The Art of Bodybuilding
by Brody Rossiter
Arnold Schwarzenegger’s thespian credentials (or lack thereof) have consistently been a subject of great debate throughout his acting career. Though his recent big-screen bicep flexing outings have oozed a somewhat novel charm born out of late 80s, early 90s nostalgia, he is still responsible for some of pop-culture’s most iconic moments and one-liners. For those unfamiliar with one of the Austrian Oak’s finest filmic performance, discover the 1977 bodybuilding docudrama-come-mockumentary, Pumping Iron via Netflix.
Arnie situated himself as the muscular core around which the finely spun yarn of a plot revolved with great ease. He comfortably displayed himself as a loveable but ultimately ruthless and egotistical villain of the piece – employing a litany of underhand techniques and tactics to psyche out his fellow competitors competing for the title of 1975 Mr Olympia (Bodybuilding’s richest and most prestigious prize).
No individual felt the playful wrath of the then five-time Mr Olympia more so than the young up-and-comer – and television’s future Incredible Hulk – Lou Ferrigno. Partially deaf and struggling to establish himself from beneath the pressures of his overbearing father, Ferrigno’s freakish muscularity and genetic makeup situated the young ‘kid’ from Brooklyn as a genuine contender for Arnold’s cherished crown – a fact which didn’t go unnoticed by the wily ten-year veteran of the bodybuilding scene.
Though numerous heated rivalries and even greater friendships are depicted throughout Pumping Iron’s portrait of the 70’s bodybuilding community – a sport which remains niche and controversial today and was even more so four decades ago – it is Arnold and Lou’s direct competition and highly contrasting lifestyles which makes for such compelling, comedic and often inspiring viewing. The numerous profiles of Pumping Iron’s cast, many of whom are now legendary throughout gym locker rooms and training room floors, highlights the diversity and hidden depths of every competitor from international playboys to dedicated family men – allowing for a genuine sense of a rich and diverse community packed with personalities who shared the common goal of having their name in lights to be established.
Pumping Iron may well have had certain elements of plot staged for entertainment purposes, but it is undeniably a daring and iconic study of masculinity and competition in its rawest and most tangible form, which paved the way for numerous documentaries and documentary makers. Bodybuilding was considered a strange otherworldly art-form, inherited from the god’s and their portrait makers; Schwarzenegger’s famous ‘sculptor and clay’ analogy perfectly surmising how the extremities of the sport could be considered a highly dedicated exercise in the aesthetic rather than solely a gruelling exercise in physical limitation and mental conditioning.
The picture exhibits its cast as far more than the action-heroes and magazine pin-ups they went on to become but rather a group of uncompromising artists to rival any Beat Generation, avant-garde auteurs or Britpop collective. Four decades later it comes as no surprise Schwarzenegger is still widely considered the greatest bodybuilder and Mr Olympia to grace the stage with a posing routine, largely in part to director George Butler’s candid depiction of the soon-to-be superstar in the environment he felt most at home, and alongside the men who made “Do you even lift?” a mantra long before it became just a meme.