Did you know that Arnold Schwarzenegger is a Golden Globe winner…for acting? It’s true! Once upon a time there was an award for Best Acting Debut in a Motion Picture. Now, this wasn’t for his actual first screen appearance in the titular role of Hercules in New York. I saw you getting nervous there. The honor came for a film in which he played an Austrian body builder training for the Mr. Universe competition. In other words, he was pretty much playing himself. From director Bob Rafelson, it’s 1976’s Stay Hungry.
The film primarily focuses on a wealthy young man in Birmingham, Alabama named Craig Blake (Jeff Bridges). After the deaths of his parents, Craig becomes involved with some slightly shady real estate developers who are trying to purchase all the buildings on a certain block so they can demolish them and build a skyscraper. They need Craig to purchase the last remaining business, a gym called the Olympic Spa. It seems like it should be easy to nab the struggling business, but the often-drunk owner, Thor Erikson (R.G. Armstrong), is more concerned with his star patron, Joe Santo (Schwarzenegger), who is poised to win the upcoming Mr. Universe contest.
Unable to seal a deal, Craig quickly becomes a part of the family of characters who work at the gym. This includes Franklin (Robert Englund), Newton (Roger E. Mosley), and karate instructor Anita (Helena Kallianiotes). What really draws Craig into the gym family, though, is his blooming relationship with Joe’s former main squeeze, Mary Tate (Sally Field). Soon, Craig begins to start bringing his friends from the gym into the world of the society folks he grew up in…with disastrous results. At the same time, he has to deal with the nefarious acts of the real-estate crooks who are still trying to buy the gym so they can flatten it.
Stay Hungry is a wonderful film driven primarily by a collection of interesting characters. Jeff Bridges puts in a fine performance, but it is very quickly overshadowed by his co-stars. This is 1976…which means this is Sally Field at her most adorable. At times there’s a very sprightly quality to her performance, and in other moments a real fire that is stunning. She also has a solid chemistry with both Bridges and Schwarzenegger. One of my favorite moments of the film has her leaping into Arnold’s arms, which looks a bit like a small child being engulfed by a giant bean bag chair given the size difference between the two.
Speaking of Arnold, he may turn in one of his best performances ever in this film. It’s certainly one of his most charming. Joe is a guy who is very committed to his art, so to speak, but it is not what consumes his life. He’s loyal and protective of his friends, slightly philosophical, and a bit quirky. In his spare time, Joe plays fiddle in a bluegrass band, which is such a captivating aspect of this character. He’s an immigrant to the southern US embracing a unique aspect of that region’s culture. It looks like the fiddle would crumble into toothpicks were he to tighten his grip slightly on the neck of the instrument. Yet Joe proves to be just as skilled with a bow as he is with a barbell…and Arnold completely sells it. I’m not saying that Arnold could’ve jumped in and played fiddle on an episode of Hee-Haw, but there are many aspects of this character that seem very reflective of the actual Arnold. Having recently watched Pumping Iron, the 1977 documentary about his actual journey to become Mr. Olympia, you can certainly observe similarities between this character and the persona he puts forth in that film.
Though there isn’t a lot to the story, the film remains engaging throughout. Things do break down slightly as we move through the final act, however. This features an odd sequence where the crooked real-estate guys try to get Thor to sell the gym by tempting him with hookers. What follows is several uncomfortable moments of drug and alcohol fueled debauchery that is not-at-all enjoyable to watch. Things get more unpleasant when Mary Tate shows up and is, we are led to believe, sexually assaulted by Thor. It’s a very strange and unpleasant direction for the film to go as it reaches its climax. The film then makes a drastic tonal shift, heading into madcap territory, with a scene involving dozens of muscle men running through the streets of Birmingham and striking poses for adoring crowds. It’s just a bit jarring to behold five guys posing on the roof of a moving city bus, accompanied by lively banjo music, three minutes after sweet little Sally Field may have been raped off screen by a skeezy old guy with a bad toupée.
There are a few missteps here and there, but on a whole Stay Hungry is an absorbing look at some truly intriguing characters. While I am certainly a fan of the direction Arnold’s career went when it comes to the action movies of the 80’s, one can’t help but wonder what we might have gotten had he had more chances to take on meatier roles such as this one.
Note: Stay Hungry was recently released on DVD and BluRay by Olive Films. Thanks to them for letting us get a peek at the film.