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The World According to Arnold

Hollywood superstar Arnold Schwarzenegger knows what he wants—and usually gets it.
David Shaw
From the Print Edition:
Arnold Schwarzenegger, Summer 96

(continued from page 3)

"Now, if I want to punish someone, I make them watch Red Sonja 10 times."

 

He pauses.

"As I got better, the reviews got better."

Indeed they did. Time magazine named The Terminator, a futuristic orgy of blood and mayhem, one of the 10 best movies of 1984. The Terminator also established Schwarzenegger as a genuine

worldwide superstar.

 

Although his movies continue to receive mixed reviews, the critics have become increasingly supportive of his performances. He was "attractively vulnerable" in Total Recall (the Los Angeles Times); "appealing, relaxed and genial" in Kindergarten Cop (The New York Times); "impressive, hilarious, almost touching" in Terminator 2 (Newsweek). It helped, of course, that his massive box-office success gave him increasing clout over script, cast and directing choices--and that as a result, he began to work with very good directors, James Cameron and Ivan Reitman among them. Schwarzenegger was broadening his horizons--and gathering new admirers. When he made Red Heat in 1987, co-star Jim Belushi pronounced himself "totally surprised" that Schwarzenegger kept up with him when Belushi improvised his lines. Schwarzenegger even improvised a few lines himself.

 

No one would mistake Schwarzenegger for Jim Carrey--or Cary Grant--but within a certain range, he has developed a surprising, if broad, comic touch that relies largely on making fun of (or playing against) his Predator/Terminator avenging hulk persona. Many people still laugh at Schwarzenegger's often-wooden mannerisms and the absurd plots and over-the-top mayhem in his action movies, but as The New York Times observed in its review of Kindergarten Cop in 1990, "no one laughs at Arnold Schwarzenegger better than Arnold Schwarzenegger himself." Even in his most brutal action films, it's his sense of humor that distinguishes him from Sylvester Stallone, Chuck Norris and other denizens of the death and destruction genre. On several movies, Schwarzenegger has asked that extra comic lines be written for him.

 

He now tries to alternate big-budget action movies with smaller comedies like Twins, Junior and Jingle All the Way (which he should be filming by the time you read this and which is expected to be in theaters for Christmas). On some comedies, Schwarzenegger willingly defers his customarily colossal up-front payday and takes a giant chunk of the eventual profits instead. That way, a smaller film is not overburdened financially before it begins shooting--and if he guesses right and works hard, he still gets rich(er).

 

Schwarzenegger says he'd ultimately like to direct--and to act--in a war movie, a Western and a dramatic movie. He'd like to do a love story, too, if he could find the right vehicle. (This from a man who once responded to the observation that his movie characters rarely have a love interest by saying, "I have a love interest in every one of my films--a gun.")

But he knows that his options are limited somewhat by his image. He brings a certain baggage--he calls it "luggage"--to the screen. He's a very male male, on and off the screen. Big. Physical. Tactile. Primitive.

 

"You should do what you're best at," he says. "People really enjoy me if I save the day, overcome the ultimate in obstacles and danger. At the same time, they also enjoy the humor, the comedies. They see there's a funny side to me. But one should not make the mistake of thinking you can do whatever you want to do, just for the sake of the challenge."

 

There are certain roles in which he knows he wouldn't be credible.

 

"That's the problem we had on Junior [in which he plays a man--a bespectacled scientist--who gives birth to a child]. I have too macho an image for people to believe I'm having a baby." Personal implausibility and biological impossibility were not the only hurdles Junior had to overcome. Even comedies like Twins and Kindergarten Cop had a few beatings and shootings to keep the Schwarzenegger bloodlust fans happy; Junior had no violence at all. Although Schwarzenegger deserves credit for taking on such a risky, out-of-character role, the movie did poorly at the box office, grossing only $37 million in this country (compared with $112 million for Twins and $91 million for Kindergarten Cop). It was a rare mistake for Schwarzenegger.

 

"He manages his career as well as anybody," says Kenneth Turan, the film critic for the Los Angeles Times. "He doesn't stretch himself into unlikely areas. But by alternating comedies with action movies, people don't get bored with him. He's very canny"--canny enough to realize that he has become such a huge box-office star abroad primarily because action (i.e., violence) is understandable everywhere. Love, comedy and drama are often dependent on the nuances of language and on differing cultural interpretations. But as Turan says, "Everyone gets Arnold. If he hits somebody, they fall down. If he shoots them, they die."

Brian Grazer, who produced Kindergarten Cop, says that when Schwarzenegger reads a script, "he knows which words can and can't come out of his mouth--what sounds natural and what doesn't. He has a built-in truth meter. He knows his strengths and weaknesses."

Some see Schwarzenegger's discipline as cold commercial calculation, a window on his nonexistent soul. Indeed, "soullessness" is a word--a criticism--that comes up often in magazine and newspaper stories about Schwarzenegger. He is, without question, a control freak--shrewd, manipulative and relentless--and he concedes that one of the most difficult lessons he had to learn when he left bodybuilding for the movie business was that he couldn't be in control of everything, that moviemaking is a collaborative process. Without a script--and a scriptwriter--without a director, camermen, lighting technicians, and makeup, special effects and other experts (not to mention the studio money men), there is no movie, no matter how big or how talented the star. There's a sense that at some level, Schwarzenegger resents his dependence on others, and it would be easy to dismiss his off-screen charm as pure acting, camouflaging a heart of steel. But he's not that good an actor, and while it's not always easy to separate role playing from reality, there does seem to be a genuine warmth and decency to the man. To Grazer, this is an enormously important--and enormously appealing--part of Schwarzenegger's success: "He's not a fraud. He's not pretending to be an artist. He doesn't travel with a bullshit entourage."

 

Schwarzenegger is not universally beloved. No one as big and rich and successful and aggressive as he is could possibly be without enemies. After the runaway success of Terminator 2 in particular, Schwarzenegger says he was "sitting on top of the mountain," ripe for attack by those envious or resentful of his triumphs. His next movie, Last Action Hero, suffered from assorted rumors--among them the (false) story that the movie had been roundly criticized in a test screening in the Los Angeles suburb of Pasadena. But four writers worked on the screenplay for Last Action Hero, and rumors that the movie was in trouble began circulating in Hollywood very early. Critics generally (and understandably) panned it--some quite ferociously. Having cost $100 million to make, Last Action Hero took in only $50 million at the box office in America after it was released in 1993 (although as Schwarzenegger points out, its success abroad still made it "the twelfth-biggest grossing movie of the year worldwide.")

By and large, Schwarzenegger seems to be respected and well-liked in the various circles in which he moves. Not surprisingly, he is especially popular with those for whom he has made a fortune. Since the 1980s, his films have grossed more than $1.5 billion worldwide. Terminator 2 took in more than $500 million, True Lies more than $400 million. Twins, Total Recall and Kindergarten Cop also topped $200 million apiece in global box-office gross.

Schwarzenegger is--in Grazer's words--"the dream star for a producer and a studio." Unlike many stars--who consider themselves artistes and, hence, are above such philistine concerns as marketing and promotion--Schwarzenegger "is willing to do all the promotion, all the press, all the smiling you could want," as Grazer puts it.

Schwarzenegger is not only willing; he's eager. Before he even asks about a script for a movie, he wants to know what the poster will look like--what's the concept for the movie, the central image, the marketing plan. When the movie comes out, he'll sit in a hotel room all day long while reporters from around the country are shuttled back and forth, one after another, each asking the same basic questions, all pretending to be interviewing him in their hometowns: "Hi, Arnold. Welcome back to Seattle [or Houston or Cleveland]. Thanks for this exclusive interview."

Newsweek once wrote, "Self-promotion comes as naturally to Schwarzenegger as flexing his triceps," and with his ego, his natural charisma, his hands-on style and his immense store of nervous energy ("I hate to be doing nothing"), it's obvious why he loves marketing and promotion. To him, it's just another performance--one with a clear and immediate payoff: "You have to let the world know what you have out there. It doesn't make any sense to just work on the product but not on getting it out there.

"I'm involved every step of the way when it comes to marketing, internationally and nationally," he says. On Eraser, he's been trying to arrange a special screening in the Olympic Village in Atlanta next month. "Fifteen thousand journalists from around the world in one place," he says, his face alight with the joy of so irresistible a marketing opportunity.

A week goes by before I get another call from Stankard. Schwarzenegger wants to know if I'd like to come to the Warner Brothers set in two hours. Stankard's calls seem more like summonses than invitations. Schwarzenegger, Mr. Control, clearly likes setting the terms of any engagement or transaction. But he is giving me a lot of time. I agree to go to Warner's, where

he's filming Eraser, in which he plays an elite federal marshal assigned to the witness protection program; as is usually the case in a Schwarzenegger action movie, the fate of the world hangs implausibly in the balance. I show up in a hellacious rainstorm and race to his trailer, where I find him eating lunch with Arnold Kopelson, the producer of Eraser.

"It's goulash and dumplings," Schwarzenegger says to me. "Sit down. Have some."


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