By Elizabeth Kaye
Smart, May 1990
Old bodybuilders fade away, open gyms of their own, or become religious fanatics. These are grim potentials, indeed, and unsuitable to Arnold Schwarzenegger, a dubious icon who determined, at age ten, to be “one of the top percent in everything” and decided, at fifteen, to make movies like Hercules and the Vampires and amassed, in his twenties, a library extending largely to books on the Kennedys. “I like reading about people,” he remarked shortly before meeting Maria Shriver, “who have really made it.” Even then, there were signs that Arnold, too, would really “make it,” and in those days, when he was neither a Kennedy in-law nor a bankable movie star nor chairman of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, he never stalled to consider what seemed the distinct possibility that his reach might exceed his capabilities. Instead, he moved stolidly toward the future, abandoning bodybuilding in 1975, when he was twenty-eight. At that stage, he had played the title role in Hercules in New York. By age thirty, he had slept in a quilt-covered bed at the Hyannis Port compound. He had also been featured in Stay Hungry and Pumping Iron, closed a $12 million movie deal, and developed a penchant for holding forth on “the whole program I will follow to go about being an actor.” Depending on whom you talked to, his daunting certainty at this juncture amused, or chilled, or charmed. But it was evident to his more cynical observers that his story was merging with a familiar tale: no longer a lucky jock’s chronicle, it was swiftly becoming the saga of what makes Sammy jog.
Arnold planned, in those days, to make a series of movies based on the thick book of drawings of Conan the Barbarian displayed on his coffee table. But that goal would materialize in the distant future, and retired bodybuilders cannot just sit waiting for a green light from studio executives; they are too kinetic, too “obsessed,” a word Arnold deems applicable only to “intellectuals who are very frustrated and running to their shrinks all the time.”
“If I was left out there with nothing,” he preferred to say of himself, “I’d be flipping.”
In fact, he was flipping. He was flipping his pectorals on The Merv Griffin Show. “I think he’s afraid,” a friend surmised, “that if he stops he’ll be nothing.”
But being nothing was Arnold’s nemesis and never his style. And so he coauthored Arnold: The Education of a Bodybuilder, a 256-page tome enhanced by 290 pictures of himself and remarkable only for the very narcissism he insisted he did not have. “I know it’s going to hit the best-seller list,” he confided one day, “because I will promote the shit out of it.”
Arnold Schwarzenegger, scion of Austria, may well have been America’s first yuppie.
He also promoted bodybuilding contests, where he offered daylong health seminars to the sons of TV repairmen and railway conductors—young, worshipful bodybuilders prepared to work overtime to ante up $75 for the event. They were what he would call, in future years, “the real hardcore Arnold audience,” diligent, scantly rewarded, rudderless Americans like those found at Graceland’s gate. The short way to spell Schwarzenegger, they liked to say, was G-O-D, a blasphemy presumably pleasing to its object, who had long abandoned religion in favor of the cult of self. As born followers, these young men were tailor-made for Arnold, whose expressed yearning “to be a leader” required a coterie that wanted to be led.
“People are going to say you’re an egomaniac,” Arnold told them, as he wound up a spiel that ten years before would have gotten him booed off any college campus, “but you have to keep your eye on your goal. I had a situation recently where I had to say to a girlfriend, That’s it. I’m very hungry for success. For being the best. For making it.”
This was the applause line, and the young men complied, eager to endow their lives with meaning through belief in Arnold, not knowing that his unwavering gaze had long been focused on a point far beyond them.
Arnold Schwarzenegger, scion of Austria, may well have been America’s first yuppie, but when I initially encountered him in the spring of 1977, the word yuppie had yet to be coined, and in its absence Arnold seemed only an abnormally driven man, or “guy,” to use his parlance. This was two years after his retirement from bodybuilding, the vocation that had littered his garage with trophies while gracing him with a silver Mercedes with fur-covered seats, an outsize bed contrived from planks of the old Santa Monica pier, ownership of several apartment buildings and warehouses, the better tables at bistros from New York to Los Angeles, and a bachelor condo with a den dominated by a framed poster of Ronald Reagan. He took acquisitive pride in all these things, but they were only things, after all. Arnold’s ambition exceeded “things.” His was the ultimate American ambition: the drive for more.
That drive was unabashed, untrammeled. In its pursuit, he was, as he has continued to be, a Rotarian-style booster of the country that had made him, a true believer in the possibilities that had turned that country into the home of the self-made man. He was The Fountainhead’s Howard Roark crossed with George Babbitt and possibly a touch of Johnny Carson. He was also the first show business personality I ever met who discussed depreciation allowances while eating breakfast, who neither flinched nor smiled while saying, “I want to be at the top and make lots of money and have everybody knowing me.”
In those days, Arnold was in peril of being known predominantly as a freak, of being the cultural joke that Charles Atlas and Johnny Weissmuller had been before him. But even before he understood that bodybuilding’s charms were entirely lost on certain circles, Arnold’s ambition had been unhampered by a surfeit of irony, a curiosity in a man who does not lack humor and perceives that humor as no small part of his charm. And so his was a world where one “trains good” and “eats good” and where the gym and the beach are “great,” a world where earnest enthusiasms masquerade as buoyancy and where Arnold himself was a constant “up,” to quote one of his many admirers.
He was still creating a persona then, with the same deliberation he had used to create his twenty-eight-and-a-half-inch thighs. When I mentioned a book about Robert Kennedy, Arnold instantly said, “Write down the title for me.” He had consulted a tailor, who dressed him in a style Ralph Lauren would have admired, his clothes running to herringbones and subdued beiges. He was dining with Andy Warhol and Jamie Wyeth but also learning about his adopted country what had been indiscernible from a distance. America, as he had assumed, was the land where any hardworking lad can make it, but this could be achieved, he was discovering, only by lads clever enough to rid themselves of the shackles of class. This he had not yet accomplished. And he was aware of the contempt he engendered in better-born men who had not had to lift barbells to feel like someone, men who would notice him, for example, surrounded by fans in a hotel lobby and comment, “The whole damn place is full of fags.”
But Arnold was determined to win them over. He had a plan and, beyond that, a conviction that his plan could not fail. Trying, he would say on occasion, was only for losers. One afternoon, picking up a book, he read aloud: “Self-confidence cannot be taught; it must be caught, and risk-running chance-taking is the only way to catch it.” He put the book down, a smile lighting his face. “Isn’t that beautiful?” he asked.
To understand the escapee, you must understand the prison. To understand the prison, you must believe, as Arnold does, that the most treacherous prisons are in the mind. With this thought in place, he honed what he calls his philosophy of life, though it is more accurately the bodybuilder’s standard code of positive thinking grafted onto the precepts of certified American sages like Dale Carnegie, Horatio Alger, and Norman Vincent Peale.
It was this worldview that vaulted Arnold to “the top” and would later enable him to assure readers of his book that success in bodybuilding can lead to other successes. As Arnold saw it, success is predicated on six tenets, the most arresting of which is, “Maintain a positive mental attitude at all times.” Like many of his notions, this one can be appreciated for its touching, preadolescent simplicity, though adults may regard it as a prescription for coronary occlusion.
But Arnold was not like most other people, and by rigorous adherence to his stated beliefs, he could later make the exotic claim that his suffering was purely physical. Along with runner Jim Fixx, he became one of the first fitness gurus, a man who learned through training that “pain could become pleasure.”
Arnold’s ambition had been unhampered by a surfeit of irony, a curiosity in a man who does not lack humor and perceives that humor as no small part of his charm.
He was raised in an Austrian town so remote that he seldom bothers to name it, saying instead that he is from somewhere “near Graz.” Daily, from the age of ten, he was given to an anomaly, “daydreaming about success,” and to dreams of leaving Austria, which he dismissed for having “too much contentment.” How he would achieve these goals was beside the point. The point was not means: it was ends. Toward that end, he had visions. He envisioned becoming “a great politician or a great athlete or a great businessman,” for even then, in Arnold’s lexicon, nouns were routinely modified by great. And he envisioned himself in America, where greatness pays.
An indifferent student, he excelled only in sports, though team efforts, with their shared glory, ceased to interest him when he was thirteen. “I was already off,” he would write in his book, “on an individual trip.”
The precise trajectory of that trip would be revealed two years later. “I saw myself as an enormously muscular guy, standing on top of something, with a hundred bodybuilders around me below.” Individualism would not, however, preclude becoming “transfixed” by bodybuilder Reg Park, the Hercules of Hercules and the Vampires, or papering his room with Park’s pictures, studying how he trained, ate, and lived. Later, as Arnold began his climb in society, he would stress that he had also drawn inspiration from loftier sources. “Caesar, Charlemagne, Napoleon,” his book would state, “were names I knew and remembered.” Having settled on the means amplified his craving for the ends. “I was hungrier for success,” he says, “than anyone I knew.” His single-mindedness seems to have hardened in tandem with his muscles, and as his mass inflated so did his parents’ anxiety.
“Why, Arnold?” he recalls his mother asking. “Why do you want to do it to yourself?” He never answered. “I couldn’t be bothered,” he would later write, “with what my mother felt.”
Similarly, when women entered his life, they proved of use but not of interest. “I couldn’t be bothered with girls as companions. Whatever I thought might hold me back I avoided. I crossed girls off my list—except as tools for my sexual needs. I eliminated my parents too.”
His parents would ask, “What’s wrong with you, Arnold? Don’t you feel anything? Don’t you have any emotions?”
To their son, the questions seem to have appeared purely rhetorical. “I always let it pass,” he wrote, “with a shrug.”
The insensate tone of these reminiscences is remarkable in itself and doubly so for its suggestion of a peculiar, albeit conspicuous, similarity between the young Arnold and the cybernetic organism he would play in The Terminator. “It can’t be bargained with,” another character says of the cyborg. “It can’t be reasoned with; it doesn’t feel pity or remorse or fear, and it absolutely will not stop.”
Arnold first made footprints on American soil in 1968, when he competed in a Mr. Universe contest under the auspices of Joe Weider, bodybuilding’s premier promoter and fan, who owned the sport’s most popular magazines and a mail-order business purveying enough Golden Pro Glandular Protein and UnCandy Power Bars to gross $20 million annually. Weider invests in young men with bright futures, and Arnold, already winner of the Mr. Universe and Mr. Europe titles, the first man on the continent to have twenty-inch arms, had a brighter future than most. Though he failed to win his first U.S. competition, the defeat, predictably enough, only increased his resolve. “I will train in America,” he decided in its wake. “I will use their food and their knowledge and work it against them.”
In the six years that Arnold held bodybuilding’s highest honor, the Mr. Olympia title, Weider picked up Arnold’s tab, made him privy to the Byzantine business manipulations of the Weider empire, and encouraged him to intersperse weight lifting with UCLA courses in business administration. “It made me almost a genius in business,” Arnold allows. “I was so aware of everything.”
For seven years, theirs was a relationship of mutual use, mutual profit, mutual suspicion, one Arnold judiciously characterizes as having “its ups and downs,” though in Weider he had found a rarity, an athletic mentor whose own strivings toward upward mobility were expressed in old-money-style collections of paintings and antiques and who was given to Arnold’s own fascination with success as an art form in itself.
Arnold never lost a bodybuilding competition from 1969 to 1975, years in which he studied successful Americans as he had once studied Reg Park, ascertaining how they looked, lived, ate. Having deduced, perhaps, that Americans prefer their conquerors to be casual, he adopted competitive poses that increasingly combined arrogance with self-mockery. It was a manner that could be observed in both Elvis Presley and Rudolf Nureyev, a luxury afforded only to the best.
Always an avid student of American nuance, Arnold had apparently absorbed a critical one—namely, that as much as Americans admire success, ambition itself cannot appear too raw, too unfocused, too naked, but must seem to derive, in some measure, from the sweet passivity of luck.
With the signing of his Stay Hungry contract, Arnold signed off on bodybuilding. The sport had served its purpose: he had traversed the world fifteen times and never paid for an airline ticket, accumulated a small fortune while rarely going to an office, obtained entrée into the summer houses and winter retreats of what he calls “the top people.” And, in any case, he had won so often that winning could no longer satisfy his most primal need. “I don’t believe in what has been taught in America lately,” he said at this time, “which is the Eastern philosophy of the destruction of the ego.”
Always a quick study, he learned from each business and movie deal, soon grasping the Zen-like precept that underlies American money-making: that what seems to be, is. “What is important,” Arnold decided not long after making Stay Hungry, “is how to walk in powerful and come in like you know it all, put a presentation together, spend two, three hundred dollars, and wipe the guy out with champagne.”
After his film came his book. For its cover, Arnold posed in a bikini and appeared to be standing on top of the world, offering the masses a vision of himself that replicated the one he had privately nurtured fifteen years before. His right bicep was flexed. His pectorals burst from his chest. To the uninitiated, it was unthinkable that such distortion could be an end in itself. Of course, it wasn’t. It was ambition made visible and, finally, grotesque.
Arnold’s success would not be simply a success in America. It would be an American-style success. And so, on the occasion of the 1978 Mr. Olympia contest, an event promoted by Arnold and encouraging the purchase of Arnold T-shirts, training programs, and his book (referred to by young bodybuilders as “the New Testament”), there was a certain appropriateness to his arrival at Whitney’s, the dining room in the Columbus, Ohio, Sheraton, at the precise moment that bodybuilder Boyer Coe was pouring Karo syrup on his waffles, arm in arm with the then-twenty-two-year-old Maria Shriver.
Arnold had met Maria Shriver by insisting that his publicist procure him an invitation to the 1977 Robert Kennedy Tennis Tournament, and his subsequent induction into America’s royal family seemed altogether too perfect to be purely serendipitous, a possible adjunct to what Sports Illustrated later explained as “the Arnold Plan that has been carefully orchestrated by Arnold Himself.” Always an avid student of American nuance, Arnold had apparently absorbed a critical one—namely, that as much as Americans admire success, ambition itself cannot appear too raw, too unfocused, too naked, but must seem to derive, in some measure, from the sweet passivity of luck. This may be what he had in mind when telling a reporter of his meeting with Miss Shriver. “It was like fate,” he insisted. “It was like meant to be.”
Whatever else, theirs was to be a relationship whose fire apparently remains unextinguished even after twelve years, no small accomplishment for anyone and especially noteworthy for a man whose prior associations with women were brief and mired in his initial, teenage assessment of girls as sex objects. But then he, too, was a sex object, his body, as he used to explain happily, having become “a great conversation piece.” In his last years of bodybuilding, he had lived with a woman, presumably fallen in love. “I outgrew her so fast, it was incredible” was his valedictory to that relationship. Since then, there had been a series of what he calls “great-looking girls” and persistent casual flirtations in the manner of one I witnessed at Uncle John’s Family Restaurant on Wilshire Boulevard in the late 1970s.
“You know what I’m going to do with you?” he asked a waitress. “I’m going to spank your behind.”
“Oh, honey,” the waitress said, “I’ve never gotten spanked in my life.”
“I’m an expert spanker,” said Arnold. “It’s great spanking a nice, good ass.”
This particular side of Arnold seems to have found a cheerful apotheosis at the bachelor party preceding his wedding in the spring of 1986, at which he was placed in chains and then in the hands of a dominatrix. It was an event not quite in the spirit of the wedding itself, before five hundred guests at St. Francis Xavier Church, the Kennedy family’s parish in Hyannis. At the wedding were old friends, like bodybuilder Franco Columbu, Grace Jones, Andy Warhol, and new ones, like Senator Edward Kennedy and the bride’s mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who was said to have been President Kennedy’s favorite sister. Invited, but not attending, were Pope John Paul II, Kurt Waldheim, and Ronald Reagan, who sent a congratulatory message to the Hyannis compound, the first received there from a Republican since 1960, the day after the Kennedy/Nixon election, when Dwight Eisenhower had sent one to Maria’s Uncle Jack. In more ways than one, things were coming together.
There is a story Arnold used to tell as a means of explaining his success, a story offered as proof of his uncharacteristically modest, though obvious, thesis that he owed that success to timing.
The year was 1977, and he was dining at a chic New York restaurant. “You have the greatest ladies coming in here,” he told the owner.
“But you know, Arnold,” the owner replied, “they walk out of here and never fuck.”
Arnold couldn’t believe it. Already, while staying with a friend in New York who lived above a psychiatrist, he had heard the screams of well-heeled patients who could not, his friend told him, release their anger and frustration in any other way. “Mental awareness does not work,” he told himself. “They tried it for years, and it fucked up.”
“I came along,” Arnold would say after that, explaining his rise, “when there was a need for physical awareness in America because the more est and the more religion, the more confused people are. They’re running around now more confused than ever before.” This was true, though not strictly for the reasons he perceived. More to the point, and to Arnold’s benefit, was that a nation reeling from a confluence of dead heroes, Watergate, and Vietnam was also, as Jerome Charyn would write when reviewing Arnold’s book for The New York Times, “retreating into the fantasy of the infallible being.”
Conan The Barbarian was released in 1982, the same year as the first Rambo picture, films of their time and place that proved that the singular trickle-down effected in the early, macho Reagan years was in the area of mass culture. Conan grossed $100 million worldwide, as did the sequel three years later, causing Arnold, despite having heretofore relinquished the Lord, to term the pictures “God’s gift to my career.”
From that point on, he would be pitted against Sylvester Stallone, Hollywood’s most highly paid actor, competing for an audience that made up in ardor for what it lacked in discernment. But Arnold, whose film career relied largely on his willingness to send up the precise characteristics he embodied, would not make Stallone’s eventual mistake of taking himself too seriously or of attempting, after a boffo win of the Vietnam War, to be “relevant.” There would be no fighting with humorless Russians or avenging the Afghanis. Instead, in 1984, there would be The Terminator, Arnold’s first megabit, as hugely lucrative ventures are known in Hollywood, and one allowing him to augment a repertoire consisting thus far of a sodden comic-book character of the distant past with a sodden comic-book character of the near future. On-screen, his aptitude seemed restricted to maintaining a straight face while pretending to extract his left eyeball, smashing his fist through a car window, and obeying his computer’s instructions to tell a stranger at his door, “Fuck you, asshole.”
But this perversity passed for humor among his fans, a boon for Arnold, who had always wanted to do comedy, had wanted to show what he calls “a new side of him,” but wanted, despite his avowed passion for “risk-running chance-taking,” to do so without alienating an audience that had proved willing to line up for his more deadbeat pictures. His chance came with Twins, which premiered just after George Bush’s election and seemed to reveal a kinder, gentler Arnold, though in fact it was an Arnold brimming with the calculated innocence he’d exhibited offscreen for some time, as when he told an ABC reporter, during a bodybuilding competition he was promoting, “I’m so excited. My heart is beating so fast all the time.”
As with most of Arnold’s movies, Twins was destined to do better with the public than with critics. “The reports that Arnold Schwarzenegger has a gift for comedy,” Vincent Canby wrote, “turn out to have been premature.” Nonetheless, it was the number-one movie for three weeks, a fine vindication of Arnold’s fee, which had ascended to $10 million a picture.
Twins may have showed audiences a “new side” of Arnold, but most telling to anyone aware of his particular history was the neat way it illustrated the saying: “The more things change, the more they remain the same.” In an early scene, Arnold’s character sees a poster of Stallone as Rambo, gazes bemusedly at Stallone’s huge biceps, looks at his own, then shakes his head and laughs, as if outsize muscles were simply all too foolish.
Arnold couldn’t be bothered with outsize muscles anymore. Like his parents, his discarded women, his bodybuilding career, they had served their purpose, had catapulted him on to the next critical step, and now were no longer of use and so could be put behind him.
Arnold Schwarzenegger, father of Katherine Eunice Schwarzenegger, chairman of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, has presumably eschewed the stogies he perpetually puffed in Raw Deal, Predator, The Running Man, and some of his recent publicity pictures but retains the yearnings friends sometimes describe as “his edge.” Always able to envision himself atop the next mountain, he recently directed an episode of Tales From the Crypt, one-third of an HBO trilogy whose other directors are Howard Deutch and Walter Hill, a sort of New York Stories for the sci-fi crowd.
In June Arnold will star in a Paul Verhoeven film, Total Recall, the production notes for which describe a character with a more-than-passing resemblance to Arnold himself. Doug Quaid, the notes say, has “a beautiful wife, a good job, and great friends” and is intrigued by the possibility of “implanting fantasies in the minds of those who desire to turn their dreams into reality.” But then fact and fiction diverge: in the film, something “goes wrong,” whereas in Arnold’s life as lived thus far, everything has had a way of going just as he envisioned.
Precisely how he envisions his future is not exactly clear. He continues to talk of “new challenges,” of the importance of “staying hungry,” of the power of positive thinking, of the necessity of daily workouts, which he calls “my man’s period of time.” Friends say he is still always “up,” ever enthusiastic, as befits a self-made millionaire who often remarks that if you focus yourself and work hard, you can do whatever you want in the land where “the top” was, for Arnold, just a short climb away. Now he is not merely a true believer in the American dream but a citizen of the country where he learned to write thank-you notes to approving critics, where he has come to count among his friends economist Milton Friedman and chairman of the joint Chiefs of Staff General Colin Powell, and where his recent political appointment offers a means to achieve the dream’s established corollary: to do well by doing good.
With all that accomplished, anything else seems possible, perhaps even inevitable, which may account for the talk of his running for governor of California, a state whose voters are demonstrably partial to actors. Arnold does not currently express political ambitions, though years ago, when visualizing his potential, he did see himself as “a great politician.” In the 1988 presidential campaign, he lent himself to George Bush’s quest to refute charges of wimpishness by campaigning for the Republican ticket along with older he-men Charlton Heston and Chuck Norris. On the stump, Arnold exhibited a strikingly pre-glasnost sensibility combined with a flair for the hyperbole that tends to substitute for ideas in American politics. “I only play the Terminator in my movies,” he declared, “but let me tell you, when it comes to the American future, Michael Dukakis will be the real Terminator.”
It is the rhetoric of the profoundly unambivalent, and Arnold, who long ago could state “I love power” and “What turns me on is hanging around with people who are healthy and into success and into making money,” has never been anything if not that. “To be really successful,” he told young bodybuilders years ago, “you have to be willing to give up anything that stands in the way.”
“The meaning of life,” he wrote in his book, “is … to move ahead, to go up, to achieve, to conquer.”
Once upon a time, before Reaganomics and leveraged buyouts and disposable income, that credo seemed to render Arnold eerily out of step, a stubborn marcher to a dissonant beat he alone could hear, as if he had somehow been welded by a world in which the fifties were followed by the late seventies.
Only in retrospect has it become apparent that Arnold was, all along, in the avant-garde and that the tune droning in his inner ear was the theme song of his time.