Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Bob Rafelson's films took a nose dive in the 1980s, after a decade of interesting work starting with
his Monkees feature Head and moving through his Five Easy Pieces and The King of
Marvin Gardens. As part of RBC films he had a hand in the first wave of rebellion pix, including
the one that overturned the studio applecart, Easy Rider.
Stay Hungry is Rafelson's last idiosyncratic movie before trying to go "straight" with the
unfortunate remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice. This southern idyll among musclemen is
a bit insubstantial, but after a gap of almost 30 years it plays quite well, with a gentle attitude
toward its entirely human characters.
Orphaned aristocrat Craig Blake (Jeff Berg) comes down from his mansion outside
Birmingham and gets involved with some oddball characters that hang around the gym owned by Thor
Erickson (R.G. Armstrong). He's there to buy the property for a real estate development scam floated
by Jabo (Joe Spinell), but Craig instead befriends bodybuilding champ Joe
Santo (Arnold Schwartzenegger) and local girl Mary Tate Farnsworth (Sally Field). They clash with
Blake's snooty society friends but he continues to side with them, even as the gangsters grow
impatient, and a big muscleman tournament looms for Joe.
Stay Hungry is the oddball odd film out for 1976, one that found critical praise and empty
theaters. The talent on display is remarkable. Jeff Bridges has the full power of his youthful
charm and Sally Field
throws herself completely into her first substantial film role. Director Rafelson surrounds them
with a completely quirky cast - R.G. Armstrong from a fistful of Peckinpah films, Robert Englund of
"Freddy" fame, Helena Kallianotes from Five Easy Pieces and Roger E. Moseley. Scatman Crothers
and Fannie Flagg share scenes with a young Ed Begley Jr. and Joe Spinell from The Godfather.
But the remarkable addition is the young Arnold Schwarzenegger as muscleman Joe Santo. Rafelson
gives him the most sympathetic role in the film, a character who responds with reason and restraint
problem that comes his way. Playing an Austrian body builder come to America to find his fortune
makes the role practically autobiographical, and Arnold impresses as a talented, thoughtful
fellow. And we know his workout advice to fledgling weightlifter Bridges is probably accurate!
The show probably seems half-baked on first viewing. It opens with a real-estate swindle that
peters out by the end. Our ineffective hero Bridges just ignores his crooked partners and
invests in the gym he's supposed to buy out. The secondary theme is the clash between Birmingham's
Nouveau Aristocracy (Bridges' background) and the downtown riffraff he falls in love with; this also
finds no resolution, unless we're to figure that Bridges abdicates his position in his pillared
mansion to go live with real people. If the movie never finds a consistent story thread, it's still
true to its commitment to its characters, all of whom are given fair treatment, even the villains.
We're given glimpses of the backwoods musicians who welcome Austrian-accented Joe Santos into
their midst as a fiddler (an unusual scene to be sure), which provides a big contrast when the same
group is heckled and belittled by Jeff Bridges' annoying peers at Fannie Flagg's party.
Bridges woos but has a hard time keeping his new girlfriend Mary Tate; she's not ready for class
company and Bridges (much like the character played by his brother Beau in The Landlord) isn't
quite smart enough to see the immediate problem. Sally Field is remarkable as the slightly trampy
but fully honest gymnast-water skiier; like all of Bridges' new friends she leads with her heart and he
finds her irresistable.
Rafelson builds his scenes and his conflicts on a quirky, intimate scale. Bridges' risks his name
and neck to steal a meaningless picture from an office for Mary Tate. He more or less invites trouble
from his business partners, but the best threat they can offer is a trio of local thugs who don't
scare anybody. The action is messy in a realistic way. Bridges gets his ear cut by a billiard rack,
and engages in the strangest fight with an amyl nitrate-maddened R.G. Armstrong. It ends with
all those exercise machine weights and apparatus being used as weapons.
We know that the movie has dissolved into its own good intentions when dozens of musclemen
pour out into the streets of Birmingham and start putting on impromptu pose demos for sidewalk
bystanders. It's part of a consistent tone that refuses to take things too seriously. I haven't
read the book and I don't know if it had themes unexplored in Rafelson's film, but Stay Hungry
has a unique brand of fun.
Schwarzenegger delivers the title line, which refers to his
personal philosophy when confronted by too much pleasure, too much luxury: Stay Hungry. Arnold has
scenes where he admits that he wants to make good, if only to pay back his sponsor, and it all rings
true. It was obvious that Hollywood would push him toward action roles exclusively, but Stay
Hungry shows the actor that could have been.
MGM's DVD of Stay Hungry is a flipper with two transfers. The enhanced widescreen version is
preferable. The soft colors of southern woods give way to the garish silhouettes of the Mr. Universe
contest where the musclemen do poses that make individual muscles stand out. In these scenes Arnold
resembles some kind of land crab, with a body wider than it is tall. Or else he looks like a human
dissection, as if someone removed his skin. Bodybuilding seems an odd form of narcissistic
self-determination; sculpting their bodies as a way of proving their dedication to a goal.
Bob Rafelson gives a meandering short intro to the film on camera, and it's nice to get a look at
On a commentary track he, Sally Field and Jeff Bridges share a relaxed and conversational talk about
the movie and the scenes as they come up. Lots of praise for the supporting actors fills in when
hard facts aren't being offered, but there are frequent patches where nobody talks. Sally says how
tough it was to do her nude scene and Bridges remarks on how re-viewing a movie so many years later
brings back odd memories, such as how pleasant the air was down there in Alabama. 2
In a cute scene, a southern belle who wants to be thought of as "demure" gets drunk and tries to ask
Schwarzenegger's Joe Santos if musclemen are, you know, that way. Joe says, "Do you mean homosexual?
and shakes his head in the negative, but then adds in his thick accent, "I can prove it if you like."
It's pretty amusing.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Stay Hungry rates:
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: Commentary with Rafelson, Field and Bridges, video intro with Rafelson
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 5, 2004
1. RBC films was located on
La Brea just south of Santa Monica, and my friend Robert Birchard worked there when Stay Hungry
was in production. He invited my friend Steve Nielson and I up to watch a workprint screening from the
projection booth; I remember that the contest scene was cut longer and its temp music was
Also Sprach Zarathrusta instead of the theme from Exodus as in the final movie. There
was a big meeting of RBC heavies afterward, but I wouldn't have known Rafelson from Adam. In fact,
I didn't recognize anybody. RBC dissolved shortly thereafter, and then Redd Foxx moved his offices into
the same dark building.
2. Helpful corrections from "B" 6/6/04:
While it is true that Rafelson was involved in RBC Films, that firm was,
I believe, almost entirely a distribution company. [I still remember its
1974 non-theatrical catalogue proudly announcing its exclusive release
of the Chaplin features.]
But RBC was either an associated entity to or direct subsidiary of the
now- legendary BBS Productions -- which I suspect is the corporate name
you meant to use. At least, the three letters "BBS" evoke the whole idea
of indie- with- studio- ties production of the late '60s and early '70s.
[Both concerns were headquartered in the same address down on La Brea.
Foxx did buy the building, but the remnants of the companies hung on for
a while there after the acquisition -- landlord Foxx even gets a thank
you in the credits of Bert and Harold Schneider's later production of
Malick's DAYS OF HEAVEN.]
EASY RIDER, while de facto a BBS picture, is actually a Pando (Peter
Fonda and Dennis Hopper) / Raybert (Rafelson and Bert Schneider)
production. ["The Monkees" and HEAD were Raybert productions.] BBS
stands for Bert (Schneider), Bob (Rafelson) and Steve (Blauner). FIVE
EASY PIECES is the first formal BBS production; 1974's HEARTS & MINDS,
which Columbia declined to release, was the last one. [Most of the BBS
pictures were handled non- theatrically by RBC -- EASY RIDER, however,
was always handled by Col.] Neither STAY HUNGRY nor DAYS OF HEAVEN were
BBS or RBC pictures, though they certainly used the resources of the La
Brea offices in some way in both pre- and post- production.
United Artists could have booked the appealingly offbeat STAY HUNGRY
more aggressively, but I don't think the audience was ready for it. [The
audience I saw it with _really_ wasn't ready for it; people were angrily
talking back to the screen after a while!] The studio put a good
campaign together, and the tagline was unforgettable:
"If you have an appetite for life... STAY HUNGRY."
I don't know. Maybe it goes against our consumerist grain... Best, Always. -- B.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson