Arnold Schwarzenegger, in his prime, was the great film star of the 1980s and most of the 1990s. The Austrian bodybuilder turned Mr Universe turned softcore pornstar turned action villain turned action hero turned blockbuster leading man turned turned Japanese TV icon turned Governator turned environmentalist turned nostalgic comeback: it's hard not to look at the life of "Arnie" and not be fascinated. And as he turns 70, it's worth considering his legacy.
Critics, geeks, snobs, and steroid abusers have debated the merits of Arnie for over four decades. Questions such as "Can he act?" and "Is he responsible for the California drought?" obscure the grandiosity of his impact on late 20th century popular culture, and the way he shaped everything from video games to contemporary masculinity.
Being born in 1990, Arnie seemed omnipresent to me growing up . He was everywhere: toys, SNES cartridges, t-shirts, showbags, talk shows, The Simpsons, movies. People my age speak fondly/sadly of what felt like weekly reruns of True Lies and Kindergarten Cop. He was an indelible part of my filmic education, and if I'm being honest, my first memories of onscreen violence came from a leather jacketed Arnie quipping over explosions and gunshots.
In 2017, Arnie nostalgia is multi-pronged. He's a callback to youth, to VHS rentals and cardboard-movie posters advertising mega-gulps and $6 XL popcorn. He's also a vision of a time and history when the ever present sense of global annihilation demanded replies, be they post-punk or Commando. And he's an internet pastiche, lost in a blend of memes, gifs and YouTube best-ofs; a stale holdover from a different time.
Of all the "Expendables" of the 1980s, Arnie was the purest. He had none of Sly's clunky humorlessness, Kurt Russell's second-guesses, Van Damme's showiness, Gibson's insanity, or Willis's earnest readiness (or male pattern baldness). He was, essentially, alien. Not just because he was so clearly Austrian in a time when Hollywood painted Europeans as effeminate fruits or commies, but because his very projection of self spoke of some great otherness.
Arnie's first real feature role, Hercules in New York (1970), was the classic fish out of water narrative that would become his staple. Twins, Last Action Hero, Total Recall, Terminator 2, even Kindergarten Cop—Arnie was at his best when he was himself: an outsider surreally attempting to fit in and assimilate. His physicality wasn't just his strength, it was his vulnerability. Look at this man, cast as a demi-God, a kill-bot, a barbarian: he is a pulsing stack of viscera, shaped in the mold of a Germanic myth. How can we see him as anything other than a stranger? What the "Who was buffer?" listicles of 80s action stars overlook is the quieter assumption of who was more human. Arnie carried with him an essential E.T-like kindness that was unmissable for anyone who cared to look. There's a reason they hid this kindness behind dark sunglasses in Terminator.
That is why Arnie's brand of cinematic no-scoping carries such punch. There's something ironically un-Hollywood about rooting for this otherworldly oddity as he snaps necks on a passenger plane and says "Don't disturb my friend, he's dead tired." Arnie is a master of comic timing. I don't subscribe to the idea of him as a bad actor, but rather as the first performer to truly understand the postmodern contradiction of big screen action heroism. Arnie grocked presentational performance in ways Godard could only ever dream about (imagine that collaboration). Think about Commando, where he leaves behind a body-count that's gratuitously epic but simultaneously personalised—each killing is a revenge killing, death being the sole guarantee, but never unremarked upon. "Remember Sully when I promised to kill you last?" he says as he dangles David Patrick Kelly over a cliff. "I lied."
Arnie had a self-propelling dynamism that few contemporary film stars have in 2017. Twins and the accidental PG13+ Cronenberg body-horror Junior work because DeVito and Arnie aren't Hollywood. The grouchy foul mouthed dwarf and the all-(un)American colossus, beating down the footpath like polar visions of an era's psychic split. Arnie was a great comic actor and felt right in family films because, essentially, it was wrong. Hey, the guy I've spent 20 years watching blow holes in people is now… having a baby? Okay.
For my generation, Arnie's semi-disappearance spoke to a greater discomfort. Things were coming undone in conflictingly meaningful ways. Life felt unsettling, and not in a thumbs-up-slowly-sinking-into-molten-lava kind of way. After 9/11, the image of Arnie firing a man dangling from a missile into a skyscraper seemed less schoolyard G.I. Joe roleplay, and more grim possibility. The full power of his thick Austrian accent faded with that of the American exceptionalism he helped fetishise. He was Mr. $4 weekly at Blockbuster Video, lost in the age of the DVD boxset.
When I think of Arnie, I think back to watching a rented tape of his most misunderstood and inconsistent vehicle, Last Action Hero (1993), a film in which he essentially plays a parody of muscled movie guys, including himself. In a car chase, he turns and shoots an ice cream truck, the resulting explosion propelling an ice-cream cone through the skull of a pursuing henchman. He turns to his young sidekick, and almost to the camera remarks, "Iced that guy…to cone a phrase."
His blue eyes flash.
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