Tuesday 20 March 2018

How Arnie and Sly muscled their way into the action

the two
action heroes pose for a picture in a Los
Angeles hospital in February, where
they were apparently to undergo
treatment for shoulder injuries
the two action heroes pose for a picture in a Los Angeles hospital in February, where they were apparently to undergo treatment for shoulder injuries


Arnold Schwarzenegger will be eligible for a bus pass come July 30, but the man formerly known as 'The Governator' still expects to be taken seriously as an action hero.

After retiring from politics last year, the big fellow was initially coy about returning to acting.

But the prospect of a multimillion-dollar divorce settlement with ex-wife Maria Shriver may have made up his mind, and Arnie has since committed to starring in several action romps.

Early next year he'll play an ageing sheriff who takes on a drug cartel in Last Stand, and he's also agreed to appear alongside Danny DeVito and Eddie Murphy in a sequel to the 1980s comedy Twins.

In the meantime he'll team up with fellow 1980s beefcake Sly Stallone to play a grizzled mercenary in this summer's The Expendables 2.

Sly and Arnie are the most celebrated of the bodybuilding action heroes, and it's a cinematic tradition they both helped invent. But this summer muscles are back in fashion, and Schwarzenegger and Stallone will have stiff competition at the box office from younger, fitter hulks.

In Avengers Assemble, which is currently playing on four screens simultaneously at your local multiplex, Australian star Chris Hemsworth plays a spectacularly buffed-up Thor.

He added 20lbs of muscle to his six-foot-three frame for the part, through weights and constant eating. English actor Tom Hardy has gained over 30lbs for his role as Batman's nemesis Bane in the much-anticipated Dark Knight Rises, and looks like a brick outhouse.

Then again so does Christian Bale's Batman, and Bale famously put on a staggering 100lbs in six months in order to star in Batman Begins.

And even the normally gangly Rhys Ifans seems impressively muscular as the villainous 'Lizard' in the forthcoming reboot, The Amazing Spider-Man.

The meatheads are back, and this summer's blockbusters echo the camp excesses of the 1980s. That decade was the heyday of the hulk, but it took an Austrian bodybuilder and an extra from Hell's Kitchen to rescue the muscleman from B-movie obscurity.

The art of bodybuilding apparently grew up in the British military during the 19th Century. The craze caught on in the US in the 1940s, mainly thanks to a canny Italian immigrant called Angelo Siciliano, who renamed himself Charles Atlas and launched a bodybuilding programme that promised to turn "97lb weaklings" into "heroes of the beach".

Bodybuilders began turning up in Hollywood films in the 1950s. Steve Reeves played Hercules in a series of historical action dramas, and so did Leeds-born weightlifter Reg Park.

But movies like Hercules and the Captive Women were hacked together B-pictures that no one took seriously, and there was something a bit camp about all that muscle-flexing.

Things began to change in the late 1970s, when a new breed of super bodybuilders burst on to the scene. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno were deadly rivals in the Mr Universe contest, and both had acting ambitions.

Ferrigno got his break first, starring in popular TV series, The Hulk. But Schwarzenegger became a much bigger star thanks to hit movies like Conan the Barbarian and Terminator.

The young Arnie had indifferent English and little discernible acting talent, but turned his faults to his advantage by deliberately choosing roles that were light on dialogue and heavy on the action.

He got lucky with Terminator, James Cameron's groundbreaking 1984 sci-fi thriller, but used it as a template for future roles. He said little, flexed his well oiled muscles and killed indiscriminately with a stony face.

Crucially, however, Arnie also cracked wise, using a deadpan comic timing that surprised his many critics.

In planning his movie career, Schwarzenegger must surely have been inspired by the example of Sylvester Stallone. Born in Hell's Kitchen, New York, and raised in Washington DC, Stallone took to bodybuilding as a teenager but found it hard to break into acting.

His feature debut was in a 1971 soft-core porn movie called The Party at Kitty and Stud's, which was re-released to his enduring embarrassment after he became famous.

He appeared as a thuggish extra in films like Woody Allen's Bananas and Klute, but was kind of funny-looking and seemed doomed to a life of obscurity until he came up with an idea for a boxing picture.

Stallone wrote the script of Rocky in three days in the spring of 1975, and when Hollywood picked up on the idea he insisted on playing Rocky Balboa himself. The film was a huge hit, and allowed Stallone to become one of Hollywood's more unlikely A-listers.

The rise of Stallone and Schwarzenegger chimed perfectly with the new conservatism of Reagan-era America. In the 1970s, Hollywood had reacted to the moral confusion of the Nixon presidency with weighty anti-war films and edgy conspiracy thrillers.

But Ronald Reagan led a return to uncomplicated patriotism and a deep distrust of Johnny foreigner. In a way Sly and Arnie were the John Waynes of their time, and were quick to exploit the new enthusiasm for flag-waving.

In the Rambo films, Sly Stallone provided a gory rebuttal to the 1970s anti-Vietnam War activists. And though not American himself, Schwarzenegger made sure to kick the butts of commies and Islamic extremists in films like Commando and True Lies. Their movies were generally formulaic but effective, especially at the box office, and soon a host of buffed up imitators emerged.

Dolph Lundgren, Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme all became action stars in the 1980s, churning out ever-more violent B-pictures in which the bulky hero took on impossible odds to defeat America's enemies.

But by the late-1980s, the beefcake formula was looking a bit weary.

Mel Gibson and Bruce Willis, neither of whom were especially muscly, paved the way for a new, quicker and slicker kind of action film, and in the mid-1990s both Schwarzenegger's and Stallone's careers began to slide.

Arnie retreated into politics, and Sly limped off to lick his wounds and plot the inevitable comeback.

Come back he did, and his 2010 film The Expendables was warmly welcomed as an entertaining piece of knowing retro kitsch. But the 1980s action muscleman looks a little superannuated when compared with more recent action films.

Sly and Arnie would have bust a lung trying to keep up with Jason Bourne, and these days speed, not bulk, tends to be the primary requirement for survival.

If Schwarzenegger and Stallone have left a legacy, it's this: nowadays all the male stars hit the gym before they start shooting anything, for Hollywood no longer tolerates 97lbs weaklings.


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