Let’s be clear on something: Arnold Schwarzenegger is no fool. He might be a ridiculously oversized joke in most people’s eyes, but you can’t fault the guy’s ambition. Over the years he’s managed to achieve enormous, sometimes unrivalled levels of success, in three completely different professions: firstly as a bodybuilder, secondly as an actor – yes, actor – and lastly as a politician. Still, there remains a general consensus fuelled by films like Eraser and End of Days that Arnie is a terrible actor. Granted, he’s not a master of drama and he’s probably never heard of subtlety, but there’s definitely more to the ‘Austrian Oak’ than meets the eye…
Schwarzenegger’s first lead role was presented to him in 1969. After achieving phenomenal success in the world of professional bodybuilding, Arnold was given the chance to star in a low budget, meat-headed action flick tellingly named Hercules In New York. At this point in his career, he had been forced to take the name ‘Arnold Strong’ because ‘Schwarzenegger’ was too long and European for American audiences. His accent was so thick that the director decided to dub over his dialogue in post-production.
The seven-time Mr. Olympia winner persevered, landing a minor role as a mute assassin in Robert Altman’s 1973 classic The Long Goodbye. Though you can hardly call it a breakout performance, he did at least get to keep his surname. It was the edgy bodybuilding documentary, Pumping Iron, which really propelled Arnold into the public eye and eventually aided him in securing the lead in Conan the Barbarian.
Arnie would then go on to star in a myriad of overblown action romps including Commando, Raw Deal, The Running Man, Predator and True Lies. Schwarzenegger made a name for himself as Hollywood’s most popular one-man army. For much of his career, he’s fallen back on his physique and accent, rarely exhibiting any signs that there’s a genuinely decent actor under all that muscle.
Believe it or not, he’s actually got a Golden Globe, which was awarded to him for his supporting role in Bob Rafelson’s 1976 offbeat-comedy, Stay Hungry. Schwarzenegger plays Joe Santo, an uninhibited, friendly bodybuilder and the close confidant of a wealthy businessman, played by Jeff Bridges. Arnie oozes assurance throughout the film and is surprisingly subtle in the physicality of his performance – not that it matters when it’s revealed that his character actually plays the fiddle in a bluegrass band.
Then there’s The Terminator, James Cameron’s seminal sci-fi masterpiece. Admittedly, it doesn’t require too much in terms of acting talent to sufficiently play a cyborg, but that shouldn’t take anything away from Arnie’s turn in the iconic film. It’s almost an entirely physical performance (which probably suits a bodybuilder with an Austrian accent), and Schwarzenegger’s movements are exquisitely measured and precise throughout; few actors could have played the part like he did.
To his credit, he was at least competent in Total Recall, and has even shown some level of comedic talent in films like Twins and Kindergarten Cop – even if unintentional. None of this really cancels out the sheer stupidity that encompasses so much of his work. He’s an actor desperately lacking in range, delivery and realistic expression, which is often reflected in his choice of roles. But, perhaps for all the wrong reasons, we still love him – whether it’s because of his one-liners, his physique or his accent. We’re always happy to see more Arnie.