Monday, November 17, 2014

'An Evening with Arnold Schwarzenegger' at the Lancaster London Hotel, 15th November 2014

The best metric of fame is that people immediately know who you're talking about just from a mention of their first name.  Mention Michael, Diana or Brad and people just know.  There are few people this applies more to than Arnold 'Arnie' Schwarzenegger.  From the deserts of Afghanistan to the jungles of Zambia you say "Arnold" and you'll get a swathe of cod-Austrian voices saying: "I'll be back!" or "Hasta la Vista, baby".

And now I'm in a couple of feet away from him.  This is An Evening with Arnold Schwarzenegger, which fell somewhere between motivational lecture, bodybuilding convention and religious fervour.  Devised by Rocco Buonvino, who has previously presented evenings with Al Pacino, Sylvester Stallone and John Travolta, the evening consisted of an hour's chat with compere Jonathan Ross and a Q&A from the crowd.

Even before Arnie shows up the (mostly male) crowd is whipped up into an adoring fever. There's a perceptible buzz in the air as the crowd collectively leans forward in their seats, craning their neck to try and get their first glimpse of the big man himself.  After a few false starts he strides in and everyone goes bananas.  The entire room leaps to their feet in paroxysms of joy; a bearded bald man sitting in front of me is weeping and people begin waving pictures of muscle men in the air like illuminated icons.

And what of the man himself?  Even at 67 he's gigantic.  His enormous skull looks like something you'd find bolted onto a piece of construction machinery, his fingers sausage thick, his shimmeringly white grin vaguely predatory.  Even his watch is enormous (and no doubt costs more than I make in a year). This all adds up to a man than has something of the dinosaur to him; his extreme confidence, leathery hide, thumping frame and roaring laugh bringing him about as close as you can get to a humanoid Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Though Jonathan Ross is no doubt being handsomely compensated, Schwarzenegger is so chatty this must be one of the easiest paycheques he's has picked up for a while.  From just one question, Schwarzenegger launches into a twenty minute spiel that covers his childhood, bodybuilding career and gets as far as starring in Terminator before he's told to slow down. There's a sense that these well-worn anecdotes have been doled out at California dinner parties, awards ceremonies and campaign fundraisers for the last twenty or thirty years.

But then Schwarzenegger on autopilot is still pretty fun.  He works himself up into a mild frenzy, fiercely gesticulating with those butcher's shop window hands and staring around the large room and trying to give the room their money's worth.  Everyone eats it up; the crowd breaking into spontaneous fits of frenzied applause at the slightest triumphal statement from Schwarzenegger.

And, to be fair, his life is genuinely inspirational.  It's easy to take it for granted in retrospect, but for a kid to grow up in postwar Austria to climb to the top of the bodybuilding world takes some serious drive and ambition.  Then for that bodybuilder (with an iffy grasp of English) to become Hollywood's top grossing star in an era where skinny, fast-talking men like Dustin Hoffman were sex symbols, with an unpronounceable name like Schwarzenegger?  Oh yeah, and then after becoming famous for primarily playing a murderous robot to go and spend eight years as Governor of California, the eighth largest economy in the world?

It's a literal rags to riches story and is far from boring.  This tale provides the bedrock of Arnie's staunch, instinctive Conservatism; his position that if he can drag himself up from poverty by sheer force of will alone why can't everyone?  He peppers his tale with fortune-cookie aphorisms; "The difference between winners and losers is that losers don't get up when they fall down!" or "Pick a vision and don't let anyone tell you that you can't achieve it!".  

It's easy to get caught up in these go-getterish American Dreamisms, but there's a brief moment where they're exposed as symptoms of selfishness.  In an early anecdote he recalls his Dad criticising him for spending so much time working out.  He tells the young Arnie; why don't you chop wood and deliver it to people's houses rather than pumping iron in a gym?  Arnie guffaws; from his point of view his Dad never 'got it'.  But why not deliver wood?  He later talks a lot about the importance of public service in his life, but it's all too easy to see his public and charity work as part of him climbing to the next rung on an apparently infinite ladder.

Thing is, he's so charismatic that I actually feel a little guilty criticising him like that,. He's surprisingly ready to talk about his failures as well as successes; notably chatty about how he knocked up his maid, fathered an illegitimate child and was divorced by his wife.   Even so, you get the impression that the goofy, happy, guffawing Arnie is a useful role, and that lurking just under the surface is a man who's ruthlessly, perhaps even pathologically, driven to succeed at all costs.  

Perhaps this is why he plays such a riveting Terminator: "He can't be bargained with. he can't be reasoned with. He doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And he absolutely will not stop, ever."

It was a hell of an interesting night and despite my best efforts I got a little bit caught up in the excitement of being in the midst of genuine celebrity.  That said I would have felt a little cooler about the experience had I paid to to be there (the cheapest tickets were £126.50, and should you want to shake Arnie's hand and get a photo you'd have to stump up a jaw-dropping £2,100), especially as there were some extremely restricted views in the huge room.

Arnie is a die-hard combative Republican who cheats on his wife and stars in boneheadedly gory action films.  Logically I should hate his guts, but I can't.  It's vexing.

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