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Why Schwarzenegger is our top movie star

Now that "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" has opened to long lines and the best box office business in many a month, here are 20 reasons why Arnold Schwarzenegger is the number one movie star in the world:

1. He has a sense of humor and the ridiculous, including a keen sense of what is funny about himself. He hand-tailors little jokes for all of his screenplays, in which we can sense that he realizes the material is not to be taken all that seriously.

2. He does not seem proud of, or indeed even aware of, his muscles. Bodybuilders have a tendency to be narcissistic, and the public laughs at the slightest sign of preening. But from the dawn of his acting career, Arnold's attitude toward his physique has been similar to Dolly Parton's toward her chest measurements: He sees the joke, too, but how can a mere human argue with what God has wrought?

3. He never taken a role he cannot play. He has a keener sense of what is right and wrong for him, and makes fewer mistakes of judgement, than almost any other current star.

4. He is a man of few words. The American public is by now so accustomed to his accent that I imagine many moviegoers no longer even notice it. But he remembers the humiliating experience of being dubbed in his first B-grade movie, and he prefers spare dialog that doesn't send him off on long marches through complex syntax. Perhaps because he talks so little, he gains a certain subtle authority, like such other taciturn stars as Clint Eastwood and John Wayne.

5. When he plays a love scene, which is rarely, he is touchingly sincere. He uses gentleness, not macho; he behaves toward a woman as a protector, not an aggressor. John Wayne often used the same approach.

6. He is infinitely patient with the demands of special effects. Moviegoers are probably not aware that many of his key scenes are played in a void that will later be filled with special effects. Standing on a sound stage in front of a blue back-projection screen, wearing complicated makeup it took hours to design, he is a hardened professional who does what it takes. A lesser star with the same clout would begin to demand fewer of those exhausting special effects shots. Schwarzenegger puts the movie ahead of his own comfort.

7. He has the appeal of an athlete. He has not been a competitive bodybuilder for years, and perhaps bodybuilding is as much theater as sport anyway, and yet somehow he projects on our consciousness as the great sports stars do. Like DiMaggio or Mays or Jordan, he seems to embody greatness in his presence. In one way or another, in every movie, he is playing himself.

8. He makes an action movie with comic scenes, and then a comedy with action scenes. "Twins" and then "Total Recall" and then "Kindergarten Cop" and then "Terminator 2: Judgment Day."

9. He has a knack for finding screenplays in which he is the friend of the surrogate hero. The young boy in "Terminator 2." The good people at the school in "Kindergarten Cop." The misfits and victims of totalitarianism in "Total Recall." He knows, as many action stars do not, that sometimes it is better to be the savior of the hero than the hero himself. People don't get so tired of you that way.

10. He is generous with the villains in his films, knowing that a good villain is the key to the success of any action picture. All of the best special effects in "Terminator 2" belong to the bad Terminator, which is made of molten steel and can reconstitute itself after being shot full of holes. A lesser actor might have read the screenplay and said, "Hey, how come the other guy gets all these neat special effects? I wanna melt, too!" Schwarzenegger knows where the real angle is: Use the special effects to establish the villain, and that makes the hero's showdown with him all the more riveting.

11. He can look very determined. When he squares his jaw, he can actually convey the fact that he is "filled with resolve," when a dozen other actors would seem merely ridiculous.

12. His accent paradoxically seems to liberate him from a time and place, so that he can play visitors from other planets and dimensions without speaking in the incongruous sounds of everyday idiom. The effect is so convincing that we forget to ask basic questions, such as, if the cyborgs in "Terminator 2" are programmed by computers, why was he programmed with an accent? (Related question: Since we have seen that the bad Terminator in the same movie can imitate any voice, why does he need to force Linda Hamilton to call into the telephone for her son?)

13. He inspires our sympathy. There is always something of the child in his characters, the sense of a creature who has the ability to change things, but is in danger of being outsmarted by infinitely more clever opponents (as in the original "Predator").

14. In violent scenes, he kills with a certain determined expression on his face, which translates as duty, not power-lust. He kills as a job, detaching himself from it, never seeming to enjoy it. Even in climactic scenes where he vanquishes the evil enemy at last, it always appears that he is performing a necessary task, too long postponed.

15. He resists all of the temptations of his own ego and the back-slapping of others, encouraging him to tackle something "different." He does not cast himself in Ibsen or Shakespeare, or place himself in the hands of David Lynch or Martin Scorsese. He knows exactly what he can do best, and is not tempted to make a fool of himself by wandering far afield.

16. He knows how to handle the photographers who hang outside Los Angeles nightspots, and so there is not a library of photos showing him looking drunk, confused, blinded by flashlights, or shouting in anger. In almost all of his photos, he is smiling at the camera like a guy happy to be having his picture taken. Boring, but safe.

17. He has handled his Kennedy connection with subtlety and self-confidence, as if he were their Schwarzenegger connection.

18. He has a flair for physical comedy, for the double-take, for the slow burn, for all of the staples of the silent comedians. And he is not afraid to use them simply because they're ancient and cornball.

19. He is paid enormous sums to make his movies, yet never seems to make them simply for cash, or to rush into production before the screenplay is ready (partly that is because a special effects movie has to be meticulously pre-planned). Audiences sense they will get value for money, and so his name on the marquee has become like a trademark.

20. He has a big goofy grin, as if to say, if a bodybuilder from Austria named Arnold Schwarzenegger can get to be the number one movie star in the world, then why argue with the winds of fate?

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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