Arnold Schwarzenegger managed to live the fiction that powered America. But for his sins, we made him a punchline.
There is something I want to talk about. It’s not exactly topical, but it’s one of those discussions which, over time, has become dismissively one-sided, and to delay addressing it would turn this already steep climb Sisyphean.
I want to talk about how we talk about Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Some months ago, I was visiting family. And during one particular evening, we found ourselves in search of something to watch. As each family member (there were four: myself, my parents, and my sister) systematically browsed cable television’s broad yet repetitive catalogue and gave up with a resigned shrug, I found myself bearing the privilege of selecting the evening’s entertainment.
I eagerly navigated the remote to the channel on which was soon to be a showing of John Milius’ 1982 sword and sandals epic Conan the Barbarian. I love introducing films to people. The vicarious experience of watching with the uninitiated is perhaps the closest one will come outside of amnesia to re-living the spontaneity and innocence of one’s own first viewing.
Going into Conan, I was naively assumptive of its impending reception. Conan the Barbarian is a favorite of mine and I legitimately believe it to be a thematically interesting, beautifully shot, exceptionally scored (shout out to Basil Poledouris) piece of operatic cinema. Citizen Kane it is not; it is a surprisingly measured, mature approach to fantasy that has had an undeniable effect on the genre, and its DNA scattered throughout popular culture, from Lord of the Rings to Samurai Jack. So, with an audience receptive, even welcoming, to the subject matter, I anticipated a hit.
The chance to introduce the film came as somewhat of a giddy surprise as it turned out none of them had seen it in its entirety, however, all were familiar with the one thing they were sure to be familiar with: that this was “an Arnold Schwarzenegger film.” A factoid that would, from then forward, tarnish whatever was rendered onscreen.
From the opening narration over black, the film was met with apprehensive, sarcastic glances. Any shot of Schwarzenegger was met with a condescending snigger; every line of dialogue a punchline. By default, the setting and supporting characters became props in a slapstick routine headlined by the Austrian Oak. Moments during which criticism could not be found were met with silent disinterest; mockery merely remained dormant until the next “silly” moment could be identified.
How had it come to this?
Okay, one can’t deny that Schwarzenegger contributed to his own caricature by starring in a string of ludicrously plotted comedies and limp, by-the-numbers action films; but to retroactively dismiss his career and treat it as an embarrassing stain on cinema is downright ignorant.
The man was, and is, the living superhuman embodiment of the American dream, his life leaping from high point to higher …
For my money, what Schwarzenegger managed to achieve will, for many reasons, social and financial, never be replicated. For a brief moment (let’s say 1984 to 1994, give or take), the American public welcomed a visibly foreign actor with open arms. Americans had no problem accepting a hulking, English-challenged immigrant as one of their own; the universality of this persona allowed Schwarzenegger’s appeal to transcend American borders and he became the biggest, most bankable movie star on the planet.
The man was, and is, the living superhuman embodiment of the American dream, his life leaping from high point to higher (pre-acting career he found success in bodybuilding and construction; post-acting career he became Governor of California). People loved him. It was beautiful.
Schwarzenegger was white, sure, but his integration might have been another foot in the door for ethnic diversity in Hollywood (this is not to diminish someone like Bruce Lee’s invaluable role in this regard but to build upon it).
However, somewhere along the line, the people turned. Not in revolt, but their demeanor changed and the once celebrated high achiever became the class clown. As mentioned previously, Schwarzenegger himself nudged this change along by starring in increasingly absurd comedic roles such as Junior and Jingle All the Way, but the latent comedic potential in Schwarzenegger’s olympian frame and idiosyncratic accent was something perhaps acknowledged by audiences from the beginning; his entire career one sarcastic joke egged on by the cynical masses; his subsequent vilification merely a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Whether it be a tall poppy syndrome or some other envy-driven phenomenon, society’s competitive nature leads us to scrutinize people for success and exacerbate their flaws. Perhaps the too-good-to-be-true nature of Schwarzenegger’s biography was subconsciously rejected by the public as not being “real” enough—too much like a fairytale.
Nevertheless, the willingness to crucify such a striking example of the mythic American dream is a foreboding peek into a collective mindset rooted in cynicism and derision, one that fails to see that even the most fantastical notions can be found in the fact behind the fiction.