Box-Office Brawn

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Arnold Schwarzenegger is a director too. This year he did The Switch, a 25- minute episode on the cable-TV series Tales from the Crypt. It's a little morality play that asks the question, What do you have to do to become Arnold Schwarzenegger?

To win the love of his fickle girlfriend, a rich, withered old man named Webster spends $1 million on plastic surgery; he trades faces with a young Adonis named Hans. But the girl still finds Webster repulsive, so he spends $2 million more for Hans' handsome torso. Webster is a big hit on Muscle Beach, but when he's in a swimsuit his spindly legs make his lady ill. So he squanders the last $3 million of his fortune on Hans' legs and one or two other appendages. Perhaps finally he can win his beloved's heart? No; she's eloped with Hans, who now has an old man's body and $6 million. As for Webster, he's got a great physique -- but pity the guy. He still looks puny compared with Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Who could hope for money, fame, power, love, brains and muscles? Only Arnold, as he is everywhere known. Just now he is the movies' top star, the one whose name above the title of a film -- Conan the Barbarian, The Terminator, Predator, Twins, Total Recall or his new Kindergarten Cop -- guarantees that people will buy tickets or snatch up the videocassette. He didn't need a plastic surgeon or a movie-agent Mephistopheles to become Arnold; his eminence is a triumph of the will. Even if he weren't a celebrity, he would be richer than Webster; his shrewd entrepreneurship and real estate investments have made him tens of millions. As for the girl, he got her: Maria Shriver, NBC newscaster and Kennedy niece. When he is not chumming with the clan in Hyannis Port, he is stumping for George Bush or serving as chairman of the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. Conan is a Republican.

And $6 million wouldn't come close to buying Schwarzenegger's body, not even for a single movie. He asks and gets twice that price, and the moguls know it is a fair deal. He will show up on time, throw his beautifully beveled body into every scene, take direction conscientiously -- and when it comes time to promote the picture, press the flesh till fingers go numb. "Arnold loves being a movie star," says Ivan Reitman, his director on Twins and Kindergarten Cop. "He approaches the role with great gusto and charm. He is a throwback to the classic movie stars of the '40s, who were proud of their profession. If you're going to do it, why not do it all the way?"

Schwarzenegger knows no other way to do it. His first notable Hollywood film was Stay Hungry, and that might be the key to his success. "You've got to be hungry," he says, "otherwise you can't be motivated." The hunger, the motivation, the four-wheel drive, have helped this Gargantua from Austria embody a real-life American Dream story -- poor boy to champion body builder to movie curiosity to nonpareil megastar -- that is so improbable even Hollywood would be embarrassed to put it into production. They have also made him, at 43, the most potent symbol of worldwide dominance of the U.S. entertainment industry.

Politicians may debate whether America, in the post-cold war era, will continue to hold center stage. But no one can doubt that it fills the world's screens -- cinema and television -- as well as its VCRs, bookshelves, record stores and CD players. The dominance is especially pronounced on movie marquees. In most foreign countries, the most popular films are from Hollywood: brain-bashing action epics from Schwarzenegger and Stallone, to be sure, but also fantasy romances like Pretty Woman and Ghost. If we make it, they want it -- and lately, if they are Japanese, they want to buy the American companies that make it. Foreign investors realize that in the chancy business of manufacturing popular art, Hollywood has an ever tighter grip on the world's pulse. Since 1985 the overseas take from U.S. films has doubled. Movies represent a robust portion of an entertainment industry that registers an annual $5 billion or so trade surplus.

But Hollywood did more than make money with its product; it minted, and then exported, the nation's cultural ideology. From the first years of this century, with flickering images of cowboys and comic tramps, the movies were America's most glamorous way of advertising itself to the world. The bustling genius of the American system ensured that to a Peruvian or a Perugian, "the movies" meant Hollywood. And the stars bred within that system sold the movies' myth about America. A Manhattan penthouse became the top of the world when Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced through it; the canyons of Arizona were the promised land as long as John Wayne patrolled them.

As Hollywood touched the world, so it lured the world's talent to Southern California. Most of the men who built the studios were Jewish immigrants from Germany and Eastern Europe. Writers, directors, designers, cinematographers would make their names in Europe, then stow away to the States. And co-opting like crazy from the start, Hollywood made foreigners its greatest stars: Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford, Cary Grant and Greta Garbo. So it is only fitting that the torchbearer, the sword wielder, the giant of American movies, should be an overgrown Austrian with a face and body out of a superhero comic.

Like a Ninja Turtle conceived in disaster and destined for greatness, Schwarzenegger was born in the rubble of the Third Reich's defeat, in the Austrian village of Thal. His father was a policeman, his mother a housekeeper, and they lived in a house that had no toilet or refrigerator until he was 14. Could it have been such mean circumstances that gave Arnold an edge? He thinks so. "Today in America," he says, "I see kids comfortable, getting everything they want, peaceful minds, no hang-ups. And I realize that stability will never create the hunger it takes to go beyond the limits where others have been. For that, you have to be a little off. Something has to happen in your childhood that you say, 'I'm going to make up for this.' You don't even know what it is. Maybe I was competitive with my brother or trying to prove something to my father. But it doesn't really matter. Something was there that made me hungry."

When journalists dig for the darker side of Schwarzenegger's youth, something is there that makes him angry. Arnold, a tattly biography by British free-lancer Wendy Leigh, asserts that Schwarzenegger's father joined the Nazi Party in 1938 and that his older brother Meinhard died in a car crash after drinking heavily. Schwarzenegger attended the funeral of neither man. Leigh also charges Arnold with brutal practical jokes, coarse womanizing and relentless taunting of opponents in his body-building days. The star has dismissed Leigh's contentions, saying, "I don't want to give a third-grade journalist any credibility." He can hardly be held responsible for his kin's sins; the other allegations suggest that he took the rough passage, common in males, from boorish youth to robust maturity.

Arnold was 11 when he saw his first movie on a big screen. "That was a sensation." It was also his introduction to the kind of Hollywood fable that he would later live out. "Now I was fascinated with America. When I got to junior high school, I thought, 'What am I doing here?' The action was somewhere else. And all of the sudden, something woke up. It was an urge that I was meant for something big. If anybody asked me about getting to the top in acting and making movies -- becoming like a Clint Eastwood or a Warren Beatty or a Burt Reynolds -- people would say, 'Do you know what it takes to get there? How are you going to do it?' I didn't have an answer. But something was in me that made me feel like it was going to happen."

Arnold didn't just dream; he made it happen. Like a visionary athlete, artist or businessman (all of which he would eventually become), he devised a plan and climbed the mountain. More precisely, he became the mountain. "My parents wanted me to play soccer or be a skier," he recalls. "But I chose body building. It was a very American sport, and I thought, 'If I do well, it could take me to America.' " It was also a very American way for a boy to create a superman in his own image. Following Nietzsche's law ("That which does not kill us makes us stronger"), Arnold spent years punishing and pumping up his gangly frame until it was a prizewinning work of art -- a fabulous cartoon of muscularity.

To many people, body building is a bizarre pseudo sport: part weight lifting, part boylesque. It stands in that curious crossroads of exhibition and self-flagellation where Narcissus meets the Nautilus. If Schwarzenegger really thought this trail would lead to Hollywood, he would have to blaze it himself. Except for Steve Reeves, the Hercules of cut-rate '60s epics, few body builders had been able to work up so much as a sweat in pictures.

But Arnold did find fame in the sport. By 1975, long before moviegoers knew of him, he was the lone superstar of body building, earning the Mr. Olympia title an unprecedented seven times, Mr. Universe, five. At the climax of the documentary film Pumping Iron, which chronicles Schwarzenegger's last Mr. Olympia contest before retiring, the announcer tries to work some suspense into his revelation of the winner's name. But when he says, "The one and only . . . ," a broad grin breaks over Arnold's face. Who else could deserve that title?

"I was extremely happy as a body builder," Schwarzenegger says. "I was competing, training, doing seminars all over the world, winning the top trophies. The first time is the best. Fabulous! Even the second and third time, rubbing it in, letting them know you are here to stay. But then, all of a sudden -- zap! -- it is not enough anymore to make you happy. You say to yourself, 'Now what? I know that I don't have anything much better to do, but I am going to quit.' I wanted to go again for discomfort, to create the old hunger, to get into acting. Because I knew it was going to happen."

By now the reader knows not to raise a skeptical eyebrow when Arnold says something is going to happen. At the time, though, it was as hard to imagine him fitting into mainstream films as it would be to fit his wonderfully preposterous name on a movie marquee. Even after he scored a worldwide hit in his first starring role, as a primeval pillager in Conan the Barbarian, he was still seen as a fluke or a freak. Could this slab of sirloin beefcake act? It hardly mattered. He could fill the film frame superbly. He was also lucky. With the box-office triumph of Star Wars, Hollywood was back in the action- fantasy business. And with producers spending millions on optical gadgetry, Arnold was a bargain: here was a star whose body was its own stunning special effect. Eventually, smart moviemakers figured out how to carve a narrative niche sturdy enough for him to occupy.

The Terminator, in 1984, turned the trick. James Cameron's hurtling, resonant parable, about a cyborg come from the future to kill a woman who would one day give birth to a postapocalypse messiah, gave Schwarzenegger a million rounds of ammunition and 75 words of dialogue, most notably the ultimate death threat: "I'll be back." Playing a robot villain, he also played with moviegoers' expectations; they could root for him to die and cheer when he kept coming back. As Arnold recalls, "A studio executive called me after The Terminator and said, 'I can't believe it. I only saw you a few seconds without your clothes on, and they all went for it.' Then all of the sudden I got all of these action scripts that were unrelated to the body. Each step of the way, there were these changes. And the fans go along with it, as long as you give them quality."

Scratch a critic and you'll get an admission that Schwarzenegger's films have the quality of ferocity. There is something in Arnold that sparks the pinwheeling imaginations of action directors. They get him to lift trucks, carry huge trees on his shoulder, upend telephone booths with little punks inside. In Mark L. Lester's puckishly violent Commando, he righteously kills dozens of people in his determination to save a single life; as one helpful woman observes of Arnold and his adversaries, "These guys eat too much red meat." John McTiernan's Predator (1987) twists another commando genre into a jungle monster movie: half a dozen supersoldiers infiltrate enemy territory -- and Arnold gets to go mano a mano with a space alien who looks like the Creature from the Black Hole. And in this year's Total Recall, directed by Paul Verhoeven, he prowls through a densely detailed futureworld while masquerading as a villain, a fat woman and (least convincingly) an ordinary guy.

The devisers of these burly entertainments knew the Arnold character was both incredibly heroic and inherently comic; the films contain their own parodies. Moviegoers realized this too. Sure, even his forehead has intimidating muscles; but then he breaks into a big gap-toothed grin, and the put-off is revealed as a put-on. So to cast Schwarzenegger in comedy is very nearly redundant -- especially when, as with Twins (1988), it offered nothing more than Hollywood high concept: pairing the big guy with scruffy shrimp Danny De Vito. Even lamer is Kindergarten Cop, which opens in the U.S. this week. The film can't even live up to its title, which suggests an hour or so of big bad Arnold coping comically with snotty tykes. Oh, young performers from the Professional School for Kute Kids do get to recite part of the Gettysburg Address and, of course, say penis and vagina. But mostly Cop is a police procedural, a hostage thriller, a no-brain suspenser and a vengeful- mother drama. It adds up to the sternest test yet for Arnold's box-office clout -- and for the patience of his millions of fans.

Hollywood is more demanding than any critic; it looks for quality only on a profit statement. There, through good movies and bad, action films and comedies, Arnold gets four stars. His pictures can use a strong premise, but they don't need high-priced supporting players; his aura is enough. (Quick, name the second-billed actor of The Terminator, Commando, Predator or Total Recall.) He also has the respect -- maybe even the fear -- of the front-office boys, because he gets involved in every aspect of production and promotion.

"It's not enough to think about the script and the director," he says. "I must ask, Who is the studio? What is the international program? How much money do they have to spend on promotion? I don't want to make a decision to work | hard at something, to believe in something 100% and then have an executive in there who doesn't believe in spending a lot of money. I've had that happen. Predator opened at $12 million, and Barry Diller ((who runs 20th Century Fox)) said, 'We don't want to support the second week of the movie. It can go by itself now.' That was a major, major, major mistake. Now I know that is something to discuss beforehand."

Schwarzenegger actively promotes his movies abroad, where he is an even bigger star than in the U.S. "They see me as both American and European," he says. "And they know that I am not dealing with an American arrogance that says we are the kings. I go to Australia, even though there is no money there. If the Soviet Union would have a premiere of my film, I would go because I know that The Terminator was the hottest tape on the black market. So my attitude is that you have to pay attention to the entire world. Everything is becoming very global, especially movies. Look what has happened overseas in the past five years with video and cable and TV. American companies are finally waking up and cleaning up. But they were not ahead of the game. Only because of demand are they waking up. We've got to look at everything as equally important."

Unlike some golden tycoons, Schwarzenegger sees his family as equally important. And in his marriage to Shriver he recognizes the collision of "coming from different worlds. It is not easy, this process of trying to understand and appreciate each other. It takes love and patience. But that was no problem with us. Because I loved her all along, and I said to myself right away that she was the woman I would end up marrying. My friend Charles Gaines asked me in 1972 to describe the ideal woman -- and down to the teeth it was Maria. She knew also that she would end up with me." His wife is a valued adviser in his film career. "I take under consideration very seriously what she thinks," he says, "because I get a point of view not only from a smart person but from a woman. Maria has very good instincts. She reads fast, she analyzes and -- boom! -- she has the notes. Like an agent."

A Hollywood story is told about Mother Teresa: when asked what new worlds she wished to conquer after winning the Nobel Prize, the saintly nun replied, "Well, I would like to direct." For Schwarzenegger, this is no joke. "After I directed that little Tales from the Crypt, I felt ecstatic. It was something I never expected. To work with actors and mold a scene. It's ; wild." His plans are, as always, both bold and judicious: to direct a feature-length TV movie, then a theatrical film. After completing filming of Cameron's Terminator II, in which the killer cyborg finds romance (and a new victim), he hopes to take a breather.

Deep breaths, of course, and a clear vision. Perhaps even a glance back at the fairy-tale action film of his life. No one would have given odds on a poor boy from Thal growing up to become, well, Arnold Schwarzenegger. At the climax of Predator, Arnold finally comes up against the humongous alien -- and it is one ugly malefactor. He asks, "What the hell are you?" And the creature, who has never spoken before, looks at Arnold and mutters, "What the hell are you?" The monster obviously hadn't been to the movies lately. He was staring at the most unlikely and inevitable star of Hollywood's global era.