Cast your mind back to the late eighties/early nineties when Arnold Schwarzenegger was the biggest star on the planet. The Austrian-born bodybuilder-cum-toast of Tinseltown had an incredible run at the box office, and managed that rare feat of transcending his nationality (little explanation was ever attributed to his character’s thick Teutonic accents) and somehow became an all-American icon.
He established that mould for future contenders to the action throne, such as The Rock and Vin Diesel, and they even tried to emulate his career path by applying the same tactical steps in trying to reach out to an even wider fan base by appearing in family-friendly fare (and somehow making an even more ham-fisted attempt at it than Arnie himself).
Having stepped down from his seven year role of Governor of California at the beginning of this year (failing to adequately tackle the state’s disastrously escalating budget deficit) and after speculation in the blogosphere for months as to whether he would step back in front of the cameras (cameo roles notwithstanding) the recent announcement that he was returning to leading man status in border-set pseudo western The Last Stand was quickly followed by images taken from the film’s set. These cropped up last week, showing the Austrian Oak looking relaxed and in good shape for his 64 years.
The word ‘comeback’ inevitably gets bandied around in these instances, and it’s definitely a title which is applicable to Schwarzenegger (the recent revelations of his dalliances with the family’s housemaid didn’t help the actor’s already shaky PR record) but the truth of the matter is Schwarzenegger’s popularity was on the wane well before he took up office. In fact, his career began a downwards trajectory from as way back as 1993 when his attempts at subverting his image in the meta action-comedy The Last Action Hero floundered at the box office (having been stamped on and torn to shreds by those mighty CGI’d Spielberg dinosaurs) . With the exception of James Cameron’s True Lies the following year, Schwarzenegger attempts to capitalise on his earlier success were met, largely, with audience indifference.
The likes of Eraser and Collateral Damage tried (and failed) to emulate his persona from that more simplistic, black-and-white era of action heroics. Even those family-friendly films in which the audience had indulged the star at the height of his popularity were shunned (George Clooney routinely takes the blame for the woeful Batman and Robin, but Schwarzenegger as the one-dimensional, quip-horrific villain Mr Freeze, should be culpable for at least some of the failing of the film). Perhaps most apparent that he’d lost that minus touch at the box office came in the form of his return to his most famous and well-loved character with 2003’s Terminator 3: The Rise of the Machine. What must have looked like a no-brainer for the actor (and indeed the studio) was a tired and unadventurous rehash, failing to match anywhere near the hype and ultimate success of the previous film. Schwarzenegger’s price tag for reprising the role (a reported $29.25 million “pay or play” fee) also shined a spotlight on the increasingly bloated salaries of A-list actors, and whether they were fully justifiable in helping to guarantee strong box office returns.
This isn’t to say that opportunities to revisit former glories are completely out of reach for the star. The unexpected box office success of The Expendables, which has spawned a forthcoming sequel (featuring a sprightly 70-year-old Chuck Norris!) is somewhat of an indication that there’s a novelty in seeing these stars of yesteryear back in action. While genre peer Sylvester Stallone seems intent on recapturing his former box office glory days (seemingly at all costs), Schwarzenegger might benefit from taking the advice of another past master Clint Eastwood, whose ‘Dirty’ Harry Callahan once uttered the words, “a man’s got to know his limitations”. It’s a phrase which was probably far from Schwarzenegger’s mind when he initially set off on that Yellow Brick Road to Hollywoodland (and indeed the first half of his career wouldn’t have happened if he subscribed to that theory) but in recent months, where it’s pretty clear that star power is beginning to lose its lustre (and the increasingly youth-obsessed business he’s returning to), the actor will have to rely on the extreme goodwill of an audience if he intends to replicate the kind of success which is now two decades behind him.
Shedding that Hollywood hubris can sometimes yield positive and fruitful results for A-list megastars (just look at Tom Cruise’s blistering turn in Magnolia) and it’s perhaps no surprise that, although top-billed, his character in The Last Stand looks like he’s part of an ensemble (the cast list consists of such dependable characters actors as Forest Whitaker, Harry Dean Stanton and Luis Guzmán, alongside established comic relief sidekick, Johnny Knoxville). Admittedly, Schwarzenegger has never shown the chops Cruise has, but surrounding himself with better actors, can’t harm the chances of him bringing something of quality to the table (remember Stallone in Copland?)
Maybe this is the way forward for Schwarzenegger’s career. As he enters retirement age, he should perhaps leave the heavy-lifting (literally and figuratively) to his future co-stars and director. Unlike Stallone, who has had the opportunity to call on his two iconic roles from the past to see him through the tough times, past franchises fundamental to Schwarzenegger’s standing (Conan and The Terminator) have already been plundered by the studio and been given unnecessary facelifts, with below-par results.
Whatever challenges lay ahead, for the moment, Schwarzenegger may indeed ‘be back’, but it could take more that a burst of ammunition and an archaic wisecrack in order for it to stay that way.