Rafelson would go to Los Angeles if Schwarzenegger would use his muscle to get a new print of “Stay Hungry” made. The film was restored.

Last year, when the Terminator decided to seek the California governorship, anything involving Arnold Schwarzenegger was instantly pumped up in value. Anything except the film that featured Schwarzenegger’s award-winning acting.

When Schwarzenegger announced his candidacy, “every movie Arnold had ever made was pushed into DVD ” except mine,” said Rafelson. “I told [MGM], if you ever needed an excuse, you have one now. And then they said yes.”

The “Stay Hungry” DVD, made from the restored print, becomes available Tuesday, May 18. The DVD features a video introduction by Rafelson and audio commentary by Rafelson, Field and Bridges.

Before they were stars

“The prime benefit I get from making a movie is getting a lifestyle that I wouldn’t otherwise have a taste of,” said Rafelson. “And that has to do with the location and the subject matter.”

As a director, Rafelson has sampled the life of a Texas oil rigger in “Five Easy Pieces,” the British explorer Richard Burton in “Mountains of the Moon,” and ’60s psychedelia and music in “Head.” In the mid-’70s, the New York City native wanted to explore the South, thinking he would set a movie there. He hitchhiked back and forth from Texas to North Carolina several times, along the way landing in a Mississippi prison and meeting Tammy Wynette, whose music he had used in “Five Easy Pieces.”

Two months after his final hitching excursion, Rafelson unexpectedly received a copy of Charles Gaines’ novel, “Stay Hungry.” The story was set in Alabama, and involved a group of shady real estate investors who want to buy a bodybuilding studio as part of a development project in downtown Birmingham. In addition to romance and bodybuilding, Gaines’ novel looked at the how the South was breaking with long-standing traditions. “Here I am wanting to make a movie about the South, and then someone sends me a book about the South,” said Rafelson.

Looking for a bodybuilder to cast as Joe Santo, Rafelson inevitably found his way to Schwarzenegger, the reigning Mr. Universe. “In that field he was a celebrity,” said Rafelson.

Rafelson’s casting director tried to dissuade Rafelson from using Schwarzenegger. The character of Santo, as written by Gaines, was American, and Schwarzenegger’s Austrian accent was as thick as ever. But Rafelson, who toured ” as an observer ” on the bodybuilding circuit, was intrigued by Schwarzenegger. “He had this notion that he was a modern, living sort of sculpture,” noted the director. And Schwarzenegger himself had a confidence that was contagious.

“‘You can look all around the world. But sooner or later you give the part to me,'” said Rafelson, doing a fine Schwarzenegger impersonation in the lobby of the Hotel Jerome. “He was very sure of himself and very sure I’d eventually come around to seeing it his way.”

Rafelson’s account of casting Sally Field is even juicier. Then known primarily for her TV roles in “Gidget” and “The Flying Nun,” no one could imagine her in the part of a sexy gym enthusiast.

“I wouldn’t let her in the f—ing office,” said Rafelson. “One day, Sally came to my office and gave a note to the secretary: ‘Tell Bob Rafelson I’m the best f–k in town.’ I thought maybe I should get her in for a reading.” (Rafelson swears he would never tell that story had Field herself not made the episode public.)

Like many of Rafelson’s films, “Stay Hungry” is notable for the boost it gave to its actors. Field was transformed from a TV lightweight into a dramatic film actress; three years after what Rafelson calls her first adult role, Field won an Academy Award for “Norma Rae.” Bridges, who made his film debut in the Rafelson-produced “The Last Picture Show,” would next star in the remake of “King Kong.” Schwarzenegger became Arnold.

A hankering for ‘Hungry’

Rafelson, whose films are characterized by their maverick themes, has long been an outsider in Hollywood. After living in Los Angeles in the late ’60s, he moved to Aspen in 1971, the better to keep the film industry at arm’s length.

“I never made pictures for the studios,” he said. “I never felt like I’d be too enriched, that my imagination would be enriched or even my opportunities, by cultivating the studio executives in Hollywood. Almost every picture I’ve worked on, I’ve worked either with the writer of the novel or a brand-new screenwriter. I never trafficked that much with what was going on in Hollywood.”

Rafelson compromised in agreeing to provide commentary for the “Stay Hungry” DVD. He doesn’t put much stock in director commentaries, and he had to show his face in L.A. to shoot his.

“People should see the goddamn movie and think what they think about it and not be guided by producers and directors and actors,” he said. “And I think I’m wrong about that. If people find [the commentary] interesting, so be it.”

Rafelson thinks doing the commentary for “Stay Hungry” was worth the effort if it generates attention for the film. With its comic side, the film shows a different facet of the director than such grim character studies as “Five Easy Pieces” and “The King of Marvin Gardens,” for which Rafelson is celebrated.

“I did it for ‘Stay Hungry’ because it’s a movie that no one would think I would make,” he said. “Most of my movies are so f—ing serious. To make a film where it’s about joy, and about people experiencing and treasuring it and finding their way toward it, I wanted them to see that. I figure, let people see Rafelson like that and see he’s not all about self-destructive characters.”

“Stay Hungry” isn’t on a par with the exquisite “Mountains of the Moon” or “Easy Rider,” which Rafelson produced. But he believes it deserves attention all the same.

“It’s like your child who’s been ignored,” he said. “You don’t care if it’s your best child or not your best child. You just want people to have the chance to see it.”

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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