Stay Hungry, from director Bob Rafelson, was not Arnold Schwarzenegger’s first time in front of the camera, but he’s given an ‘introducing’ billing nonetheless. And why the hell not? It’s not like anyone saw Hercules in New York.
Arnold plays Joe Santo, an Austrian bodybuilder who, through some extraordinary mystery that the film totally ignores, winds up training in some hole in the wall gym in Birmingham, Alabama. The Mr. Universe competition is coming to town soon, and Joe is the favorite to win. Atypically in his career, Arnold is not the star of this film. His story is important to the plot, but he’s strictly supporting cast in this one. The lead in this film is Jeff Bridges, playing a rich southern roustabout by the name of Craig Blake. His name carries some weight in the area, and he’s rebelling in a way only the rich can — with no risk.
Craig has no time for the things he’s supposed to do, the people he’s supposed to be friends with and do business with, the woman he’s supposed to marry. When he finds himself involved in a real estate deal that threatens the gym where Joe works out, he comes down with a case of the awfuckits, and does a low-rent Holden Caulfield/Gatsby impression. Joe introduces him to sometime lover Mary Tate Farnsworth (Sally Field), and the two hit it off famously, spending all the time they can together.
But, there’s a problem. Craig is insufferable. He’s a man-child who wants to experience all there is in the world that the southern aristocracy would frown on, but it’s hard to tell if it’s for his own benefit, or if he’s just trying to be different. This leads to Craig committing moments of abject cruelty. Whether he’s clueless or malicious isn’t known until the end, and even then…
Joe Santo is an interesting fellow, though. An Austrian bodybuilder is a unique cat in most of the United States, but Birmingham isn’t known for it’s cosmopolitan nature. Joe might just be the most interesting person in the entire state, so he stands out a bit more than elsewhere. Joe and Craig spend some time working out together, and the viewer is let in on some of the wisdom of Joe Santo. He’s focused and determined. If there is anything in this world that does not contribute to his goals, then it is either something to be avoided, or something to be discarded quickly, hence Joe’s treatment of Mary Tate and every other woman in this movie. He’s not being a heel, he’s just committed, baby.
The curious thing is, how much of Joe’s own cruelty, severe enough to compete with Craig’s, is his own, and how much is Arnold’s? Stay Hungry was adapted from the novel by Charles Gaines, who also got a screenplay credit on the film. Gaines was intimately familiar with the world of bodybuilding, his photographs being the impetus for the documentary Pumping Iron, featuring Arnold. Was Joe Santo based on Arnold, or is he an amalgam of what Gaines saw and heard in gyms and at bodybuilding competitions around the world? I have not read the book. But what I do know is that Arnold’s/Joe’s attitude is not uncommon in people with a singular focus. In other words, sometimes people can be jerks, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this month’s hero is one of them.
But I digress.
This movie was released in 1976, and it really wasn’t until Twins, more than a decade later, that Arnold was allowed to play anything other than an enraged killer. In this film, he wasn’t just expected to lift weights and flex — there were demands on him as an actor. There were moments when his reading was amateurish, maybe even unpracticed, but he felt genuine throughout. He was overmatched by Bridges and Field, of course, but it’s saying something that he didn’t embarrass himself on screen with those two serious talents.
Stay Hungry is a good watch, including a final act that swings back and forth between violence, hilarity, and stupidity at a whiplash pace. The standout here is R.G. Armstrong, as the owner of the gym, who both shines and horrifies in the finale. Scenes flash back and forth between the gym and the Mr. Universe competition. Here, Rafelson showed a lot of skill in weaving the narrative together without everything flying apart. If this film fails anywhere, it’s that it gets sappy at times. But, this is one of those films fading into obscurity that is worth a watch if a person happens to be in the mood for something different.