Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Stay Hungry

One of the pleasures of viewing older films or television programs is witnessing a latter day star in his/her salad days, paying dues. It is the sort of amusement that wouldn't have existed during their original releases/airings. As an example, I've enjoyed seeing actors who would go on to collect Oscars on goofy sitcoms from the '70s or '80s. Arnold Schwarzeneger would never become a serious, respected actor, but he did have a successful career on the big screen, usually body slamming or shooting people. He would also become the governor of California.  

Prior to that, he was a very successful bodybuilder from Austria. Give the documentary PUMPING IRON a look sometime.  Arnold's charisma shines through in every scene; he's a natural for the camera. He also appeared in a really awful picture from 1970 called HERCULES IN NEW YORK (his voice was dubbed) and had cameos in a few others. 1976's STAY HUNGRY, his first substantial credit, is a highly unusual (even for its time) and individualistic drama with the bodybuilding subculture as a backdrop to a familiar plot: rich kid attempts to purchase a local business to make way for a high rise and later has a change of heart.

That business is a local gym, where Mr. Universe hopeful Joe (Schwarzeneger) and cute receptionist Mary Tate (Sally Field) work (and seem to be an item). Craig (Jeff Bridges) is a parentless trust-fund baby who spends most of his days either asleep on an inflatable in his swimming pool or at a country club. There are a series of letters from his Uncle Albert (Woodrow Parfrey) who in voiceover throughout the movie inquires as to when the young man will finally find a purpose.

Craig nominally works for an investment firm that is looking to erect a skyscraper on the gym property. Craig is enlisted the oversee the purchase of the gym, but after bonding with Joe and falling for Mary Tate, and finding himself enamored with the physical fitness lifestyle, he cannot go through with it. Craig also begins to question his aimless existence.

Sounds fairly standard, but STAY HUNGRY is rather a subversive, sometimes patently bizarre drama of manners. Director Bob Rafelson (also co-scriptor) stages the expected culture clash scenes, such as a party at the country club where the WASPs don't reckon well with the earthiness of Joe, who's there to perform with his bluegrass band, and Mary Tate, clad in a revealing dress and clueless to upper class behavior.

But the fitness culture, becoming more mainstream by the mid-1970s, is also taken to task, shown to be prone to narcissism as much as that of the white glove crowd. Some of the oddest moments in this movie occur in the gym - a fight involving the heaving of barbells and a pair of hookers who attempt to service their charges/targets on exercise equipment. And a surrealistic finale, with a group of bodybuilders lining a city street (in Brimingham, Alabama!!) to prance and pose, much to the delight of onlookers, who attempt to join them.

For many viewers, the strangest scenes may come when Arnold picks up the fiddle and gets down with his bluegrass ensemble. These are moments that I guarantee are far more entertaining now than they were in '76.

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