Over the past four decades, Arnold Schwarzenegger purposefully creates a large, eclectic persona for himself through his film roles. Schwarzenegger, as the character generated by the flawed man, sustains a film career through reinvention, finding new contexts with which to adapt. As the old joke suggests, Schwarzenegger plays himself in any film. His character is Arnold Schwarzenegger no matter what the character's name is. If this jest holds reality, any role played by Schwarzenegger is bizarrely somewhat biographical. The most apparent of these self-reflective rebrandings by Schwarzenegger is his move from burly action star to relatable American Everyman icon (and then beyond), an interesting if tragic feat.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, action stars, Schwarzenegger included, attempt to expand their acting repertoire by softening their image. A violent, brutish action character, all muscles and bluster, can be unlikeable through a lack of compassion. Popular action actors appear in family friendly comedies or play characters that have families. This effort is intended to create a sympathetic film presence to deepen a career. Sylvester Stallone has his Over the Top and Oscar. Bruce Willis has Die Hard and Look Who's Talking. Even Hulk Hogan has Suburban Commando and Mr. Nanny. Arnold Schwarzenegger takes a different approach and utilizes this wave of typecast breaking to promote himself as the Great American Success Story.
Since the 1980s, Arnold Schwarzenegger takes roles that build his iconic status, making him personable while maintaining his action star credibility. Rumors hold that after marrying Maria Shriver in 1986, Schwarzenegger's Kennedy-in-Laws have doubts about him and his shady past weighing on the political family. Apparently with some nudging from the Kennedy family, he transforms from Austrian bodybuilder immigrant to more comprehensible American figure. Schwarzenegger becomes ubiquitous and appreciably infamous as a symbol of American cinema, redefining the purpose of film and societal roles in the process (for better or worse).
In 1988, Arnold Schwarzenegger stars with Danny DeVito in the Ivan Reitman directed comedy Twins. The role is a sea change -- unlike any role Schwarzenegger plays previously. Prior to 1988, Schwarzenegger primarily plays muscle bound characters. As Joe Santo in Stay Hungry (a role that wins Schwarzenegger his first Golden Globe), he plays an Austrian bodybuilder. In Conan the Barbarian, Conan the Destroyer, and Red Sonja, he plays a muscular monster with a sword who fights other monsters. In Commando and Predator, he plays a muscular monster with a gun who fights other monsters. Twins presents Schwarzenegger in a different light.
Twins relies on the juxtaposition of intellect and brawn in Schwarzenegger's character of Julius Benedict: one half of the end result of a science experiment gone wrong. Julius is trained by his surrogate father to be strong, intelligent, and disciplined. He has an expert knowledge in a variety of academic fields as well as a severe athleticism. However, Julius is also naive as he enters a world unknown to him. The role is a lecture in appearances being deceiving.
Interestingly, the joke about Schwarzenegger always playing Schwarzenegger applies in this instance, albeit more subtly. In interviews, he states that his father trained him in strongly in academic and physical pursuits, frequently with a violent reinforcement. In other interviews, Schwarzenegger recounts his naivety and wonder upon first visiting America during bodybuilding competitions. Schwarzenegger likely draws on these experiences in his portrayal of Julius Benedict and adds an extra layer of emotionality to the role.
Audiences find Schwarzenegger as a gentle giant genius convincing as Twins is a hit, but they largely miss the undertone of Eugenics. Still, audiences find Schwarzenegger a capable actor who can express himself emotionally in roles that involve more than bellowing about traversing to helicopters rapidly. Arnold Schwarzenegger stretches his acting range and contributes to a more affectionate if temporary image.
While continuing with action-heavy roles, Arnold Schwarzenegger begins to balance violent films with family friendly fair in the 1990s. He shows himself as resembling a typical American male instead of a Hummer-driving block of rough-hewn manhood. His characters and therefore himself as a personality have everyday problems to which audience members can compare and relate. These revolve around dealing with children, giving birth to a child, or raising children while working. Inherently, children are the problem causers and complications, and Schwarzenegger claims to understand these common troubles by appearing in these films.
In 1990, Arnold Schwarzenegger stars as Detective John Kimball in Ivan Reitman's Kindergarten Cop, spawning a number of repeatable, accented catchphrases about what is and is not a tumor and informing fools about his status as a law enforcement officer. As with Twins, Kindergarten Cop capitalizes on Schwarzenegger's brawn and placing his action star persona into an unfamiliar situation and allowing him to adapt. Detective Kimball goes undercover at a school as a substitute teacher and antics ensue. Kimball does not understand these strange creatures known as children. He quickly figures them out and learns to love. To borrow a phrase from Gamera, Schwarzenegger's Kimball is a monster who is "the friend of all children."
Kindergarten Cop again softens Schwarzenegger's image and acts a positive publicity for those who only know him only through his films. The role proves that Schwarzenegger can engage families emotionally and can play nice with children. The story arc of a domineering, ultra-masculine man transitioning to gentler, kindhearted man mirrors Schwarzenegger's attempts to craft a separate and almost schizophrenic persona that is not laden with testosterone. To a certain degree, the role serves his career and acting expansion, but it also serves as public relations for the public persona he is crafting. The film implies that Arnold Schwarzenegger can be a nice guy when it is demanded of him.
In 1994, Arnold Schwarzenegger again works with Danny DeVito and Ivan Reitman in a film about science run amok: Junior. The film tells the tale of a gynecologist and his partner inventing a fertility drug, stealing a woman's ovum, and impregnating Schwarzenegger's character. Schwarzenegger's character, Dr. Alex Hesse, then carries the baby to term, falling in love with a female colleague along the way. Hesse starts as a stern, detached, and almost robotic character (great traits for a gynecologist) and eventually becomes more open due to the events of the film.
The film features strange imagery to go with its plot. Schwarzenegger's Hesse has peculiar dreams where he expels a stream of babies and gives birth to a child with his adult face. Hesse becomes the stereotype of a pregnant woman, experiencing mood swings, food cravings, and various aches. The film swaps gender roles and uses Schwarzenegger's personality to contrast how males and females are perceived in Western culture.
In the progression of Arnold Schwarzenegger's career, Junior affords a convergent path on the way to being a cinema icon. Most critics and audiences state that the role is a misstep for Schwarzenegger and point to the absurdity of the plot as repellant. On the surface, Schwarzenegger is "getting in touch with his feminine side" and trying to build a bridge to his female audience members -- an elusive marketing segment for Schwarzenegger due to his previous roles and personal life offenses. He is attempting to share an emotional experience with mothers, with a debatable level of success.
Film reviewer Roger Ebert recognizes another possibility for the role's significance to Schwarzenegger's career. He writes in his review of Junior that Schwarzenegger "has an uncanny idea of what will and won't work, and since you walk in expecting almost nothing to work, the result is a sort of deliverance." Schwarzenegger is proving his acting abilities as a conquest of the medium of film. A conqueror cannot declare dominion unless outposts are established at the most distant borders. Schwarzenegger is staking claims at every extreme and boundary of mainstream acting in a way that few other actors attempt. Junior is the exact opposite of Schwarzenegger's early roles, but the film is recognizable as a Schwarzenegger film. He is stamping his brand on acting as he solidifies his film persona. Roger Ebert summarizes the conquest by asking, "Is a pregnant Arnold any harder to believe, really, than Arnold as Conan the Barbarian?"
Schwarzenegger does not always separate this reinvention of himself as all-around film star from his more action-oriented films. Frequently, his action side and his Everyman side are merged. These roles emphasize Schwarzenegger's pervasiveness as a film icon. Schwarzenegger attracts more adult audiences while imprinting on younger audiences as a symbol of cinema.
In John McTiernan's 1993 film Last Action Hero, Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a role that satirizes his previous work and his attempts at persona building. Schwarzenegger plays an action hero named Jack Slater who is played by Schwarzenegger as himself in the film (recursive acting). Slater encounters a young boy, Danny Madigan, who crosses between his reality and the reality of action films. This crossover creates two Schwarzenegger entities in the film: a living Jack Slater and an actual Arnold Schwarzenegger (playing himself again, more directly) akin to Schwarzenegger's attempts to create a personable character in public media.
In Last Action Hero, Schwarzenegger shows the separation of himself from both his action persona and family friendly persona while attempting to appeal to a variety of audiences. Schwarzenegger's portrayal of a cliché demonstrates his advancement towards prevalence in one genre and his moves towards others. Schwarzenegger is associated with action heroes but is shown as attractive to a child audience with a need for expansion. As a Hollywood in-joke, Last Action Hero concedes a lot of the intentions of the development and marketing of an 1980s/1990s style, goofy action film. Schwarzenegger possibly uses the film to communicate his career motive as an Everyman.
Schwarzenegger's next stroke on assuming the mantle of Everyman is portraying a paternal figure on film. His life experiences contribute to his choice of fatherly roles (the previous statement is intended as completely non-ironic). For the most part, Schwarzenegger plays fathers in action films. These roles highlight the supposed parity between action heroism and being a caring father, stabilizing work and parental responsibilities. A father character is relatable to audiences because it is the natural progression of an actor's career: bachelor barbarian, awkward, comedic transition, and then film father. Schwarzenegger concludes the cycle by playing a father in multiple films.
In 1994, James Cameron directs Schwarzenegger in True Lies. Schwarzenegger plays Harry Tasker, a secret agent working for the United States government. Tasker is married and a father to a teenage daughter. By keeping his job and home life separated by a wall of deception, he creates unnecessary and dangerous complications. Tasker proves an excellent secret agent but a poor husband and father. He deals with marriage issues such as infidelity (again, completely non-ironic or prescient) and a rebellious teenager. His problems more or less resolve themselves (technically, terrorists are the catalyst for the solution).
Schwarzenegger mixes action and personality as Harry Tasker to illustrate issues that the typical American father would address. However, these issues are writ enormous with plenty of explosions and inexplicable conclusions. Schwarzenegger as a father plays in a dream world that other fathers would enjoy but understand is unreal.
In Schwarzenegger's subsequent action films until 2002, Schwarzenegger plays a father in one way or another. In End of Days, Schwarzenegger's character's family is murdered (he has a wife and daughter). In The 6th Day, Schwarzenegger plays a father trying to protect his family from nefarious cloners (again he has a wife and daughter). In Collateral Damage, Schwarzenegger's family is again murdered (this time he has a wife and son). These films show the worries and emotions of fatherhood with an increased intensity. These fears are primarily shown as protection from danger or vengeance. Schwarzenegger's hope as the actor playing the father is to resonate on some level with fathers in the audience.
Schwarzenegger tries to associate himself with a new type of television and film father that emerges in the 1980s and 1990s. He attempts not only association but recognition as the archetype. Action stars of the late 1980s and 1990s frequently reached the position of father in real life and on film. Sylvester Stallone plays a father in all of the Rocky films after the first. Bruce Willis plays a father of two in the Die Hard franchise. Likewise, Schwarzenegger achieves a high level of ubiquity with fatherhood in his roles.
Schwarzenegger becomes the default heroic father figure as evidenced by his role in the "smash hit holiday classic" Jingle All the Way. Schwarzenegger plays a slapstick father who again balances his work with home life (and fails). Like Last Action Hero, the role satirizes Schwarzenegger's roles by placing him in a contest with an idealized hero for his son's love. Eventually, Schwarzenegger has to become the hero to win his selfish son's affection. The reality of Schwarzenegger is not good enough as a father and an action figure beats him.
Schwarzenegger plays both the ideal and the reality in Jingle All the Way, but his recognition as a prototype for the archetype of film father is apparent. His roles as action father, structuring the satire in the film, redefine the model of father in American culture. The Action Father as established by Stallone, Willis, and Schwarzenegger is a counter-voice to the Sitcom Father. Whereas the Sitcom Father is a sage who solves problems with wisdom, the Action Father punches problems into submission, making frequent missteps along the way. This shift in roles redefines the concept of entertainment father and masculinity in general towards a more dominating, macho, and muscular Caucasian superman (a dangerous ideal according to history).
Of these heroic Action Fathers, Schwarzenegger establishes himself as the ideal, problematic as the position may be.
Schwarzenegger achieves the ubiquity in film that his role choices and career trajectory intimate. Yet, his Great American Success Story is missing an important aspect: the Americanism. Alongside his film roles that unveil him as a cinematic chimera, being many but one simultaneously, Schwarzenegger works to insinuate himself as an American public figure. Schwarzenegger transforms himself from immigrant to American icon and powerhouse, partially through the roles he selects. Indirectly, Schwarzenegger plays American heroes, fighting for America or merely living in America and being heroic. More directly, Schwarzenegger chooses several roles that underscore his predominance by bringing aspects of history to light that focus on the role of Austrian or German immigrants (and thereby himself) in American culture.
In 1992, Schwarzenegger provides the voice of John George Nicolay in the television documentary Lincoln. The documentary provides an overview of President Abraham Lincoln's life through the reading of documents such as letters, diaries, and official reports. Schwarzenegger's segment about Nicolay shows a German immigrant who becomes President Abraham Lincoln's personal secretary and biographer, important positions. Eventually, Nicolay receives a diplomatic post and assignment to the United States Supreme Court. Schwarzenegger lends his voice and clout to the role in order to remind Americans of the importance of a largely forgotten historical figure.
A decade later, Schwarzenegger again voices an important character in American history in the children's television cartoon Liberty's Kids. He voices Baron von Steuben, a Prussian mercenary and immigrant to the United States that trains the Continental Army at Valley Forge and works towards victory in the war. Schwarzenegger's efforts indicate that immigrants, particularly immigrants like him, played an important part in building and maintaining America. Then again, his purpose may not be so deep as Sylvester Stallone, Warren Buffet, and Aaron Carter also provide voices in the series.
If nothing else, Schwarzenegger's recognition pervades all aspects of entertainment from action to comedy and history to children's cartoons.
Schwarzenegger, as a character referred to only by a single name (sometimes Arnold), becomes an American icon. Rising from career expanding endeavors in the late 1980s, Schwarzenegger diversifies his acting portfolio in a way that few others since have achieved (kind of Dwayne Johnson, but not really). His roles encompass varied styles, painting the character of Schwarzenegger as an Everyman who is comparable to much of the audience. As such, Schwarzenegger's ubiquity takes on a life of its own, and Schwarzenegger the character is both essentially distinct and inextricably intertwined with the man known as Arnold Schwarzenegger. The political career, deeper dalliances, and personal failings belong to the man. Schwarzenegger the character who appears on film has another legacy nevertheless tarnished by the man. Schwarzenegger the character's legacy is one of adaptability. Not finding a role suited to himself, Schwarzenegger wedges himself into Hollywood and shaped Hollywood around himself by flexing. Where Schwarzenegger's career may or may not continue depends on his level of continued adaptable flexing.