Monday 23 April 2018

Film: He'll be back - age no barrier to Arnie

Muscle man: Arnold Schwarzenegger arrived in America in 1968 with a virtually impenetrable Austria accent
Muscle man: Arnold Schwarzenegger arrived in America in 1968 with a virtually impenetrable Austria accent

Paul Whitington

One is used to the spectacle of elderly actors making a show of themselves in action films, but Arnold Schwarzenegger may just take the biscuit. He'll be 68 at the end of this month, but that hasn't stopped him playing an arthritic android in the blockbuster sequel Terminator Genisys, which opened here yesterday.

In a plot so tortuous it would give you a migraine, the time-line of the previous Terminator films has been altered by the evil Skynet empire, and Arnie is now a Class III Terminator who joins forces with Sarah Connor and her resistance-leader son to help save humanity from obliteration.

Arnie has always been a canny chooser of projects, and perhaps knew what he was doing in agreeing to star in this sequel. The terminators he played always moved and talked stiffly, so his reduced mobility is pretty much irrelevant and can easily be put down to un-oiled robotic joints.

Why he would be bothered spending five months on a busy film set at an age where most folk are kicking back and drawing the state pension is an other matter: maybe he needs the money, or maybe Arnie just hates being idle.

Since Schwarzenegger was forced to retire from politics four years ago following revelations that he had fathered a secret child with the family maid while married to Maria Schriver, the former governor has not been idle. He's written a best-selling memoir, become a political activist and slowly revived his dormant film career.

First came those fleeting cameos in his old pal Sylvester Stallone's Expendables movies, then, in 2013, an enjoyable starring turn, again with Stallone, in the appealingly daft prison drama Escape Plan. More recently, Arnie has pushed himself beyond his comfort zone, playing a desperate father trying to save his infected daughter in the zombie movie Maggie (2015).

But in Terminator Genisys, Schwarzenegger returns to the bread-and-butter role that made him a big star in the first place. And while only time will tell whether he still has the chops to front up a $170 million summer blockbuster in his late 60s, if anyone can do it, Arnie can.

The character he played in James Cameron's original Terminator film was famously unstoppable, and is a handy metaphor for Schwarzenegger's life. Because despite his recent and very costly personal travails, he remains a kind of living embodiment of the American dream, an obscure foreigner who arrived in the US full of grandiose ambitions and managed to achieve almost all of them.

Arnie thinks big: as a child he fantasised about going to America and becoming a movie star, and he got there via a most unlikely route.

He was born, on July 30, 1947, in the Austrian village of Thal. Arnie had a difficult relationship with his father, Gustav, the local police chief.

"Back then in Austria it was a very different world," he has said. "If we did something bad or we disobeyed our parents, the rod was not spared."

An average student at school, Arnie preferred sports, and dreamed of escaping from claustrophobic village life. He took up weightlifting at 15 with vague plans to become an Olympian, but soon bodybuilding became his abiding passion.

Arnie began training obsessively, and in 1965 won the Junior Mr Europe competition. But he had his sights set on the prestigious Mr Universe competition, the holy grail of bodybuilding.

"The Mr Universe competition was my ticket to America - the land of opportunity, where I could become a star and get rich," he would explain later.

He flew to London 1966 to take part in the competition for the first time. He placed second, but won it a year later, and in 1968 moved to America to pursue his twin passions of bodybuilding and acting. The bodybuilding came easy - he would win four more Mr Universe titles, and seven Mr Olympias - but movies proved a harder nut to crack.

When he arrived in California, Arnie spoke with a virtually impenetrable Austrian accent. After he landed his first role in the bizarre action fantasy Hercules in New York in 1970, all his lines were dubbed by another actor. Arnie was no Olivier, and throughout the 1970s his bills were paid by bodybuilding.

In 1980 he landed a more substantial role in a TV movie called The Jayne Mansfield Story, playing Hungarian bodybuilder Mickey Hargitay. But his real break came in 1982, when he was cast in John Milius's big-budget fantasy Conan the Barbarian.

The action film was a big success, grossing over $100m. And while one critic described Arnie as "a dull clod with a sharp sword", others praised his onscreen charm and physical presence.

When James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd began planning their ambitious sci-fi project The Terminator in 1983, Orion Pictures, who were backing the film, strongly suggested they cast Schwarzenegger in the role of Kyle Reese, the hero who comes back from the future to save Sarah Connor from the killer cyborg.

Cameron was not so sure, and wondered, not unreasonably, how big the Terminator would have to be if Arnie was playing the hero. When he met Schwarzenegger, however, the Austrian was much more interested in talking about how the villainous robot should be played, and Cameron realised he'd be perfect as the machine.

The Terminator was released to virtually universal acclaim in the autumn of 1984, turning Schwarzenegger into a very bankable star.

He hit the top at just the right time, because the late 1980s was the golden age of the Hollywood action films. Sparsely written roles involving the odd wisecrack and lots of fighting were right up Arnie's street, and as the 1980s wore on he scored hit after hit in films like Commando, The Running Man, Red Heat and Predator.

In box-office terms he proved a most astute chooser of scripts, and was not the one-trick pony everyone assumed he'd be: in 1988 he even branched out into comedy, playing Danny DeVito's long lost brother in the hit comedy Twins. Science fiction, though, remained his comfort zone, and he delivered one of his more accomplished performances in Paul Verhoeven's Total Recall (1990), playing a construction worker who becomes convinced he's a Martian freedom fighter.

Arnie was good with money, too. His investments in gyms, restaurants and real estate made him a very rich man, and he was estimated, pre-divorce, to be worth in excess of $400m.

By the early 90s, the big man was extremely well connected, having married TV journalist Maria Shriver, the niece of John F Kennedy, in 1986.

In 1991 he and Cameron reunited to make Terminator 2: Judgment Day, one of those rare sequels considered even better than the original. The pair had another hit with the jokey thriller True Lies in 1994, but by then Arnie was starting to look a little old-fashioned.

The big man had other plans, however, namely politics. Since experiencing a Pauline conversion to Republicanism while watching Richard Nixon on TV in the early 1970s, Arnie had been quietly aligning himself with the American right. He met Ronald Reagan, campaigned for George Bush Snr, and by the late 90s was loudly hinting that he might stand for office himself.

When he did so, in 2003, his campaign for the California governorship made international headlines. He was elected in October of that year, and though he would occasionally refer to his Democrat rivals as "girlie men", he turned out to be not half so right-wing as everyone assumed, highlighting environmental issues and easily winning a second term in 2006. As we now know, things were not so harmonious in the Schwarzenegger household. But even before we found out that he'd fathered a son with his Guatemalan housekeeper, Patty Baena, there were allegations that he'd groped several women on the eve of his first election campaign in 2003.

Schwarzenegger once talked of running for the presidency, but that seems a long shot now. But failure is not a concept Arnie seems willing to entertain, and however Terminator Genisys does at the box office, he's making plans for other starring vehicles, including sequels to his 1980s comedy Twins, as well as Conan the Barbarian.

That means he'll be starring in action films into his 70s, another first for the Styrian oak.

Robot on the rampage

Four sequels and over 30 years later, it's hard to appreciate just how fresh, original and arresting the original Terminator was. Made for a paltry $6m and driven into being against the odds by James Cameron and producer Gale Anne Hurd, The Terminator starred the as-yet not very famous Schwarzenegger and was lumbered with a tricky plot audiences might have found hard to handle. But teenage boys the world over swallowed whole the idea of a remorseless cyborg sent from the future to kill the woman who will give birth to a rebel leader.

Linda Hamilton was excellent as the resourceful Sarah Connor, an ordinary girl from Los Angeles who quickly transforms into a modern-day Boudicea. And Arnie was absolutely perfect as the psychotic robot, who goes through the phone book and knocks off several other unfortunate Sarah Connor's before finding the real one. Though the film's technical innovations were impressive considering its modest budget, they'd be totally eclipsed by the 1991 sequel, Terminator 2: Judgment Day. But the original film was perfectly paced, and had a knowing irony that made it all the more watchable. It's Schwarzenegger's greatest film.

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