Are ’70s auteur pictures liberated and loose, or flaky and undisciplined? Bob Rafelson’s Alabama escapade places Jeff Bridges amid a wide range of choice-quality nuts, with both Sally Field and Arnold Schwarzenegger staking their claim on the big screen. What do the changing face of The South and competition-level body building have to do with each other? You tell us!
1976 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 102 min. / Street Date October 31, 2017 / available through the Olive Films website / 29.95
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Sally Field, Arnold Schwarzenegger, R.G. Armstrong, Robert Englund, Helena Kallianiotes, Roger E. Mosley, Woodrow Parfrey, Scatman Crothers, Kathleen Miller, Fannie Flagg, Joanna Cassidy, Ed Begley Jr., Joe Spinell.
Cinematography: Victor J. Kemper
Film Editor: John F. Link II
Original Music: Byron Berline, Bruce Langhorne
Written by Bob Rafelson, Charles Gaines from his novel
Produced by Bob Rafelson, Harold Schneider
Directed by Bob Rafelson
Some movies are ahead of their time, but for others the perfect time never seems to come. Bob Rafelson’s amiable Stay Hungry has all the qualities associated with director-driven ‘auteur’ filmmaking in the 1970s, but it didn’t connect with audiences, perhaps because of an inadequate ad campaign from United Artists. The tagline was “If you have an appetite for life… STAY HUNGRY.” That’s almost as good as, “If you can’t sleep, it’s not the coffee, it’s the bunk.” A low-key character study makes light comedy of Charles Gaines’ novel of the changing South, where everything old is new again.
RBC and BBS films were located on La Brea just south of Santa Monica, and my friend Robert S. Birchard was connected to it when Stay Hungry was in production. My friend Steve Nielson and I were editing a movie with Bob, and he invited us up to watch a workprint screening from the projection booth. I remember that the contest scene was cut longer and that its temporary music was Also Sprach Zarathrusta, not the final “Theme from Exodus” (from a UA picture, natch). A conclave of producers met just outside afterwards, but I wouldn’t have known director Rafelson from Adam. In fact, I didn’t recognize anybody. Shortly thereafter, the whole building was leased to comedian Redd Foxx.
Bob Rafelson’s films took a nosedive 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 (non-RBC) 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 forty years it plays quite well, with a gentle attitude toward its entirely human characters.
Orphaned aristocrat Craig Blake (Jeff Bridges) 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, even committing to a nude scene. 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 Schwarzenegger the most sympathetic role in the film, as the one character that 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 movie wisely keeps Arnold’s upper torso mostly under wraps until the big show.
An unhurried procession of screwy characterizations and mild social comedy Stay Hungry probably seems half-baked on first viewing for a lack of a genre framework. 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 (Craig Blake’s 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 that welcome Austrian-accented Joe Santos into their midst as a fiddler (an unusual scene to be sure). This 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 the snooty upscale society. Much like the character played by his brother Beau in the wonderful The Landlord, Bridges’ Craig isn’t quite smart enough to see the immediate problem. Sally Field is quite brave playing the down-home plain talking gymnast-water skier, who goes to a society ball dressed for a pool hall, and doesn’t care who turns their nose up at her. Like all of Bridges’ new friends Mary Tate leads with her heart. He finds her irresistable.
Kathleen Miller is Dorothy, a daughter of society who proves to be just as confused and sex-driven as Mary Tate. In a cute scene, the demure Dorothy gets drunk and tries to ask Schwarzenegger’s Joe Santos if all 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. The beautiful Zoe (Joanna Cassidy) also gravitates toward Joe Santo, and they take off for a quick fling. To her surprise (and disappointment?), Santo doesn’t try for a second date.
Helena Kallianiotes mostly played harsh characters, but her karate instructor here has some nice moments of friendship with Mary Tate. In a small bit as a tennis-playing local is the always-welcome Ed Begley Jr. Scatman Crothers is the Blake family retainer, who steps in at several junctures to tell Craig that he’s letting down the family line. Veteran actor Woodrow Parfrey is Craig’s equally disapproving uncle, who partly narrates the film but has little to do with the storyline — it might have been better if his role were either enlarged or eliminated, one or the other.
Rafelson builds his scenes and his conflicts on a quirky, intimate scale. Some stand-alone ‘character’ scenes don’t hit quite the intended ‘anything goes’ vibe. Bridges’ Craig 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 general approach 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 if you don’t expect heavy dramatics, Stay Hungry has a unique brand of fun. Rafelson shows his affection for his actors by giving each an ID shot in a smile-inducing epilogue montage.
Schwarzenegger delivers the title line, which refers to his personal philosophy when confronted by too much pleasure, too much luxury: Stay Hungry. Joe Santo has scenes where he admits that he wants to make good, if only to pay back his sponsor, and it all rings true for Arnold as well. Despite the thick accent, his basic sincerity (at this time) comes across well. Hollywood would soon push Ah-nold toward action roles exclusively, but Stay Hungry shows the actor that he could have been.
Olive Films’ Blu-ray of Stay Hungry improves on the older DVD simply through the higher resolution of HD. Color values are fine but the filtered cinematography comes off much better. The only visual jolt occurs in the body building 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. Sometimes the musclemen look like human dissections, as if someone removed their skins. It’s indeed impressive when they flex everything at once, and plump up as if suddenly inflated.
Olive includes no extras, which means that owners of the old DVD will want to hang onto it. It has an introduction from Bob Rafelson, plus a commentary track with Rafelson, Sally Field and Jeff Bridges.
With input and corrections from Savant correspondent “B” aka ‘woggly.’
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Stay Hungry Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Very Good
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 30, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson