[Originally published in Movietone News 52, October 1976]
Bob Rafelson’s two previous films, Five Easy Pieces and The King of Marvin Gardens, were both unequivocally downers as far as the types of characters he chose to depict—uprooted failures, emotionally crippled losers—and their respective destinies on bleak, severely shrunken horizons are concerned. Nicholson’s wasted vitality in Five Easy Pieces and pathological introversions in Marvin Gardens are equally invested with a sense of the respective characters’ inabilities to cope with their problems, as well as suggestive of some unredeemable souring that arrested the maturing processes in their once-promising lives. If I didn’t exactly find anything of value about the characters in those films, I could at least pick up vibrations of a congealing, somehow consistent vision in the rather morbid cynicism that informs, especially, The King of Marvin Gardens, wherein Nicholson plays a withdrawn, late-night radio monologist whose hopelessly illusion-bound perspective gives the film’s spiritual and physical landscapes (the wasteland of Atlantic City in the winter, habitation not of beautiful women in bathing suits but of lowdown gangsters holed up inside ramshackle houses on the outskirts of some caved-in suburban tract) an unsettlingly tentative and dissolute quality.
There came a point in Rafelson’s new film, Stay Hungry, when I found myself yearning for some kind of similarly sustained tonality—bleak or otherwise—but in fact the wide variety of emotional responses being elicited in rapid-fire succession by the director makes Stay Hungry a hard movie to trust. The point, I think, at which I dangerously lost faith comes near the end, when what should be the film’s rather horrifying climax is turned into an ill-timed bit of jaunty humor. Thor Erikson (R.G. Armstrong, pumped into grotesque parody of his God-fearing roles as proponent of retributive justice in Peckinpah films), after sniffing a horse’s portion of cocaine and raping the girl (Sally Field) who works for him in his seamy health spa, tries to exterminate Craig Blake (Jeff Bridges) with weightlifting bars and metal pikes that he tears from the bodybuilding machines in his gym. After five minutes of this-is-no-joke dueling, and just as the combatants crash through the plateglass window of the gym, Rafelson cuts to the auditorium where a Mr.
Universe competition is being held, and where everyone is getting nervous about the prize money Erikson is supposed to be holding. When word arrives of the fight, the whole pageantful of nearly naked strongmen run through the streets of Birmingham, Alabama, on their way to the gym; they stop passersby to ask directions, and end up doing little biceps-flexing routines for sidewalk crowds—all to the accompaniment of foot-tapping bluegrass music. When they finally find the place, Erikson is being carted away in an ambulance: we’re suddenly supposed to get serious again.
One could probably list a few other instances of undeserved and even illogical scene-to-scene jolts to emotional expectation, but the point is that the director’s attitude—the single breath that a movie should at least seem to be formed by—isn’t consistent here. Consider the way Rafelson handles one of his subplots, the business involving the real-estate swindlers with whom Craig Blake, a black-sheep aristocrat, has become involved. This seems intended to suggest an undercurrent of corruption threatening to pull Blake under when he backs out of the plan to buy up and control large chunks of the city. But whereas in Marvin Gardens Rafelson conjured an almost chimerical, vaguely portentous and peripherally threatening gangster world—a larger context of moral chaos riding just on the edges of the story, waiting to envelop it, to swallow its characters—the presence of the hoods in Stay Hungry is never of very serious concern. When they’re not actually on the screen you tend to forget about them. Such, perhaps, ought to be the case: no real threats face Craig Blake; no dark nights of the soul such as offered to engulf Bobby Dupea’s burned-out being in Five Easy Pieces, no loaded guns comprising a reality such as suddenly exploded in David Staebler’s face in Marvin Gardens. Rafelson’s preoccupation with the selfdestructiveness residing within his characters has been toned down, and I don’t think he has found—at least in Stay Hungry—anything with which to replace it, to energize his film.
There is, however, a more clearly pronounced element in the conception of a Rafelson protagonist that lay more or less latent in his previous films; while both the Nicholson characters seemed to be trying to reinvest their souls in dead pasts long after the time that coming-of-age or even comeuppance could possibly hold for them the promise of life illuminated by some new, more mature perspective, coming-of-age is precisely the thematic commodity Rafelson pushes most heavily in the current film. Jeff Bridges, just offhand, would seem to be the guy Rafelson would need to play out this more optimistic drama of growing up—something neither of the Nicholson characters ever really did. But there is something about Bridges’ rich-boy-trying-to-be-real role that doesn’t ring quite as true as his less ironical portrayals of down-to-earth types learning the hard way in The Last American Hero or even The Last Picture Show. His performance—and the role itself—has more to do with his part in Frank Perry’s Rancho Deluxe: a sardonic, slightly hip, self-aware but valueless society child knocking around for something to do, ferreting “reality” out of lowlife crannies as, to date, all of Rafelson’s protagonists have attempted to do.
Direction: Bob Rafelson. Screenplay: Rafelson and Charles Gaines, after the novel by Gaines. Cinematography: Victor J. Kemper.
The players: Jeff Bridges, Sally Field, Arnold Schwarzenegger, R.G. Armstrong, Robert Englund, Joe Spinell, Scatman Crothers.
© 1976 Rick Hermann