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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Stay Hungry
Stay Hungry
MGM // R // May 18, 2004
List Price: $14.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by DVD Savant | posted June 5, 2004 | E-mail the Author
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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.

Synopsis:

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 to every 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 infinitely 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 him.  1 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.

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
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentary with Rafelson, Field and Bridges, video intro with Rafelson
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 5, 2004


Footnotes:

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.
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