In Praise of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ageing Badass
At 68 years old, the Austrian Oak finally looks mortal. But while he's lost some of his strength, he's found his acting chops.
There's never been a lot relatable about Arnold Schwarzenegger. Even if he didn't look like a big pile of paint cans laminated in ham, he was a self-made real-estate millionaire by 30, had a dad in the Nazi party and knew how to drive a tank. At his peak he could feasibly tear a normal, mortal man in half, and his peak lasted a long time: first as the record-breaking consecutive Mr Olympia, and then as a sort of Hollywood muscle-robot, ruling the A-list with a huge, unbreakable fist. His fans have never had much in common with him because he's never really been human: more a sort of living, breathing, cigar-chomping wish-fulfilment power fantasy, revving into the sunset on a motorcycle.
He's always had his detractors – Clive James once described him as looking like a condom full of walnuts – but young Arnie was like a god to millions of people. Even in roles where he was meant to be something of an everyman, he was still – clearly – Arnold Schwarzenegger. Arnold Schwarzenegger is never not Arnold Schwarzenegger. He'd be stuck in a plaid shirt and a suburban house and was meant to be believable as just some dude when he looked like – well, he looked like Arnold fucking Schwarzenegger. Those plaid shirts were enormous. They almost definitely came out of a catalogue, because you cannot just buy clothes that big from shops. There is literally no disguising that he is Arnold Schwarzenegger. "LINDA," he'd barf, "MY LOVELY WIFE. I LOVE OUR QUAINT AND QUIET SUBURBAN LIFE." No you don't, mate, you eat about a thousand eggs a day. Arnie wasn't just built like a brick shithouse, he was built like a brick shithouse that survived solely on a diet of other brick shithouses. If a film with him in was ever going to be praised for its realism, every time another character met him they'd have to open with something like, "Fuck me, you look like a human tree."
He played a barbarian, a robot, Hercules – fantasy figures befitting his cartoon-like physique, and roles where wooden acting and a thick accent were unlikely to matter. The Terminator films used his lack of range to great effect, as a terrifying killing machine in the first one and reducing grown men to tears with a stoic thumbs-up in the second. In the first Terminator he speaks less than 100 words, including "I'll be back", the catchphrase he'd return to throughout his career.
The thing is, one day he won't be back. He's a mere mortal. One day, Arnold Schwarzenegger will die. That's being made increasingly clear as he enters the old, grizzled, knackered stage of his career. Nothing deteriorates like perfection, and that's what he was frequently judged to be – as a four-time Mr Universe and seven-time Mr Olympia, he was held up as the closest we had.
But he kind of looks fucked now. His eyes are slits. His skin's looser. The decade he spent in politics didn't treat him particularly well – it didn't treat California amazingly, either – and a string of fuck-ups, both political and personal, seem like they took their toll on him. Revelations of infidelities (including a lengthy affair with his former housekeeper that led to an illegitimate son, Joseph Baena, who couldn't look much more like Schwarzenegger if he wore his face as a mask) led to a high-profile, costly divorce, and the novelty of a movie star politician with a fun nickname ("the Governator") wore off. The talk there had once been that the US would repeal the natural-born citizen clause in the Constitution to allow him to one day run for President died down.
Life did what Hollywood baddies couldn't, and beat the shit out of him. His post-politics return to film was as an older, more tired man. He still seemed like he could punch a rhino through a bank vault, but it wouldn't go as far as it once would have. The rhino would maybe require a second punch to truly die. In the photo on his Wikipedia page he's got bloodshot eyes, like he had a three-beer lunch then a nap and someone woke him up. But he's way better for it. The Arnie of the 2010s is a more interesting, more relatable, more talented actor than before – one that actually seems human. The Austrian Oak could be transforming into a Clint Eastwood kind of figure – Eastwood was 62 when he made Unforgiven, and 74 when he made Million Dollar Baby. Schwarzenegger's slap in the middle now at 68 next month – and could be entering the most interesting phase of his career.
Like, however stupidly expensive any of his living habits might be, and there are definitely some really stupid things in there (as mentioned: he has a tank)(a man who is essentially already a tank has an additional tank to drive around in), Arnold Schwarzenegger never needs to make a film again. He was worth eight hundred million dollars at one point, which even after some bad investments and a messy divorce won't exactly have left him on the shitpile. Making money isn't hard when you're an icon. The ability to wander into an advert, fall on his arse, overact as himself for eight seconds and leave with a wheelbarrow of cash means he can pick and choose actual acting projects as he sees fit.
Nobody involved in that meerkat advert was trying to make great art. It's not a career-defining performance from Schwarzenegger or either of the CGI meerkats. It's never going to be anyone's favourite advert and people are still going to say "Orange Wednesdays". But maybe it's a necessary evil. Not even a necessary evil, just a necessary slightly shit – stuff like that gives Schwarzenegger the luxury to seek out films that are genuinely interesting, and even if the results have been a bit mixed, he's come out of them well.
His first lead role in a decade, 2013's The Last Stand brought South Korean director Kim Jee-Woon to Hollywood and gave Arnie wrestling-style, grappling fight scenes that actually seemed how a big man in his sixties would scrap – ugly, heavy punches, pinning through men's torsos and pushing them through windows. Not Conan, not the Terminator, just an ageing man who's livid and wants everyone to shut the fuck up. David Ayer's Sabotage is a self-consciously unpleasant and ugly film, in which every character is horrible and the fun, semi-abstract deaths of most action films are replaced with genuinely horrifying grisly murders. And Schwarzenegger looks like total shit in it. He's grey round the temples, his receding hairline is really drawn attention to and his eyes are tiny dark slits. When he smokes a cigar, he doesn't look cool like he used to in the 90s during interviews, when he'd be sat in a Hawaiian shirt on a film set chomping on a big fat stogie and laughing his head off. He just looks like he should give up smoking. He's so old. But he comes across like a character actor in the role, not a fading muscleman. If it was somehow the first film you saw him in, which it obviously wasn't for anyone, you'd be intrigued by the big dude with the slightly funny accent.
And now, with Maggie, he's like an actual, proper, full-on actor. He plays the grizzled, bearded father of a girl imminently transforming into a zombie. It's almost a drama. Arnie's always been praised for his charisma – and his, like, enormousness – but when it's come to acting there's always been a kind of shrug from critics, a feeling of "Come on now, it's Arnold Schwarzenegger, you know what you're getting". With Maggie, for the first time he's being praised for a performance on its own terms rather than, "for Arnold Schwarzenegger, this isn't rubbish". He even cries on screen, something that would once have been unthinkable without some sort of appallingly shit robot-discovering-feelings "What is dis liquid from my eyes?" set-up.
Later on this summer, Schwarzenegger is supposedly beginning work on The Legend Of Conan, a canonical Conan sequel which the writer has described as "Unforgiven with a sword-wielding barbarian". It probably won't get the shelf of awards that Eastwood's film did, but stranger things have happened – as long as it veers away from the Red Sonja vibe of yore and sees Arnie actually emoting instead of oldly swinging a sword, it could continue his renaissance apace.
Before that, though, in the imminent Terminator: Genisys (which could only have a worse title if it was called Tyrmynytyr: Gynysys), Old Badass 2015 Arnie fights Young Bulging 1984 Arnie, recreated with body doubles, CGI and stock footage. This is largely due to that franchise's fuck-this-shit attitude towards timelines, continuity and fan expectation, but it works as a metaphor for Schwarzenegger's whole career. On one side there's a young, grunting, seemingly indestructible beefcake: unfeeling, monosyllabic, more a visual effect than an actor; impressive, inscrutable, inhuman. On the other there's an older, more lived-in version: flawed, vulnerable, emotional, interesting. But still with badass sunglasses and a big fuck-off gun. Because come on: he's still Arnold fucking Schwarzenegger.
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