If you're starving for a good film, Judge George Hatch suggests a feast for the eyes and ears.
"I don't like being too comfortable. Once you get used to it, it's hard to give up. I'd rather stay hungry."—bodybuilder Joe Santo
In his commentary, director Bob Rafelson says it took him four years to follow up Five Easy Pieces (1970) and The King of Marvin Gardens (1972) because he had no idea what kind of film he wanted to make. He crisscrossed the South for two years, soaking up atmosphere and local color, hoping it might provide some inspiration. During that time, author Charles Gaines sent him a copy of Stay Hungry, his novel about bodybuilding. Rafelson quickly immersed himself in this unique subculture, and found "the hook" he'd been looking for.
Facts of the Case
After his parents are killed in an accident, Craig Blake inherits a mansion just outside of Birmingham, Alabama, and keeps in touch with his aristocratic Southern roots through correspondence with his Uncle Albert. Aimless and apathetic, Craig's interest is finally sparked by a real estate proposal brought to him by his friend Hal. A group of shady developers wants to build a high-rise apartment complex and needs only to secure one small piece of property: a decrepit gymnasium already on the verge of going under. Jabo, the brains behind the deal, wants Craig to buy the gym, and then sell it to their consortium at a profit. Realizing what he's getting into, Craig writes, "Dear Uncle Albert, I recognize that I am involved with unorthodox business people, and as you advised, I am proceeding cautiously. But, as you would expect, confidently."
When the owner, Thor Erickson, refuses to sellout, Craig starts visiting the gym on a regular basis and befriending the regulars, including Joe Santo, a bodybuilder in training for the upcoming Mr. Universe competition. He also becomes infatuated with Mary Tate, the feisty receptionist who also happens to be Santo's girlfriend. While Hal and the developers keep pressuring Craig to "buy or get out," he discovers an intimacy with these working class people, and is overwhelmed by the genuine love and loyalty they feel toward each other. Thor considers them his children; and Santo wants to win the contest, not for the title, but for the prize money so he can pay back Thor who has financed his career. When hired thugs wreck the gym, Craig decides to put up the $5,000 necessary for repairs and ensure Santo's entry into the competition.
Stay Hungry has the same meandering pace as Rafelson's two previous films, but none of the occasionally overwrought morosity. Quickly dispensing with the melancholy listlessness of Craig's lifestyle (and the funereal narration of his Uncle Albert) in the opening scenes, Rafelson takes the viewer on a more upbeat path of self-discovery, hope and a mutual understanding of class values. It's a "warts-and-all" view, and the warts provide most of the introspective, violent and frequently hilarious scenes in the film. Character faults and foibles surface slowly and are dealt with compassionately. Insight and resolutions come from the unlikeliest sources. When Santo tells Craig, "You can't grow without feeling the burn," he isn't simply referring to muscle development. Craig's compromises form the basis of burgeoning relationships with the kind of people he never even knew existed.
Stay Hungry is a typically eccentric film from an unconventional director, and the rambling, but realistically played out, string of events may not be to everyone's taste. Characterization takes precedence over a slim plotline that is, at times, barely detectable beneath the story of a young Southern aristocrat's coming of age a little too late in life. Jeff Bridges (Seabiscuit) is excellent portraying Craig with soul-searching subtlety. Sally Field's Mary Tate has the aggressive, "all-or-nothing" attitude that would win the actress an Academy Award a few years later in Norma Rae. Arnold Schwarzenegger (The Terminator) as Joe Santo dispels all "body-but-no-brains" misconceptions with charm and an underplayed talent for advising others how to apply the disciplines of bodybuilding to everyday life. The supporting cast delivers a remarkable ensemble performance, with R. G. Armstrong (Predator) standing out by giving an unexpected Jekyll-and-Hyde twist to Thor. Scatman Crothers (The Shining) plays Craig's manservant, William, with a stern dignity that belies his resentment of the changes taking place on the estate that has been his home for 40 years. Richard Gilliland (Airplane II: The Sequel), Ed Begley, Jr. (Cockfighter), and Joe Spinell (Winter Kills) all shine as "good ol' boys" without resorting to caricature.
Cinematographer Victor J. Kemper (Dog Day Afternoon) captures the beauty of the Old South and country woods, the grubby and sweaty atmosphere of gym life, and the colorfully exuberant world of bodybuilding competition. An impressively sustained long shot toward the end of the film shows Santo and his final competitor silhouetted against a deep orange backdrop. The stage slowly rotates, bringing the men into the strategically lit forefront, where they begin to perfectly mirror each other's choreographed muscular poses.
MGM presents Stay Hungry in full frame and 1.85:1 enhanced widescreen, and the latter looks spectacular with rich color and sharp detail. The Dolby Digital Mono sound is well above average, providing crisp dialogue while highlighting the countrified score by Byron Berline and Bruce Langhorne (The Hired Hand). The Special Features include a brief "Video Introduction" by the director, who basically says, "Please watch this film." There's an audio commentary by Rafelson, Bridges, and Field, who point out interesting background information about the shoot. I was amazed to learn that during a particularly vicious fight in the gym, most of the equipment hurled at Bridges was real. He had to dodge a barbell that cracked the stairs he was climbing, and another that broke the plaster wall an inch away from his head. The whole film was shot on location and everyone lived without air-conditioning in the mansion that served as Craig's home, so all the sweat you see is real. Sally Field still sounds a bit embarrassed by her nude scene, but Bridges and Rafelson support her courageous decision in a film everyone believed in from the start. The original trailer is a bit misleading, making the film look like a zany comedy. Surprisingly, however, the script by Gaines and Rafelson was nominated for a Writers Guild of America Award for Best Comedy Adapted from Another Medium.
Anyone who saw Richard LaGravenese's and the late Ted Demme's documentary, A Decade Under the Influence, is aware of the astonishing number of seminal films that were released during the 1970s. Rafelson made three of them but, for some reason, he wasn't included in the interviews on this DVD. Five Easy Pieces was nominated for several awards, including an Oscar for Best Picture. The pathetically haunted characters and grim realism of The King of Marvin Gardens was a turnoff for audiences at the time, but the film's status has been elevated over the years. Stay Hungry was released with little fanfare and drew even less attention. Now MGM's DVD will give you the chance to decide if this is a lost classic, or a film that should remain lost in the shuffle. By the way, it would make a great double bill with another Jeff Bridges film from the same era, John Huston's underrated boxing film, Fat City (1972).
Not guilty! You won't get burned, but you'll "feel the burn" of Stay Hungry.
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Scales of Justice
• Introduction by Director Bob Rafelson
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