Netflix recently released a three-part mini-series on Arnold Schwarzenegger, which, I assume, all of you are familiar with. This mini-series has three parts, covering distinct phases in Schwarzenegger’s life: body builder, movie icon, and politician. Looking for a catchy alliteration, these parts are called athlete, actor, and American, which perhaps rolls off the tongue more easily but is less accurate. Overall, Arnold is a great watch, and I quite enjoyed it.
As I quite like 1980s cinema, I have briefly looked into the lives of the biggest icons of this era. Schwarzenegger, despite arguably being the biggest action movie star of that time, I found a bit less interesting, which perhaps had something to do with him playing essentially one kind of character on the screen, and often quite one-dimensional ones, too. There is not a single character he ever played that comes even close to Stallone’s Rocky, for instance. Yet, there is a lot more to Schwarzenegger than I was aware.
Most impressively, Schwarzenegger seems to go all-in when he pursues a goal, and he also seems to have a good intuition for when it is time to jump ship. For instance, he used body building to get out of Austria and eventually, after stints in Germany and London, to California. He already made a mark on the bodybuilding scene as a teenager but he wanted to work with the best, and those people happened to live in the US. Probably steroids were also easier to get in California. Well, this guy moves to the US, trains with the best, and goes on to win one body building competition after another, until he decides to retire. Presumably, he partly did this for health reasons. But perhaps the main motivation was that after winning the two most important competitions multiple times, there was nowhere else to go in this field.
With bodybuilding behind him, he tries to fully go into acting, i.e. becoming a lead character instead of taking bit parts. In the documentary, Schwarzenegger says that he was already a millionaire due to real-estate investments before he got his first big role, i.e. Conan in Conan the Barbarian (1982), but I would have liked to learn more about this. The market for bodybuilding was not nearly as big as it is nowadays, so this was not immediately obvious. I had to dig around but was able to find an interview excerpt where he provides further details. In short, in the 1970s inflation was high and real estate relatively cheap, so he was able to make big (financial) gains this way.
Interestingly, Schwarzenegger says, in the documentary, that he peaked with Terminator 2. I would agree with it. In terms of movie quality, and ignoring commercial success, he probably peaked a lot earlier. In my view, Running Man, Total Recall, and The Terminator are his best and most classic movies as they not just struck a cord with the zeitgeist. As they were dealing with science-fiction concepts, they also have a certain timeless quality. Also, despite them being action-heavy, they are much more cerebral than today’s Hollywood schlock. Anyway, having reached the top in the acting field, as the highest-paid actor in Hollywood, he was looking for a new field, and thus he entered politics. This is a quite remarkable pivot: First, he used his physique to get into acting, and after gaining worldwide popularity, he makes the, in hindsight quite obvious, move into politics as the two-time governor of California. It seems he was pretty successful in this role as well. The documentary, among others, highlights his ability to reach consensus across the aisle. On the other hand, back then the Democrats were not nearly as lunatic as they are nowadays.
There is also a rather good piece of advice for planning your life or career in this documentary, even though it is not explicitly mentioned. As Schwarzenegger elaborates, the 1960s and 1970s were lousy times for the United States. Inflation and crime was up, and the whole country seemed to have gone off the rails. You could bang a few hippie chicks easily, but that was about it as far as perks were concerned, it seems. It almost reminds you a bit of today, minus the carefree attitude to sex. Yet, in the 1980s, Reagan got elected and a wave of optimism and exuberance swept across the nation, at least in his view. It does not seem implausible that this has an influence on the over-the-top action cinema of the 1980s. Whatever the reason, Schwarzenegger was the right guy in the right place to capitalize on this opportunity, and he was able to build a spectacular career as an actor as a consequence. Generally speaking, I think that big change is only possible in times of turmoil. If a society, or a company, is very stable, nobody will make any big bets and there will not be any openings for fast career advancement either. Probably, going all in like Schwarzenegger did with bodybuilding is too risky a proposition for most. Yet, if you can live with a modest amount of risk versus only making the safest of bets, you can certainly benefit greatly.
The biggest weakness of this documentary is that it is almost devoid of any kind of criticism and often even mere reflection. Schwarzenegger is shown as a human being with some weaknesses, but this appears to be a calculated move, considering that more time is devoted even on throwaway comments that he built the sport body building or was responsible for both the SUV and the cigar boom. We learn that he “was involved” with the design of the first commercially available Hummer, but this could mean anything. One topic I would have liked to learn about was how he views his tenure as the governor in California in hindsight. That state has completely gone to shit in the last decade to decade and a half, and all the great initiatives that he may have kicked off are surely less relevant for those people who have a hard time avoiding to step into human feces whenever they leave their house. Of course, he no longer needed the money, and at the age at which he entered politics, he was clearly past his prime as an actor, but as an outsider, you could be forgiven for thinking that he essentially wasted eight years of his life in politics.
Unfortunately, Arnold ends on a bad note. The documentary points out Schwarzenegger’s involvement in climate change, vaxxism, slava Ukraini, and other liberal causes, which makes him sound like a complete tool. Those few minutes may make you lose a lot of respect for him. I vaguely recall that he also shot videos straight from his palatial mansion, telling people to mask up and stay inside during the scamdemic. Sadly, he went from portraying over-the-top masculinity on screen to being a progressive stooge in old age. I do not think that he is even convinced of any of it. Instead, it is more likely that he has a very good intuition for exploiting mainstream trends, and he is still riding those progressive waves, even though there now is perceptible backlash. Should he wish to remain in the spotlight, and live for a few more years, he will probably tell us about having to follow the next “current thing”. Quite a few of his movies are timeless and worth revisiting. The same cannot be said for his political beliefs.