Friday, March 13, 2020

Classic Movie Review: Stay Hungry (1976)

Stay Hungry (1976) 
Directed by: Bob Rafelson.
Written by: Charles Gaines and Bob Rafelson based on the novel by Charles Gaines.
Starring: Jeff Bridges (Craig Blake), Sally Field (Mary Tate Farnsworth), Arnold Schwarzenegger (Joe Santo), R.G. Armstrong (Thor Erickson), Robert Englund (Franklin), Helena Kallianiotes (Anita), Roger E. Mosley (Newton), Woodrow Parfrey (Uncle Albert), Scatman Crothers (William), Kathleen Miller (Dorothy Stephens), Fannie Flagg (Amy), Joanna Cassidy (Zoe), Richard Gilliland (Hal), Mayf Nutter (Richard Packman), Ed Begley Jr. (Lester), John David Carson (Halsey), Joe Spinell (Jabo), Clifford A. Pellow (Walter Jr.), Dennis Fimple (Bubba), Garry Goodrow (Moe Zwick), Bart Carpinelli (Laverne), Bob Westmoreland (Fred Kroop), Brandy Wilde (Flower), Laura Hippe (Mae Ruth).
Stay Hungry was Bob Rafelson’s third film in a row about a privileged young man adrift – not sure what he wants to do in his life, so he ends up not doing much of anything. The other two films – Five Easy Pieces and The King of Marvin Gardens – had Jack Nicholson in the lead role, and while they were very different performances, they shared a kind of impotent rage to them – in Five Easy Pieces that was directed outwards, in The King of Marvin Gardens, probably more inward. But this time it’s Jeff Bridges in the lead, and his Craig Blake just kind of thinks the whole thing is a joke – he doesn’t take it, or anything, all that seriously. The only child, of wealthy, recently deceased parents, we know he has kind of rejected the family – it took him two weeks to find out about his parent’s death because he was on one of many hunting trips. We hear letters his uncle is sending him, warning him that he is on the path of becoming the newest black sheep of his large, old money Southern family. And Craig just doesn’t seem to care.
He's involved in a business deal with some shady characters – they have bought a block of land, save for one building, and are planning are building a massive skyscraper in Birmingham, Alabama. All that is left is for Craig to buy the local gym – run by Thor Erickson (R.G. Armstrong) – an incompetent man in a bad toupee, who thinks that the gym will make him rich – mainly because he has Joe Santo (Arnold Schwarzenegger, in his first major role) training there – and he’s set to become Mr. Universe. Craig arrives to try and buy the gym, and finds he likes Santo – a kind of go-with-the-flow guy, who is nevertheless driven to do what he wants, and has hidden talents and interests. Craig also falls for Mary Tate Farnsworth (Sally Field – who is adorable), a karate instructor at the gym. These are the kind of people of “low-breeding” his uncle warns him about – but Craig enjoys it all. Eventually though, his worlds will collide.
To say Stay Hungry is uninterested in its plot would be an understatement. It doesn’t even make all that much sense when you think about it. We’re told, for example, that if Craig double crosses these shady businessmen that they’ll have his legs broken – but all they really do is warn him to stay away from them (and why doesn’t Bridges go through with the deal – and make a ton of money – and just open a gym somewhere else – it’s not the location that is the selling point here). It’s mainly just a way to get people who normally wouldn’t interact with each other to do just that.
Stay Hungry is a movie full of diversions and side trips, and interesting smaller characters, all milling about in the background – and Rafelson isn’t afraid to follow them down some strange rabbit holes. Why not have a lengthy sequence where Bridges steals a painting from one of the office buildings his family owns for instance? Or have a bluegrass concert, where Santo shows some skill on the fiddle. Or have Scatman Crothers, as the Blake’s longtime houseman, chew out Craig, and then announce he’ll be back for the suit of armor he was promised? Hell, the end of the movie involves a bunch of bodybuilders running through the streets of Birmingham in their Speedos – apparently to break up a fight, and prevent Thor from stealing their money, and then getting sidetracked and posing for adoring fans.
Ultimately, the film rests on the shoulders of the three leads – Bridges, Field and Schwarzenegger – and they are more than capable of carrying it. Yes, you can probably guess what will happen – that Craig will eventually bring Mary Tate around his snooty friends, act like an ass, and have to decide what’s important to him. Schwarzenegger’s function is mainly to guide Craig to these realizations – but he has a charm all his own here, that shows the movie star he would become (he won a Golden Globe for Best Newcomer for the role – the only major award for acting he’d ever win). Bridges isn’t in full on The Dude mode here, but you can see that is where he is headed. And Field is simply delightful as Mary Tate – a role that probably compares to those of Susan Anspach in Five Each Pieces or Julia Anne Robinson in The King of Marvin Gardens – but much more self-assured and confident than either.
The film does share some DNA with those other films as well, in that Rafelson has a fairly cynical view of America and the American Dream in those films, and while Stay Hungry is certainly a sunnier movie than either of those – and is the only one of the three where you think the main character may well be okay when the film ends – it still involves him rejecting what he is supposed to do for what he wants to do. The difference between him and the others is that by the end of the film, he actually knows what that is.

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