By any standard, Arnold Schwarzenegger is one of the most successful actors of the last 30 years, but he’s never had the respect to go with his fame and fortune. (I know, cry me a liquid-metal river.) ScreenCrush’s Matt Singer has been on a campaign to change that for years, including during his tenure as Criticwire’s editor, when he argued that “Junior” — the 1996 oddity in which Schwarzenegger’s geneticist makes himself pregnant — is “a surprisingly sweet tribute to parenthood (and, though it strains to remain apolitical, a potent pro-life argument).”
At ScreenCrush, Singer argues, at length, that Schwarzenegger deserves to be treated as an auteur, or rather, an “acteur,” a star whose influence over his films, and his performances in them, creates a body of work as coherent and worthy of study as any director’s. New York’s Museum’s of Modern Art originated a series of screenings devoted to, in the words of curator Dave Kehr, “actors who were able to develop their screen personalities with sufficient consistency and vivacity that they themselves became vehicles of meaning in their movies.” Schwarzenegger, Singer writes, “would be an ideal candidate for his own MoMA acteurism series. He’s had a consistent and vivacious screen personality for four decades — and for most of his post-‘Terminator’ career he had the ability to choose what writers and directors he worked with, what projects they made, and what roles he played. Every choice reflected his feelings as an artist, and the result of those choices is a filmography packed with themes that reoccur and evolve from year to year, and from movie to movie.”
It’s important to remember that auteurism made a subtle but important shift when it crossed the Atlantic, going from “la politique des auteurs,” as coined by François Truffaut and developed alongside his peers at Cahiers du Cinéma, to “the auteur theory” as adapted and (mis-)translated by Andrew Sarris. For the French, auteurism was not a theory but a “policy,” a critical tool of analysis rather than a presumption about how movies and their meanings were made. (It’s worth noting that the Cahiers critics had not yet begun to make movies of their own when they devised it.) There’s no reason at all why the same tool can’t be applied to actors, or writers or producers. Although it may be as more a matter of corporate policy than personal expression, few would question the imprint left by, say, Marvel’s Kevin Feige, and critics have analyzed star’s public and screen personae since before auteurism even existed.
Singer, though, takes it farther. It isn’t simply a matter of Schwarzenegger managing his onscreen image, but of choosing and shaping projects around a series of distinct themes. One of those themes is doubling, whether it’s a matter of characters with multiple identities or actual onscreen duplicates, like the clone in “The 6th Day” or the actor/persona combo in “The Last Action Hero.” Here Singer explores it in a video essay called “Double Vision.”
It’s a compelling case, and it definitely makes you see the shot in “Terminator Genisys” where Schwarzenegger’s T-800 rolls off an assembly line of identical models in a whole new light. And it makes me think about how Schwarzenegger, who entered the public consciousness as a five-time Mr. Universe and became a star embodying the ultimate in cyborg killing machines, has since been compelled to explore his own imperfections onscreen. In “Genisys,” as in “Terminator 2: Judgement Day,” he’s outclassed by newer, stronger Terminators, and it’s made worse by the fact that his robot body, like his human one, is aging — though not so much he can’t still kick ass. These are fairly minor deteriorations — at 67, Schwarzenegger still looks like he’s in better physical condition than most men a third his age — and they only resonate at all because of how they rub against the grain his earlier career. Is this an acteur making meaning, or just a movie star retooling his image in an attempt to stay financially relevant? There’s no reason it can’t be both.