Arnold’s Departure From Public Persona

Few people have left such an indelible mark on pop culture as Arnold Schwarzenegger. Over the years, through a series of action films, Americans have watched the man achieve the American dream, but more importantly, gave Americans something to dream about. He established for a wide audience the quintessential male action hero. Furthermore, this status as a male action hero has been carefully cultivated. Even the most basic film audiences can see the surface deep progression of Arnold from obscurity to popularity. However, his rise to fame deserves further examination, as Dave Saunders proves with his book Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Movies. His progression over the years is catalogued throughout the book from his beginnings till the end of his acting career. Although the book examines various Arnold films, it does not take a look at all of them. In fact, most movies from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s, with the exception of the 2003 film Terminator 3, are not even examined. In understanding Arnold as one of the most recognizable and successful male action heroes, Saunders does a great disservice to the man by not acknowledging his departures from both heroics and male identity politics, as seen in Junior, Batman & Robin, and Terminator 3.
One of the first movies that derived its laughter from the audience’s previous understanding of Arnold was the 1994 Ivan Reitman-helmed film, Junior. The plot of the film features Arnold as a scientist in the field of gynecology who, in order to prove the effectiveness of his drug, tests it on himself. What follows is a grand departure from typical Schwarzenegger. While his earlier films show a reverence for blood and testosterone, none of this is really present in this film. As a matter of fact, as Alex (Arnold’s character) opts to undergo the procedure, he is literally injected with the antithesis of this when he is pumped full of estrogen. Furthermore, his very name in the film, Alex, is short for, assuming, Alexander, but it’s also short for the girl’s name Alexandra so even by having a gender neutral name (as opposed to Predator’s Dutch) the film is very non-committal in having Arnold as its male lead. However, there are other elements to the film that show a much more visual and tangible disregard for the niche that Arnold had carved out for himself by 1994.
One of the elements of Junior’s comedy that I would be remiss without mentioning is the exploitation of Arnold’s form. With one of Arnold’s first films being the 1976 piece Stay Hungry, in which it was difficult to find him with much clothing own towards the end of the movie, Junior is much more modest. It relies on the audience to have prior knowledge of Arnold’s work as a bodybuilder, which brings up an interesting point. The importance of the male image in this is almost female in its portrayal. Arnold’s consent to being looked at, an idea Mulvey discusses in her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” represents a femininity in his status that few audience members account for. However, it is his physicality and the audience’s recognition of it that motivates much of the humor. However, one of the driving forces in Arnold’s earlier work was the sheer spectacle of it. There was no denying that men wanted to be him and arguably, some women wanted to be with him. This is what attracted most people to Arnold’s pictures before, but there was no trace of that in Junior. Men certainly had no desire to idealize an egghead scientist who was willing to carry a child, and the male Adonis was just far enough removed that Arnold held little appeal even to women. In essence, Arnold was making a mockery of himself. He was living out the systematic destruction of his own physical form in a way that essentially made him a grotesque caricature of what he had intentionally fashioned himself to embody. The viewer gets a sense that Arnold is laughing at himself with this piece. There are several key scenes where it even becomes difficult to watch Arnold do this to himself. One of the scenes is the one where Alex decides to carry the baby to full-term. This shows the emotional effects that the pregnancy has had on Arnold’s mind and with that, the audience sees Arnold behave emotionally and make decisions based on his emotions. Arguably this has been seen in previous films, such as Commando where Arnold goes into protective mode when his daughter is kidnapped. Even then, he responds with swift and deliberate violence, which shows little regard for the emotional well being of anyone besides his daughter and himself. Furthermore, most movies that Arnold has done like this show the protectiveness as instinctual. In Junior, Arnold’s actions are both conscious and emotionally driven. This is where the audience begins to lose track of not only the physical being that is Arnold from the earlier years, but also the persona that he has established for himself.
As previously stated, the changes that Arnold undergoes in the movie are far from merely physical. By 1994, the audience would have just been coming off the string of violent films that the 1980s had held, such as Commando, Predator, and even Total Recall. However, they’d also seen Arnold in other capacities, as a brother in Twins and as a surrogate father in Kindergarten Cop, but throughout them all, he had maintained his male identity. While it is true it was slightly altered to conform to the film, but it had never been done as drastically as with Junior. In this film, it is fair to say that Arnold sacrifices this identity. Not only when he is injected with estrogen and becomes pregnant, but earlier on even with his male identity in the film. He is a scientist, which is somewhat of a change for Arnold in and of itself. Although it may not be a deserved reputation, most stereotypes of scientists are somewhat socially awkward, but more importantly, physically weak. By taking on the role of a scientist, Arnold is in essence already compromising his masculine image. However, that is something that could have easily been repaired, but instead, Reitman seems to play off of it by telling the audience early on that this is not the Arnold that they know. Furthermore, we see the idea of “Every man has a feminine side” given physical credence when Arnold disguises himself as a woman to hide from his potential captors. Until this point in contemporary society, drag was a particularly degrading form of comedy, and is even in some circles, still considered to be less than reputable. At this point, drag had been essentially designated a gay art form or a black art form, as crass as it may sound. However, Arnold embraced this and showed a disregard for the pre-conceived notions by accepting the part. Once again, it seemed to be a continuation of Arnold’s grand joke on everyone. By not only downplaying his male identity, but eventually abandoning it and pretending to be a woman in a time of crisis, Arnold’s abandonment of the persona he had worked so hard to cultivate seemed to be complete. Arnold’s disregard for the male hero he had come to embody, arguably began with Junior, but it certainly continued with the 1997 film Batman & Robin.
This film is widely considered the ruin of the Batman franchise, but it’s importance as a departure for Arnold is undeniable. The film raked in an impressive gross for the opening weekend, but it quickly fell by its second weekend. This can be attributed to a variety of things, but one of the aspects that the movie received a lot of negative attention for, particularly from Ebert, was the use of Arnold Schwarzenegger in the role of Mr. Freeze. Once again, Arnold’s underwhelming performance can be seen as poor directing on Schumacher’s part or a certainly less than perfect script, but an undeniable element of the character of Freeze himself is his departure from Arnold’s status as the male action hero. This is embodied in a variety of ways throughout the film. Most noticeably, Arnold’s return as the villain can be argued as his only role as the villain at the time. While it is true that he played the role of the villain in The Terminator, by the time of this film’s release, he had done T2 which re-solidified his iconic hero status. Furthermore, in The Terminator the audience can’t fully recognize him as a villain because he is not an agent of free will, but rather programmed to do as told. What further differentiates the two villains is Arnold’s Teutonic/robotic portrayal in the first film, versus his origin story in Batman & Robin. As he details how he came to be the way that he is, the audience sees an emotional aspect of the character. However, when Freeze is first presented to the audience with one-liners like “Ice to meet you” it’s difficult to establish an emotionally sincere character. What results is a disastrous “character study” of the tragic villain archetype when it is combined with the campy demeanor of the movie. However, another element of the movie that is a clear departure from Arnold’s typical action hero is crucial to his origin story.
Besides seeing an emotional Arnold, the audience is shown a man ruled by his wife. When examining other Arnold films, Arnold is clearly in charge. There are some movies where he takes on the role of the father figure, such as Commando, and is forced to protect his child at the risk of his own life, but those films illustrate his iconic hero status. Here, viewers see a broken man who when faced with the potential loss of his wife, opts for the path of super villainy. His wife influences him in a way that is so crucial to the progression of the movie, which is uncharacteristic for most Arnold movies it seems. The idea of the dangers of being alone, although explored in relation to a different archetype, is examined in Warshow’s essay “The Gangster as Tragic Hero”. However, although Freeze loses his wife and is, for all intens and purposes, alone in his life, he is not without a feminine influence. Even aside from his wife, Freeze is controlled and manipulated by another woman in the film, Poison Ivy. He even relies on women in this film so much that it is Ivy that helps him escape from Arkham. The importance of the female figures in the lives of the males is a theme throughout the movie, but Arnold has never appeared in such a capacity. His reliance on his wife borders on psychotic as he goes into a rage when faced with the loss of his wife. In a confusing way, the physical presence of Arnold is still very recognizable in the film, but the man that America has grown to know and love seems strangely absent. What’s even more upsetting is that Arnold’s acting presence has noticeably evolved, but any remnants of any acting credibility is gone from this movie. That being said, Arnold is capable in the role of Freeze, but the character that Schumacher wants from him is inconsistent, Once again, this is more because of the inconsistencies of the script than anything else, but still reflects on Arnold. Regardless of who’s to blame, Batman & Robin’s failure is unavoidable. It seems equal parts Schumacher and equal parts Arnold’s role and the capacity American audiences were comfortable seeing him in. Another film that featured a rather odd incarnation of Arnold is the 2003 film Terminator 3:Rise of the Machines.
While it would be unfair to call Terminator 3 a failure, when compared to the success of the earlier 2 films, Terminator 3 performed less well than desired. Once again, this could be due to a variety of things, namely the absence of James Cameron that drove audiences away, this is one of Arnold’s last films and arguably, one of the largest departures from his manufactured on-screen persona. One of the most powerful reputations that Arnold created for himself was his role of the unfeeling, Teutonic machine in the Terminator. The third film in this series still shows him as unfeeling, in instances such as the gas station scene, where he blows it up as he leaves with no remorse, but he is somehow no longer as hard. This is more than likely due to the major shifts in this film from the previous 2. While the earlier films centered around the protection of Sarah Connor, it is quickly established that that is because she will be the mother of John Connor who will go on to save the day. As soon as she delivers John Connor, she becomes expendable.
In this film, the audience is told that John Connor is expendable. Furthermore, viewers are told early on that John Connor will die and that is why the character of Kate Brewster is so crucial. The earlier films never put women into positions of power before the men, but the director, Jonathan Mostow, opted to privilege the female characters in this film. However, this is not all together a new concept. Margaret Haskell detailed the various roles of women in her essay “The Woman’s Film” from her book From Reverence to Rape. She details the power that women had over men in earlier films, but what is interesting is that these rules rarely, if ever, applied to action films. While Mostow does not go so far as to say that women are more powerful, after all Kate only becomes important after John dies and her father, General Brewster, is the one who sends them to Crystal Peak. However, there are many other instances where Kate’s status as a female is of importance, but usually the male dominates the scene. These instances include Kate’s resistance after first being abducted by John and the T-850. In a rage, she tells him to drop dead and seeing as how he is designed to protect her, he must do as she says. This is an instance of the woman in power, which is rare for an Arnold film. However, because that would get in the way of his primary objective, he tells her he cannot comply, re-asserting himself as the power figure. The film is riff with these instances where Kate is in a position of power, but her unfamiliarity with her own power renders her virtually ineffective. Arnold’s role in this essential, but he obviously does not completely disregard the female presence, as she is the reason for his existence at this time.
However, although Kate is unaware of her power, she is juxtaposed with the T-X, the first female Terminator and the antagonist of Terminator 3. This is a return to the feminist front, although it could be argued that this is setting feminists back because it portrays women in a negative light. However, this argument can be refuted with one simple statement. She fights Arnold and holds her own. In earlier years, it would be unthinkable to have a man and a woman be against each other and have them actually fight one another. Older films with lead heroes tend to use the approach that the woman will try to beat the man in an underhanded way and the man will stop her just in time, but that is frequently where it ends. There is no fight that ensues because the notion of a man fighting a woman often conjures up images of abuse. However, this film goes further and plays out the fight sequences between Arnold and his female counterpart. In this regard, not only does this film privilege women by giving them power, but also physical strength. She proves herself a worthy opponent to Arnold’s character and arguably, even beats him in a way. In most of the fight sequences, Arnold struggles to keep up with her, while she has no problem keeping up with him. While this is because she is a more advanced model, her superiority, both in physicality and appearance are instrumental to the film. For instance, she uses her “upgraded appearance” as a means to infiltrate human society and to accomplish her goal. Much like the femme fatale of noir films, she uses her sexuality as a means to get what she wants. It is ways such as this that the T-X proves her superiority, especially in the film’s conclusion. As Arnold struggles to defeat the female, she proves her resilience. Time after time, she is taken down, but she always manages to come at them again. Even without legs, she crawls toward them in a last-ditch effort to reach her goal. After all these attempts, she even arguably beats Arnold. It is only through sacrificing his own life that he manages to take her down. Terminator 3 is full of interesting gender roles that had, until now, remained unexplored in The Terminator series. However, it is Arnold’s departure from the male action hero that is clearly illustrated in his demise and the film’s conclusion. He is rendered ineffectual. Though it is through no fault of his own, Arnold proves himself in this movie as a mere deterrent and incapable of stopping it all. In essence, the American action hero fails his audience one last time before essentially departing the silver screen.
Saunders’ lack of examination of films where Arnold leaves his cultivated heroic status behind, namely Junior, Batman & Robin, and Terminator 3, does a disservice to the star. In Junior, he showed audiences that he had a sense of humor about the ultra-macho persona he had created and that every man has a feminine side. Sadly, most Americans proved they were not ready to laugh. Arnold’s role as Freeze in Batman & Robin showed yet another shift, from hero to villain in a way that few, if any, had seen him before. It showed him as a slave to his emotions and the wiles of a woman. Unfortunately, the film as a whole was too loud and campy to warrant any real attention. Without a doubt Terminator 3 was the most successful of these aforementioned ventures. However, it showed that the male action hero is not always the savior we might need. It also demonstrated the strength of the female in overcoming the male. Ultimately. All these films prove that Arnold’s versatility is present, if not altogether undesired, by his audience. Arnold’s success as the desirable male action hero will live forever as a testament of American ideals. However, it is with these failures that Arnold allowed his audience to see him in a whole new light.

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