The bodybuilder as a tragic figure
Near the end of the 1977 docudrama Pumping Iron there is scene where a few men—who to this day remain some of the most famous bodybuilders of all time—are gathered to celebrate the conclusion of the 1975 Mr. Olympia competition. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the de facto leader of the great bodybuilders is lying supine on a couch, smoking a little pot and wearing a t-shirt that says “Arnold is numero uno.” The other contestants are milling around the tiny room including a freshly defeated Lou Ferrigno. They’re eating fried chicken and—because it’s Lou’s 24th birthday—cake.
Up until this point, the filmmakers had been showcasing the psychological warfare of the recently concluded spectacle, even taking some creative liberties to stage some of the more camera-friendly moments themselves. Throughout the movie, the steely and seemingly untouchable 5-time champ, Arnold, has been carefully working Lou, not so much softening his already fragile psyche as much as dismantling it. The final jab comes in that moment with Lou standing off to the side, as alone as a 6’4” 280-pound mountain of muscle can be in a room of that size.
After a happy birthday song, led by the possibly stoned Austrian, the group starts chanting for a speech, unsympathetic to the fact that Lou—who’s been nearly deaf since childhood and is, in all likelihood, having a pretty shitty birthday—probably doesn’t much care to give one.
Lou smiles: “I got nothing to say, I just want to eat my cake.”
I love that scene and while it might be oversentimental to say it’s heartbreaking, it is surprisingly moving. It’s not tough to imagine it was scripted and used by the filmmakers to put the proverbial bow on everything they had been wrapping up to that point. If that’s true, it worked. Some might argue the events of the film culminate the moment the judges announce the results, but they’d be wrong.
There is only one moment, and it’s when Lou utters those words.
While Pumping Iron, is, at it’s core, just a flick about gawking at fleshy statues, Lou and Arnold make it something more. Lou is denied the win, but he’s also denied any real closure, fading into the background amidst the celebration. This film is very clearly meant to be a comedy but if you reacted like I did to the cake-eating scene, it is also a tragedy.
For the entire movie it seems obvious that Arnold is being set up to be the man who’ll win the Olympia. His journey to the title seems almost effortless, fated, and punctuated by laughs, photo-ops and various homoerotic frolicking with his gym buddies in the sun-kissed city of Venice Beach (he compares ‘the pump’ one gets from lifting to coming, enough said). Lou stands in sharp contrast, training in a dimly lit gym in Brooklyn with people who are definitely not bodybuilders, working—no, struggling, loudly, painfully—to build a body that will beat Arnold. In a follow-up documentary made years later, the filmmakers would describe the bigger and younger Lou as the dark prince that would threaten the golden king.
He finished third.
What you may not have known about Lou is that, as a bodybuilder, he was paid next to nothing and worked as a sheet metal worker for $10 an hour until a friend cut his hand off. Lou left after that. His father, who is depicted in the film as his overbearing coach, was deployed as a character by the filmmakers and wasn’t nearly as involved in Lou’s training as he was made out to be. Even after Arnold retired from bodybuilding following that competition, Lou never won an Olympia.
Yet, the film almost manages to convey all this—gesturing at it through darkened shots, laboured screams and futile resolve—without betraying its tone. In other words, you’re clearly meant to feel Lou’s pain but you’re also meant to root for Arnold. What’s jarring is the conclusion, the feeling that all is right while what is essentially a poetic injustice hovers just below the surface. Catharsis there is not.
That may sound ridiculous since this film catapulted Lou into the acting role that would eventually define his career. Yet, when we take a step back to consider how the only real non-CGI’d human being to portray the Hulk made his way into the public eye, it’s not only ironic, it’s downright sad. He’s reduced to the kid standing in the corner, watching the others smoke pot and eat cake.
He just wants to eat his cake, but in that moment they even manage to deny him that.