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A warm and fuzzy Arnold for the '90s

CANNES, France -- The first time I met Arnold Schwarzenegger was in 1977 at a film festival in Dallas. He was there for the premiere of "Pumping Iron," the documentary that launched his film career and, paradoxically, allowed audiences to relate to him as a person and not just as an assembly of muscles. What I remember is that between the two screenings of the movie, Arnold found a quiet corner backstage and opened his textbooks. He was studying for a college exam.

A few years later, in the early 1980s, he'd become a movie star, but he was still into the serious self-improvement stuff. Yes, he said, he was making good money from his films: "But to date I've made more money from my investments than from my Hollywood paychecks." He seemed quietly proud of that evidence of brain over brawn.

I met Schwarzenegger most recently at this year's Cannes festival, where, after the success of "Total Recall," "Kindergarten Cop," "Terminator 2" and some of his other hits, nobody thought to ask him if his portfolio was still outperforming his paychecks. Now that's he's making $10 million and up, per picture, plus a percentage of the profits, I think we can safely assume he has turned the corner and can stop pouring over those back issues of Money magazine.

The key to Schwarzenegger's success has always been hard work.

He pumped iron harder than anyone else, and then he threw himself into a movie career with such energy and determination that he became, against all the odds and despite his Austrian accent, the number one movie star in the world. Now he had come to Cannes to promote "The Last Action Hero," an action extravaganza that cost a rumored $60 to $70 million, and will open in every city, town and hamlet where light is still projected through celluloid onto a screen.

The movie is based on the magical blurring of the division between a movie and its audience--a gimmick that has worked before in the movies, from Buster Keaton's "The Cameraman" all the way up to Woody Allen's "The Purple Rose of Cairo." In the film, Schwarzenegger plays a movie action hero who somehow finds that his biggest fan, a kid who watches all of his movies countless times, is somehow in the back seat of his car during a chase scene. How did the kid get from the audience into the movie? Did it have something to do with an enchanted ticket from a kindly old theater manager? Maybe. And it also had a lot to do with the inspired box-office idea of giving Arnold a young sidekick that the kids in the audience can identify with.

As Arnold greeted his visitors at Cannes, watching him in action was a lesson in time and motion studies. Working from the verandah of the Hotel du Cap d'Antibes, with the blue Mediterranean and the yachts of several millionaires as a backdrop, he ground out the television and print interviews. He had flown in the day before, and might excusably have claimed jet-lag, but no: Arnold was affable and cheerful, shaking hands, slapping backs, acting like the greeter at his own party.

His message, repeated more than once during the day, was that there is a kinder, gentler Arnold Schwarzenegger. "The Last Action Hero" is rated PG-13, not R (like most of his action films have been), and there are reasons for that:

"It works on two levels. One, the public demands it. Two, I'm a family man myself now, and I'm always concerned about what kind of movies I can go and see with my daughters. Right now they're so young they basically only watch cartoons. But let's assume they're 5, 6, 8 years old. What will they want to see? That makes me think about films where the entire family can go out and see a movie and have a great time and not be offended by too much violence and all these other things."

I heard, I said, that "The Last Action Hero" sort of changed courses in mid-stream, starting out R and then turning into PG-13, and that scenes were reshot to get the broader family rating.

"That is absolutely incorrect. We never rewrote the script and we never reshot because of the rating. We always intended to shoot the movie for a PG audience; it was always from the beginning a fantasy movie of epic proportions, a spoof on action heroes, with a lot of comedy.

"As in all movies that I've done, especially the last six, we did go out and shoot additional stuff. When you have a sneak preview you hear the audience loud and clear about what it doesn't like. Our movie was a big hit with the test screenings, but there was one thing that was very clear: The audience did not like to see my vulnerability, They wanted me to kick in gear and get the action going. So what we did was go back to the original pages where that was exactly what was written. We'd felt to begin with that maybe there was too much action in the movie, and we should show more vulnerability, but we were wrong, so we went back to the original story."

For Schwarzenegger, reshooting some of the scenes was a business decision as well as an acting choice, because on "Last Action Hero" he was working as a producer as well as the star. Often when movie stars take production credits, it means either that their egos have started to enlarge, or that they're pursuing a pet project in the face of the odds. Not so with Schwarzenegger the businessman. Few stars have had a cannier sense of their own image, of what will work and what will not, and for Arnold to take a producer's credit is only a logical extension of the way he's been micro-managing his career all along.

Looking and sounding the way he does, Schwarzenegger could obviously inspire bad laughs if he were cast in certain kinds of straight dramatic roles. But with his perfect sense of appropriate material, he alternates action pictures with comedies that use his strengths and get laughs from his weaknesses, and he seems to have a built-in barometer to sense box office trends. Take the shift toward family films, for example:

"I think it is important to know that the 1990s are going to be very different from the 1980s. In the '80s we made much more hard core movies. 'Terminator,' for instance, was a true representation of the '80s--the kind of movie the people wanted to see. I think the '90s are different. Now they want to see a kinder and gentler type of an action hero. They want to see an action hero who is more multi-dimensional, who shows a kind of love and affection. But at the same time he's got to be tough and try to wipe out evil and do all the big stunts and all these other kinds of things. I think that in 'Last Action Hero' we redefine the action hero of the '80s. It's much more like 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' or 'Romancing the Stone' rather than the hard core violence."

The way the summer is shaping up, "The Last Action Hero" will be fighting it out with Steven Spielberg's "Jurassic Park" for the box office crown. And perhaps Schwarzenegger was wise to go easier on the violence. Although "Jurassic Park" is also rated PG-13, parents at preview screenings were surprised at the intensity of the violence, and walked out agreeing the movie was too scary for younger kids. If "The Last Action Hero" is indeed kinder and gentler, Arnold may have guessed right again.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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