Turning on late-night talk TV these days has become an explosive experiment in fright. Flicking the channels, I’m terrified I’ll catch Ashton Kutcher announcing his candidacy for president on “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” or maybe the Olsen twins using the “Teen Choice Awards” as a platform to declare that they want to be joint Secretaries of Defense. Naturally, this terror state was prompted by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Tonight Show” announcement that he’s running for California governor—a thrilling moment for pop-culture vultures who get off on any kind of high-profile career move, but one that sent some serious political observers into apoplectic fits of cynicism.
Even as an actor, the guy has no experience! What’s more, he seems to be exploitatively stepping into a volatile, Wild West situation where any crackpot with a handful of votes can take the booby prize. And besides, he still has a really thick accent. (Yes, some desperate commentators were actually bringing that up last week, though they should probably focus more on the content than the delivery—and remember, our president says “nucular.”)
Maybe scariest of all, Arnold doesn’t seem nearly as undistinguished as some of the other choices—a veritable who’s-who of “Who cares?” In fact, he’s running against so many “Hollywood Squares” types (alongside the occasional earnest candidate, like Lieutenant Governor Cruz M. Bustamante) that it seems like the main prerequisite for getting your name on this ballot is having been the subject of an “E! True Hollywood Story.” With omnipresent author Arianna Huffington (if not her gay ex-husband), First Amendment-sleaze-hero Larry Flynt, wacky “comedian” Gallagher, a porn star with even bigger boobs than Arnold’s, and whatever-happened-to Gary Coleman all clogging the bill, the running man is starting to seem more credible by the minute. (“Consider that a divorce” trumps “Whatchoo talkin’ ’bout, Willis?” in trash-culture resonance any time.)
Even perennial victim Ann Coulter had to admit on the Fox News Channel that since she was ready to cede Gray Davis’s California back to Mexico anyway, maybe Arnie isn’t so rotten an option, despite the fact that he’s such a moderate Republican he could almost pass for a conservative Democrat. But whoa nelly, let’s not get carried away by all the glitz and pecs that easily. How can a man who can’t even put out a movie I’d watch on a circling plane hope to rule our fourth most important state? (I’m partial to Vermont and Hawaii these days.) I guess because it happens to be the state with the most swimming pools, dark glasses, and tit implants. Besides, when they’re confronted with fiscal disaster and managerial chaos, people—the same ones who are wildly cheering at Kobe Bryant’s public appearances—are so blinded by fame, wealth, and charisma that they’re willing to write off potential shortcomings and coo, “Show us the way, Mr. Celebrity.”
And the glamour factor exerts a pull for Arnold too. The hint of political glory must feel especially seductive to the man whose gubernatorial chances have caused way more of a stir than his recent film choices. “It was awkward when he did the press junket for Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines in June,” Boston Herald film critic Stephen Schaefer tells me, “because he had to sit there and tell reporters, ‘I’m here for Terminator, Terminator, Terminator!’ Nobody wanted to discuss the movie. After a couple of hours, he really got pissed off because of the total emphasis on his political prospects.” In spite of the lackluster press interest, T3 ended up doing semi-respectably here, raking in upward of $144 million so far, but it’s rocked much more effectively overseas, where no one’s ready to say “Hasta la biceps” just yet. The movie could have been hotter in America, says Schaefer, “but it shows that in the right project, Arnold still has an audience. He’s not Van Damme or Stallone.”
Alas, the “right project” tends to mean sequels in which he sticks to his “I’ll be back” guns and reprises achingly familiar roles, though Arnold’s willing to take an adventuresome leap to remakes, too. Pre-politics, he told the press he was committed to doing a retread of the sci-fi cult flick Westworld, which was expected to start filming next January. (He’d play the Richard Benjamin role, not the Yul Brynner robot—been there.) But I bet Westworld never gets mechanized. It’s as a candidate, not an actor, that Arnold—like Bonzo-star-turned-Bozo-pol Reagan before him—raises both excitement levels and eyebrows these days. Running for office actually isn’t that much of a stretch for the real-life action hero, who always personified unadulterated upward mobility, conquering show biz with an unpronounceable name, barely detectable talent (until he hit upon the right blend of bravado and self-deprecation), and almost radioactive ambition. Like a better behaved Terminator, he methodically self-improved his way to the American dream and neatly accomplished his early goals of becoming an actor and marrying a Kennedy (Maria Shriver, who initially resisted being dragged into the political arena that’s defined so much of her family, though she’s apparently thought about it under pressure and now sees things hubby’s way.)
Just like brainy ’50s bombshell Jayne Mansfield (whose husband he played in a brainless TV movie), Arnold has always loved being underestimated based on his physique because it allowed him to surprise people with his sinewy mind. Some paint pre-stardom Arnold as a charming naïf, but one source who knows the guy from the early days tells me, “Everything he says is designed to construct an image or further a purpose. You can never be certain as to the veracity of anything he says.” (Sounds perfect for politics.)
An ultraslick pro, he’s made some canny moves in recent years, from selling his way out of the faltering Planet Hollywood chain (but not so quickly that it looked ungrateful) to agreeing with Warner Brothers that Collateral Damage‘s release should be postponed because of the untimely terrorist-bomb plotline. (Alas, it did come out eventually. Talk about a bomb plot!) And in the last week, he’s savvily used movieland references to cash in on his iconic stature, presenting himself as a Capraesque man of the people and paraphrasing Network to squeal, “We’re mad as hell and we’re not gonna take it anymore!” He’s even parroted his own movie sayings, scaring those of us who live in dread of a campaign fully waged in catchphrases.
Thankfully, gay makes his day. Arnold’s been progressive on queer issues and has even promoted gay adoption, so the second he threw his barbell into the ring, Andrew Sullivan blogged, “Yay! A pro-gay, pro-choice, hard-ass Republican! An eagle has landed. Now let him soar.” (He’s certainly Sullivan’s physical type.) Still, cinephiles remember Arnold making some gay-panic-style remarks about bodybuilding in the ’77 documentary Pumping Iron, and in ’92, he was targeted by the activist group Queer Nation for saying at a Bush the Elder campaign rally, “I watched the debate and [the Democrats] all looked like a bunch of girlie men.” (In response, Queer Nation called Arnold a “bigot” who was fueling “the anti-gay agenda of the Bush/Quayle campaign.”)
Adding to the complicated sexual stew, Spy magazine had reported that Arnold once posed for gay nude photos, just for starters, which certainly makes the bigot much more interesting. What’s more, gay commentator Rex Wockner reminds me that the comedy series In Living Color mockingly outed Arnold in a 1990 sketch. Reviewing Total Recall, one of the show’s flaming critic characters shrieked, “Yes, this is the movie where muscle-bound Arnold Schwarzenegger goes in search of his past. Just a hint, Arnold: Try lookin’ in the closet.” Asked by a tabloid at the time if Arnold’s gay, his rep shot back, “Absurd!” Sounds right; in fact, a source tells me that when he saw Arnold standing in a hotel hallway in the ’70s, the budding star explained, “My buddy and I picked up a girl and I’m waiting for my turn again.”
That’s so Arnold! He’s such a chiseled monument to the straight-guy sensibility that he can even saunter naked into a bar to demand a leather outfit from a girlie man in T3 and not everyone smirks. And though co-star Claire Danes suggested to the press that the Terminator is a gay icon, Arnold corrected, “He’s just an icon, period.” (Again, a cautious, crafty reply.)
Meanwhile, Gray Davis, an icon to none, will supposedly fling major mud Arnold’s way, and it’ll no doubt be of the “groping letch” variety. (Dick Morris is suggesting that the Dems already have some whopper ready and that things will get uglier than the Liza divorce.) At least they can’t get Arnie on the Nazi-daddy thing; Arnold famously skipped Pops’s funeral for a bodybuilding competition—another smart career move. And luckily for the guy, many onlookers are throwing bouquets instead of dirt. Hollywood entertainment journalist Jeanne Wolf, who considers herself a friend, gushes, “Arnold has great discipline and focus.” But no experience! “We don’t live in a world that demands exact experience anymore,” reminds Wolf. “We live in a world where you take your experiences and use them in a new way. People are sick of the politicians with ingrained experience.” True, and giving another boost to Arnold’s so-far viewpointless campaign, it’s also a world of unprecedented celebrity entitlement and presence, even in punditry. (Janeane Garofalo and M*A*S*H‘s Mike Farrell were way more visible during the Iraq invasion than Halliburton’s Dick Cheney.) With their seemingly boundless influence and demands, celebs rule our country anyway.
“I think it’s a joke,” counters Gotham-based Schaefer. “What are his qualifications? Isn’t it a little strange to see someone who dyes his hair red run for public office? He’s an actor. It’s all about appearances.” Yeah, but at least talk shows won’t have to be interrupted for Arnold’s press conferences; they’ll include them.
“The Fringe on Top: Extremists Help the GOP Muscle In on the Golden State” by Rick Perlstein
“Mondo Washington: In Arnold’s Shadow, Dean Could Strengthen Lead” by James Ridgeway
“Shlock ‘N’ Roll: Sources Confirm Schwarzenegger Candidacy Really Just an Elaborate Joke.” A cartoon by Ward Sutton