Is there a case to be made for Arnold Schwarzenegger being heralded a great—or should we say “fantastic”—actor? The hulking, hyperconfident, business-savvy Austrian bodybuilder who so dazzled Hollywood during his ascension into the realm of Californian politics is so resolutely larger than life, bordering on extraterrestrial, so ill-fitting in the role of a mere mortal, only a fool could take up the enterprise of claiming the man could embody all that broad a range of human experience. But there came a time when the movies genuinely needed him, and he answered their call, filling a niche that’s absolutely singular.
Bob Raffelson surely felt he’d struck gold when Schwarzenegger was brilliantly cast in Stay Hungry (1976), but the fledging actor was to take an altogether different, more ostentatious path into stardom, with his prominent role in Pumping Iron (77) making a more definitive debut, even while showing him to be obnoxious. Who else could possibly become the Nietzschean brute in Conan the Barbarian (82)? There’s not a single action hero from whatever athletic or aesthetic discipline, neither a Jean-Claude nor a Dolph, who exudes the same outsized will, the same steely focus, the same base satisfaction and irony-free, near-palpable, unabashed narcissism. In his spooky, unwaveringly Republican appraisal of what is good in life (“to crush your enemies, to see them kneeling before you, and to hear the lamentations of the women”), in his supple swinging of heavy weaponry, in his decidedly arrogant prayers to Crom, Schwarzenegger’s is that treasured thing, a performance of total conviction, crude heroism manifested through sheer, improbably body mass and a 1000-mile stare.
I’d argue Conan remains his career peak, but you could just as easily argue that Schwarzenegger was never more at home in any role as he was playing the killer robot from the future, a role fully utilizing Schwarzenegger’s unusual talent for physical concision and control. The Terminator (84) and The Terminator 2: Judgment Day (91) showcase one of the strangest movie icons to come around since Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein’s monster, a model no doubt for Schwarzenegger’s “good” terminator of the second film, a psychologically primitive techno-beast of man’s creation capable of becoming more human through the untainted intentions of an admiring child wonderfully played by Edward Furlong.
This second terminator was by far the more complex character, through T2 was ultimately so wearyingly excessive in every respect—especially duration—that it’s the original film that, for all its technically less advanced effects and pageant of big hair, has aged better and holds more charm. It’s a fiercer, leaner, more impactful story still imbued with writer/director James Cameron’s contagious sense of child-like awe over the time-slipping, apocalyptic scope of his one killer sci-fi idea. Still, even in that first time out there was still too much of at least two things: dull flash-forwards to the dreary future better imagined by the audience, and the even duller performance from Michael Biehn, whose heavy emoting feels all the more ham-fisted next to Schwarzenegger’s terrifying placidity.
Acting for the movies can be as much about presence as it is about chops, and even if he never makes another movie half as thrilling as those he made in his salad days, Schwarzenegger has struck film history with a presence truly like no other. For better or for worse, he will no doubt do the same for US politics.