On the evening of Friday, 15 July, a lot of very nervous studio executives were assembled on the Twentieth Century Fox lot in Los Angeles. Officially, it was a party to celebrate the first day's grosses of 'True Lies', the latest Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, which were due later that night. But the confidence the studio was displaying by organising the party before the figures were known was bellied by its behaviour. In fact, 'True Lies' had been shown in thousands of theatres on Thursday night, a well-known tactic for inflating a movie's opening weekend grosses. In addition, it was being released two weeks after all the other Summer blockbusters, which by convention open on the fourth of July weekend. Twentieth Century Fox was putting on a brave front, but behind the scenes few were confident of Schwarzenegger's drawing power.
The reason, of course, was the collosal failure of 'Last Action Hero', Arnold's last movie. The former Mr Universe prides himself on never doing anything by halves so it's fitting that his first flop should have been such a huge disaster. In an internal memo leaked to 'The New Yorker' earlier this year, Columbia calculated 'Last Action Hero' had lost over $120m, three times more than 'Heaven's Gate', until then the biggest flop in Hollywood history. That's one box office record Schwarzenegger didn't want to break.
Before it was released 'True Lies' had broken a few records of its own. Fox officially puts the production budget at $100m, making it the most expensive movie ever made. But industry insiders say the true figure is closer to $120m. The rule-of-thumb is that a movie has to take two-and-a-half times its production budget at the box office in order to cover its costs, nudging the break-even point on 'True Lies' up to $300m. 'Last Action Hero' took just over $40m.
The figure which was eventually displayed on the huge screen towering over the Fox lot was $10m. Needless to say, champagne corks popped and the executives cheered until their throats were hoarse, much as the North Koreans would at one of their new leader's speeches. Some of them may even have burst into tears of joy. But beneath the hubbub everyone was thinking: "Ten million! A lousy ten million! Jeez, I was hoping for at least fifteen. Will that be enough to put it over the top? I better call my lawyer. I wonder if that opening at Paramount has been filled yet?"
For veteran Arnie-watchers 'Last Action Hero' was fascinating because it was virtually the first mistake their hero had made. Ever since he decided to take up bodybuilding at the age of 13, Arnold Schwarzenegger has effortlessly achieved everything he set his mind to. Actually, "effortlessly" is the wrong word. A typical workout at the Graz Athletic Union in his Austrian home town would begin with five sets of bench-presses (a set is 12 reps), starting at 135lbs and increasing to 335lbs. The Austrian bodybuilder Kurt Marnul advised Arnold to train until it hurt. "That is the secret of the biggest bodybuilders," he told him. "They train beyiond the pain barrier."
The teenage Schwarzenegger would often go so far beyond the pain barrier he would pass out. In his autobiography, 'Arnold: The Education of a Bodybuilder', he boasts of how he once broke into the Athletic Union on a Sunday so he could train seven days a week. "If you told me that if I ate a kilo of shit I would put on muscles," he says, fondly recalling his teenage years, "I would eat it." On one occasion, Arnold announced to his startled gym buddies that he wasn't going to bed until he weighed 255lbs. At the time he was a mere 252lbs and he duly stuffed himself with bratwurst and apple strudle until he'd achieved his goal.
Competition victories came thick and fast. He became Junior Mr Europe at the age of 18 and the youngest-ever Mr Universe at 20. When he won his first title he weighed 235lbs and boasted 22-inch arms and 20-inch calves. As Clive James observed, he looked like a condom stuffed with walnuts.
Arnold's final Mr Olympia victory is recorded in the 1975 documentary 'Pumping Iron' which, despite his attempts to have it withdrawn, can still be purchased in the Virgin Megastore. It's not difficult to see why he's embarassed. As an example of how capable he is of shutting off all outside distractions and concentrating on the task in hand, he relates how he refused to attend his father's funeral because it was two months before a contest. In another scene, the future head of George Bush's Council on Physical Fitness can clearly be seen smoking a joint. If Arnold ever does run for the California Senate his opponents won't be short of ammunition.
In Schwarzenegger's first movie, 'Hercules In New York', his name was changed to Arnold Strong, a mistake which was quickly rectified in 'Conan The Barbarian'. It's not uncommon for bodybuilders to anglicise their names-Charles Atlas's real name was Angelo Sicilian-but Arnold quickly grasped that being an immigrant was central to his appeal.
There is an interesting parallel between bodybuilding and the American dream. Just as the bodybuilder transforms himself through sheer effort of will into his physical ideal, so the successful American immigrant makes something of himself through hard work alone. They both build themselves up from nothing using just the raw material they were born with. By retaining his original name, Arnold reminded audiences both of his successful career as a bodybuilder and the fact that he was an Austrian immigrant. It is common practice among bodybuilders to display 'before' pictures to show people just how far they've come. Schwarzenegger's teutonic accent was his 'before' picture.
The accent, which is as hammed-up and artifical-sounding as a shopkeeper's in an Ernst Lubisch picture, has the additional advantage of making it impossible to identify him with the flag-waving wing of the Republican Party. He may be affectionately known as 'Conan The Republican' but he was never saddled with the jingoistic excesses of the Reagan era, unlike Sylvester Stallone. What few lines Stallone had in the three Rambo movies could never have been uttered in a thick Austrian accent.
This is one of the reasons Schwarzenegger is so much hipper than Stallone. Arnold is an ironic macho-there's something light-hearted and absurd about him-while Stallone is painfully unironic. The difference between Schwarzenegger's masculinity and Stallone's is that Arnold is acceptable to feminists while Stallone isn't. Arnold makes his physical size and strength harmless and unthreatening by joking about it and treating it as faintly embarrassing. He's confident enough to be self-mocking, while Stallone seems defensive and insecure. Schwarzenegger's masculinity consists in being at ease with himself, untroubled by doubts.
This is much more attractive than Stallone's, which is brooding and hyper-sensitive. Arnold is unthreatend by feminism, he's come to terms with it. Stallone is engaged in open warfare with it. Schwarzenegger may occasionally sleep with actresses like Brigitte Nielson, but the woman he married, in a ceremony in which they were pronounced husband and wife, was Maria Schriver, niece of John Kenneddy and presenter of 'Good Morning America'. Sylvester Stallone, on the other hand, married Brigitte Nielson.
After a string of successful action pictures-'The Terminator', 'Predator', 'Commando'-Arnold surprised the industry by making a comedy. In a now famous story, 'Ghostbusters' director Ivan Rietman had managed to persuade Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito to star in a movie together provided he could come up with the right script. In the end two English journalists, William Davis and William Osborne, produced the winning formula: "Twins-only their mother could tell them apart."
The success of 'Twins' meant audiences were prepared to accept Arnold in a non-action role and he followed it with the equally successful 'Kindergarden Cop'. But he knew that he could only get laughs by playing against type if he continued to take straight action roles. So he alternated these comedies with 'Total Recall' and 'Terminator 2', two of the best action films of the Nineties.
The mistake Schwarzenegger made in 'Last Action Hero' was in trying to combine the two genres. It was marketted in America as a straight action film but in fact it was a spoof of the genre, much like 'Hot Shots' and 'Loaded Weapon One'. Arnold plays Jack Slater, a tough cop who manages to escape from the movie he's in into the real world, a device which prompts an unending stream of jokes about the difference between the larger-than-life world of the action film and everyday reality.
'Last Action Hero' failed on every level. Fans of the action genre don't need to be reminded how unrealistic films like 'Lethal Weapon' are-death-defying stunts, long-drawn-out suspense sequences and superhuman powers are what they're all about. No one takes them seriously, anymore than they think James Bond is a realistic portrait of a British intelligence agent. In this respect, 'Last Action Hero' failed for the same reason as the Bond spoof 'Casino Royale'.
More importantly, the casting was wrong. Spoof movies generally star down-on-their-luck actors like Charlie Sheen and Emelio Estevez whom audiences no longer take seriously in straight roles. Part of the joke is watching them ham it up in the roles which made them stars. But Schwarzenegger was never a conventional action star-with two hams inserted above his elbows he could hardly play it straight. His fans didn't need a spoof movie to tell them he didn't take himself seriously-they knew that all along. It was as though Arnold mistook his previous on-screen persona for Sylvester Stallone's and was making a frantic effort to distance himself from it.
'True Lies', unfortunately, isn't much better. It begins promisingly enough with the kind of breath-taking action sequence you expect from James Cameron, the director of 'Aliens' and 'Terminator 2'. Arnold plays a secret agent trying to prevent a group of Arab terrorists from exploding a nuclear bomb, not unlike the Jack Slater character who is the butt of all the jokes in 'Last Action Hero'. But no sooner has the plot got off the ground than an absurd sub-plot is introduced in which Schwarzenegger uses the resources of his intelligence agency to try and save his marriage to Jamie Lee Curtis. What was a highly entertaining action film suddenly turns into a feeble romantic-comedy, with Schwarenegger in the Tom Hanks role.
It's difficult to know where to assign blame for this collosal error of judgement. James Cameron exhibited the same unfortunate tendency to use the vast resources of a Hollywood blockbuster to try and work through his marital problems in 'The Abyss', much as the Schwarzenegger character turns the CIA into a marriage guidance counsellor in 'True Lies'.
But it may be that Schwarzenegger simply refused to play a straight action role believing it wouldn't do justice to his abilities as an actor. There were worrying signs in 'Terminator 2' in which the cyborg played by Arnold is 'developed' as a character until it becomes almost human. But wereas playing a robot dimly conscious of its emotional inadequacy was just about within Schwarzenegger's range, playing a lightfooted romantic lead isn't. Apart from everything else, a condom stuffed with walnuts is not every woman's idea of a dream date.
'True Lies', which opens here on 12 August, went on to take a respectable $27.8m in its opening weekend and his next film, 'Junior', in which he plays a man who gets pregnant, may well be a hit. But watching him trade one-liners with Jamie Lee Curtis it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that he's over-reached himself. From Conan to Cary Grant is just too big a step, even for the seven times Mr Olympia. You keep asking yourself, "Why does he bother? Why doesn't he just stick to killing terrorists?"
The sad truth may be that Schwarzenegger wants to be taken seriously by his peers. He's fed up with being associated with disposable schlock while Steven Spielberg gets credited with preventing another Hollocaust. When he goes off to Kenebunkport to meet his wife's family, he wants to be admired by the Kennedy grown-ups, not just climbed all over by their children. Could it be that what Arnold Schwarzenegger really wants is an Oscar? Has the Terminator, who's starring opposite Emma Thompson in his next film, turned into a Luvvy? Let us hope not.