Before this movie, bodybuilding was a freak show. After this movie, bodybuilding went back to being a freak show. But at the nexus where Arnold Schwarzenegger, Joe Wieder and George Butler combined their powers Captain Planet-style, a movie was born that elevated bodybuilding to the status of “reputable sport” for a few years.
Pumping Iron captures the 1975 Mr Olympia contest, but mostly weeks of intense training leading up to the contest. Arnold is preparing to defend is title for the last time, and nipping at his heels are his contemporaries Franco Columbu and Lou Ferrigno. The film isn’t a straight documentary. The training and contest footage is real, but a few scenes here and there were scripted. Fair enough. You can’t watch two straight hours of sweaty guys lifting weights. This is going to be a “docudrama.”
Watching these guys is fascinating. Arnold is arrogant and boorish, because he’s earned the right to be, while Lou Ferrigno is moody and angsty. A lot of the movie’s conflict centers around Lou and his overbearing father, who pushes him around with impunity. Straight away you realise that Lou won’t win. He doesn’t have the confidence in himself.
There’s tons of comedy in this movie. Arnold’s tireless ability to involve scantily-clad girls in his workout routine, his sledging of Lou Ferrigno before the contest (“I called my mama and told her I won Mr Olympia 1975!”), and his hilarious monologue about the similarities between lifting weights and having an orgasm. There’s some serious stuff as well, like Ferrigno’s clashes with his father and Mike Katz’s I-want-to-reach-for-the-shotgun speech after he loses the Mr Universe contest.
One might conceivably feel cheated by the obviously punched-up Hollywood drama. But to be honest, I don’t think the movie was any more fake than the contest it depicts. Face it, Arnold was the figurehead of the Wieder bodybuilding empire, and he was definitely going to win the contest. This isn’t conjecture, it’s a truth that becomes ever more inescapable given what we now know about how the Mr Olympias were run.
Want a freebie? Serge Nubret. 12 days before the 1975 Olympia, he shows up in tremendous shape. He gets barred from entering, ostensibly because he dishonoured the sport by appearing in a porn movie (I’ll refrain from making a comment) but years later he still insisted that the Wieder brothers had blocked him because he looked better than Arnold. So he lets his training regimen fall apart, loses 12 pounds of muscle in 12 days, and he’s allowed into the contest. Suddenly nobody seems to care about his porn movie. This seemed like a really damning story when Mr Nubret related it on a bodybuilding forum, complete with pictures of how he looked 12 days before the contest (the guy looked amazing, he wouldn’t have looked out of place in the Lee Haney era).
The Wieder brothers had much to gain by keeping Arnold at the top. He was charismatic, he wasn’t a black man, he personified the All-American ideal. He crushed Sergio in 1972 and Mentzer in his 1980 comeback, and most critics agree that these, also, were paper championships. It sucks, but that’s the way bodybuilding works. It’s not like powerlifting, where an 800 pound deadlift will always be an 800 pound deadlift. It’s a subjective assessment of a body’s artistic merits (or lack of such), and there’s any number of ways bias can enter the judging table and propel an undeserving man to first place.
Do I think Arnold sucks? No way. His chest and calves were some of the best ever (and his biceps were perhaps THE best ever). He was winning contests everywhere before he’d even heard of the Wieder brothers. But is he a legend because of his 7 Mr Olympia titles, or in spite of them?
Regardless of the lingering sensation that the contest might be the truly fake part of this movie, Pumping Iron is a very entertaining watch. I recommend it highly.