A person doesn’t have to have a massive ego to be a bodybuilder, but it helps. Pumping Iron is the most personal film in which Arnold Schwarzenegger has appeared, because the only character he is playing is himself. Throughout the film, a documentary on bodybuilding featuring Arnold, Lou Ferrigno, and many others, the question of Arnold’s authenticity hovers over everything. Early on, he describes his life as a constant state of euphoria. Between sex, the feeling he gets from working out in the gym, pumping up before a show, and posing in front of people, he is, in his words, “…cumming day and night. I mean, it’s terrific, right? So you know, I’m in heaven.” These are the words of enthused youth, maybe ignorant, maybe indifferent of how bizarre it is to equate one’s life with a never-ending stream of orgasms. What this part of the film, such a graphic picture of his happiness, says to me is that he thinks he is the greatest man on the earth, certainly better than anyone he has ever met. Later, he talks about his desire to be one of those rare individuals that history remembers. He even cites Jesus Christ as an example. Wow. What a massive, walloping, over-indulgent sense of self. It’s hardly an endearing trait, but in combination with his work ethic, it created quite a return on investment.
Pumping Iron was released early in 1977, and was filmed in 1975 during the run-up to a pair of competitions in South Africa, the IFBB Mr. Universe and Mr. Olympia shows. At age 28, Arnold was already a winner, unbeatable for many years. He retired from competition for a spell after the events in the film. He was enough of a specimen that he could have kept competing for a much longer time, but that same mentality that motivated him to be a bodybuilder could be satisfied by winning for only so long. We know how this story has progressed in real life. After bodybuilding, he conquered action films. After Hollywood, there was the restaurant business, but we won’t delve into that too much. After his star began to fade in Hollywood, there was the governor’s mansion in Sacramento.
Arnold has been in the public eye now for the better part of forty years. And yet that question still remains. How much of what we see is actually Arnold, and how much is it the product, the public face he puts forth in order to succeed? Pumping Iron is the best film to watch if one happens to be curious enough to look for an answer. I was going to skip watching this film for Arnold month. I felt that including a documentary didn’t fit with the theme. But I was wrong about that. As day after day watching his movies went by, I realized there was a coherent set of rules that was common throughout the vast majority of his roles, with the only exception being The Terminator. Arnold always wants to win. He wants to crush his competition, but he never wants to be the heel. He is a stone cold assassin, but will come at a person with a smile and a disarming personality. He wants people to like him badly. In most of his movies, Arnold makes a conscious effort to make the audience like him, not the character. To Arnold, he is always more important than the character.
That’s not uncommon among big time movie stars. After a month of this, it’s pretty easy to spot the façade, but it’s in Pumping Iron that a viewer sees past that. That’s what makes this movie unique. Stars like Will Smith, Sly Stallone, and Tom Cruise are every bit as conscious of public perception, but they never had something like Pumping Iron lurking in their past, ready to give viewers a chance to witness a star’s thinking first hand.
Arnold has a big personality in Pumping Iron. He dominates every room he’s in. It only makes sense, then, that the filmmakers chose to focus on Ferrigno as Arnold’s most worthy contender. Ferrigno, 24 at the time, appears as an insular person. Much of this is due to ear infections while an infant that damaged his hearing and speech. Ferrigno’s focus is just as intense as Arnold’s, but it’s very much in service of something else. They are both feeding their respective personalities in gym and on stage, but Arnold is reaffirming what he already knows about himself, gathering praise, while Ferrigno, as nice a guy as he seems to be, appears to want to prove all doubters wrong, including himself. Ferrigno’s opaqueness makes assessing his presence in this film more speculation than with Arnold, but his efforts to win are about exorcising demons, not becoming one of history’s remarkable people.
I can’t imagine seeing this film when it first came out, and Arnold was an unknown. It is a far more informative film now that he is nearing the end of a phenomenal career in film. It is a reminder that film stars are every bit as much product as the movies themselves, and they are in complete control of that product. In Pumping Iron, we see that big time success is a goal Arnold has been working on since he was a young man. On top of that, it is a pretty good documentary.