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Schwarzenegger, Arnold (1947—)

Schwarzenegger, Arnold (1947—)

Born in Austria and naturalized as an American citizen in 1983, Arnold Schwarzenegger is one of the main Hollywood male icons of the 1980s and 1990s. Schwarzenegger—Arnie, as he is known to his fans—has used his spectacular body as a passport to fame, gaining celebrity in bodybuilding contests. Arnie won in 1968 (the first of five times) the title of Mr. Universe, the world's top bodybuilding distinction. He used his initial popularity as a sportsman to start businesses including real estate, gyms, and diet products. The next phase in his rising business career included film stardom, which he reached in the 1980s despite his limited acting skills. Consolidated in the early 1990s as both Hollywood star and businessman, Schwarzenegger is rumored to be planning a political career. This could lead him to run for governor of California.

Schwarzenegger's acting career began with a role as Hercules in a mediocre television film. His first memorable screen appearance was as himself in George Butler and Robert Fiori's documentary on bodybuilding contests, Pumping Iron (1977). But Schwarzenegger definitively entered stardom thanks to two roles. One was Robert Howard's sword and sorcery hero Conan in Conan the Barbarian (1982) and Conan the Destroyer (1984); the other, the ultraviolent cyborg sent from the future to eliminate the mother of mankind's future leader in James Cameron's The Terminator (1984). A number of action films followed, among them the box-office hits Predator (1987) and Total Recall (1990). In the same period, Arnie started playing leading roles in Ivan Reitman's comedies Twins (1988) and Kindergarten Cop (1990). Since then, his main hit has been the sequel to The Terminator, T2 (1991). He has also starred in a rather long list of interesting films, including True Lies, Eraser, and the much underrated Last Action Hero and Junior, in which he played a pregnant daddy. Schwarzenegger became Hollywood's best paid villain with the role of Mr. Freeze in Batman and Robin (1997), for which he reaped $25 million.

Several factors contribute to Schwarzenegger's popularity. He is a self-made man in two senses—he has "made" his body and has "made" himself. He embodies health and heroism, and is, no doubt, perceived as a father figure. Yet each aspect of his success is in itself ambiguous, even contradictory. To begin with, his thick Austrian accent clashes with his roles as all-American hero. Despite his impressive physical appearance, he seems to be more popular with children than with women, who have never seen him as a sex symbol. His harsh facial features—deeply set eyes, prominent cheekbones and jaw—by the 1990s somewhat mellowed by age, and also apparently by cosmetic surgery, have allowed him to play both heroes and villains. Few actors could have successfully transformed, as he did, the murderous first Terminator into the heroic fatherly Terminator of the sequel. Still, this new father has no future and is sacrificed in the end. This capacity to cross the line between good and evil on the screen (and also that between comedy and the action film) seems also closely intertwined with his capacity to quickly overcome the failure of some of his films, such as Jingle All the Way and Last Action Hero. Schwarzenegger is, in short, a much more malleable, flexible star than he might seem at first glance. This may be, indeed, the secret of his success.

Schwarzenegger's public image is based on his self-presentation as family man and entrepreneuring American citizen, roles that contrast with those he plays in his often violent movies. His long-lasting marriage to journalist Maria Shriver of the Kennedy family has fuelled speculations on his future as a politician. Ironically, although a Catholic like the Kennedys, he is a staunch Republican, having even acted as Counselor for Fitness during the presidency of George Bush. As a public figure Schwarzenegger has also been involved with the Special Olympics, the Inner City Games, diverse charities devoted to caring for sick children, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center. But when he was awarded a Wiesenthal National Leadership award in 1991 for his generous funding of the Center, a museum devoted to the Jewish Holocaust, malicious tongues hinted at young Arnie's alleged involvement with Nazi politics. The open-heart surgery Schwarzenegger underwent shortly before his fiftieth birthday prompted some to insist that this icon of health is in fact a very sick man, placed too early at the gates of death by his (acknowledged) use of steroids in the height of his bodybuilding days. His detractors seemingly find his success as excessive as his body.

Possibly, the key to Schwarzenegger's success is the fierce control he exerts on his career and his innate ability to market himself. Schwarzenegger has confessed his addiction to the public's admiration and his wish to present himself as a role model. He has argued that the lucky combination of the Austrian sense of discipline and the American sense of opportunity are the foundation of his successful career. He is, no doubt, a competitive man gifted with a knack for self-promotion, exuding a positive kind of self-confidence with which people love to identify. But he is also, as David Thomas has noted, a new phenomenon…the star as bully. Schwarzenegger wants, above all, to be in the public eye and for that he has constructed a persona—a mask—that seems impervious to the contradictions that surround him. Nigel Andrews, his unauthorized biographer, insists on the elusiveness of the real man behind the star, speculating that Arnie does believe in the myths he himself has invented. This may be, after all, the fittest definition of Schwarzenegger: he is the star who never doubts himself.

—Sara Martin

Further Reading:

Andrews, Nigel. True Myths: The Life and Times of Arnold Schwarzenegger. London, Bloomsbury, 1995.

Flynn, John. The Films of Arnold Schwarzenegger. New York, Citadel Press, 1996.

Jeffords, Susan. Hard Bodies: Hollywood Masculinity in the Reagan Era. New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press, 1994.

Neale, Steve. "Masculinity as Spectacle: Reflections on Men and Mainstream Cinema." Screen. Vol. 24, No. 6, 1983, 2-17.

Tasker, Yvonne. Spectacular Bodies: Gender, Genre and the Action Cinema. London and New York, Routledge, 1993.

Thomas, David. Not Guilty: In Defence of the Modern Man. London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1993.

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