Strange, Small & Forgotten Films: Stay Hungry (1976)

Bob Rafelson says that during the shoot, Arnold Schwarzenegger told him that some day he would become California Governor.

A movie about shady land deals and stormy bodybuilding competitions in 1970s Birmingham, Alabama, Bob Rafelson’s Stay Hungry has such an eclectic cast, such strange tonal shifts and such general oddness of all sorts that it never found the audience it deserved. It’s by no means a perfect movie but still one that should be seen, if only for its audacity to team Jeff Bridges, Sally Field, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Robert Englund and Fannie Flagg.

Craig Blake (Bridges) is a well-born, sad-faced Southern gent who’s been in mourning for two years, since the accidental death of his parents. Searching for something to occupy his time, he gets roped into a dubious land-acquisition scheme in which some good ol’ boys are buying up local businesses and fleecing the mom-and-pop owners. Blake is charged with purchasing for peanuts a dingy gym, but his mission becomes complicated when he falls for one of the establishment’s fetching employees (Field) and befriends a hulking bodybuilder (Schwarzenegger) who’s training there. These two and others at the gym become an unlikely surrogate family for Blake, and he introduces them into his gentile and snobbish society at some risk.

Stay Hungry is teeming with talent, even if it doesn’t always know what to do with it, sometimes clumsily mixing comic scenes with disturbing ones. But at its essence, it’s a gentle if eccentric story of a wounded man slowly realizing that he needs to move beyond his comfortable milieu if he’s to find the things he needs to live. In addition to that, there’s Robert Englund as an exercise instructor and Arnold Schwarzenegger dressed in cowboy garb playing a fiddle. (Available from Netflix and other outlets.)

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