The year is 1975. We’re at the Mr. Universe of Mr. Universe's: Mr. Olympia. The competitors are not yet the green superheroes, defenders of the human race, or California governors they’ll become. They're men. Men working tirelessly among other hopefuls to sculpt their bodies, polish their charm, and win the most prestigious bodybuilding title on earth...
Two of these men are, of course, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno.
The docudrama is storytelling in the buff. ...Ha. Arnold, peppered throughout, adds charm, panache, and sheds a near-philosophical light on the art of muscle-as-material. In 1975, he’s won the Mr. Olympia competition five times and is gunning for his sixth. He’s cool and level headed and as we get to know other (sometimes struggling) competitors, there he is—ready to shoot us a smile and a narcissistic quip about his undeniably impeccable physique.
Among the snarkier moments, where you can’t tell if you’re supposed to love or hate Arnold, we see him in one of his gentler exchanges: a shorter bodybuilder, nowhere near the superhuman appearance of Arnold or any of the other oiled up bodies, poses in front of a mirror. Behind him, Arnold critiques his form. He does so not to shut him down, but to push him to be proud of his physique and to exude confidence in what he does. He tells him “never hide away” and “always look confident.” Like...rip my heart out, Arnold!
The film shows off the art of rippling muscles, bolstered by men talking about their relationships to their bodies; hashing out why they decided to pursue such an arduous, self-punishing hobby. Many were bullied, some wanted to be like their dads, and some just found it more physically attractive. Hearing these extremely large men talk about the softer, sadder side of why they make themselves physically bigger is touching, and shows the lengths we all go to feel comfortable in our skins. I’ve recently started actively pursuing a more muscular build (a measure I have prioritized in my transition) and to see cis men open up about the vulnerability in bodybuilding is, for lack of a better word, comforting.
There are two stories that directors George Butler and Robert Fiore focus on and purposefully edit, but for the sake of not indulging you in a complete retelling of the documentary, I just want to focus on Arnold and Lou. From the get-go, it is abundantly clear that Arnold is pure confidence, almost to a sociopathic degree. He is filmed flexing in front of admirers, working out in public, and flirting with women. Lou, however, is shot to show off his more timid side—they shoot him working out in his basement with his father, who voices more about Lou’s training than Lou himself. The shots are close, intimate--you can almost feel the pressure building in his temples. The familial connection is real here. And while we see Arnold being a champion, schmoozing with judges and trainers, and receiving tons of female attention, anything close to what Lou and his dad has is palpably absent.
Pumping Iron’s wrap-up is staging perfect at its finest. Arnold talks at length about his own relationship to his family, how he’s sacrificed everything for the titles he’s earned. Leaning back on a couch, muscles relaxed and not on display, he’s not the piece of marble we met at the beginning. He’s complicated, perhaps even a bit wistful. The documentary implies, as Arnold and the Ferrigno family pile into a cab to the airport, that perhaps being a champion isn’t all that awesome.