I feel very strongly about this: Arnold Schwarzenegger is a good actor.
I’d like to be totally clear that I don’t mean this with the usual catalogue of implied qualifications: Arnold Schwarzenegger is a good screen presence or Arnold Schwarzenegger is a good actor for someone who does action movies. No, what I mean is that acting is a skill that can be assessed, and my assessment of Arnold’s acting skill is that it’s pretty fucking good. I seem to be alone in thinking this.
What I think people mean when they say that Arnold isn’t a good actor is that he isn’t good at the things we usually associate with good acting. This is true. Arnold has a stiff delivery, he has no range, and his ability to credibly emote is essentially nonexistent. But skills such as these are not the only markers of good acting. Another less heralded but no less important attribute of great acting is a talent for physical acting, and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s performance in The Terminator (1984) is one of the best physical acting performances in American movie history.
The original Terminator got tremendous reviews; it remains one of the few blockbusters to have a perfect score on the Tomatometer. But the positive reviews focus near exclusively on the qualities that make The Terminator great besides Arnold Schwarzenegger: James Cameron’s direction, of course, but also the sound design; the dated yet fascinating special effects; the complicated, beguiling plot; etc. Even the few contemporary and retrospective reviews that do bother to compliment the titular performance do so implying that its greatness was despite Arnold’s limitations or thanks exclusively to Cameron. No reviewer seems to be able to offer the simplest and most obvious critique: Arnold Schwarzenegger’s performance was good because Arnold Schwarzenegger is a good actor. With almost any other role in any other movie this would be plainly self-evident, but for Arnold and The Terminator, it’s apparently a leap way too far.
So fine, let’s go over all the reasons why Arnold’s performance in The Terminator is an example of great acting and why it would have been deserving of an Academy Award nomination.
Arnold Schwarzenegger’s performance is incredibly believable
I know what you’re thinking: Yeah, of course it’s believable, it’s Arnold playing a stiff and stunted robot. Not only do I not think this is true — just because he’s a machine doesn’t mean he is supposed to be stiff, as Arnold’s more emotionally complicated and equally beloved performance in Terminator 2 demonstrates — but it also unfairly ignores the incredible amount of thought and effort Arnold put into making this performance work.
I came across a Reddit thread a while ago that pointed out an insanely specific detail about The Terminator that I’d never noticed despite seeing this movie 37 times. While in closeups throughout the movie, Arnold subtly but very clearly moves his eyes a moment or two before moving his head. He does this in order to underscore that he is not a human, but a product made of disparate, disconnected parts.
Dedication to ostensibly minor details can distinguish bad performances from good ones. Arnold doing this is an important decision, but also — crucially — an unshowy one; most people watching this movie aren’t even going to notice that he is doing it. As such it goes a long way in building verisimilitude, allowing the audience to accept subconsciously that they are watching a machine, not a man. That’s good acting!
Arnold’s body discipline in this movie is remarkable. He effortlessly embodies a machine without ever slipping over to comedic caricature; he’s never doing “the robot”. Check out this moment from the assault on the police station, one of the most famous movie scenes of the 1980s. Watch the way Arnold creaks his neck to scan the room. He looks almost uncannily like a surveillance camera, which is an ingenious acting choice; isn’t a terminator machine basically a sentient security camera?
Good acting is about making the right choices for your character. All throughout The Terminator, Arnold consistently makes the right choice.
Arnold Schwarzenegger’s body transformation is no less impressive than anyone else’s.
When a “serious” actor transforms their body in service to a role, we lavish them in praise (and, quite frequently, Oscar nominations). Christian Bale in The Machinist, Charlize Theron in Monster, Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyer’s Club, and on and on. We believe this represents another classic sign of a good actor: dedication to craft. And while the ethicality of this practice is certainly something we can agree or disagree on, what shouldn’t be up for debate is this: Arnold’s dedication to crafting his body is no less impressive than any of the above examples.
It’s true that Arnold built his famous physique in pursuit of his athletic career. But he maintained this body for decades in service of acting — you couldn’t be a famous action star in the 80s and early 90s without being sculpted like a Greek statue. (Bruce Willis notwithstanding.) While I truly do not understand how much work goes into maintaining a physique like Arnold’s, I am fully confident in saying it is at least as hard as Christian Bale eating nothing but apples and tuna for months to reduce himself to a skeleton. And Arnold did this for his entire career!
(I would like to acknowledge that I’m aware that Arnold has admitted to using steroids, at least during his bodybuilding days. But my point still stands: if we’re going to praise Christian Bale for engaging in destructive, harmful behavior — let’s call it what it is, an eating disorder — for a movie role, I have hard time saying we should draw the line at steroids.)
We nominate people based on physical performances all the time.
Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant, Tom Hanks in Cast Away, Sigourney Weaver in Aliens, Jean Dujardin in The Artist, Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, Natalie Portman in Black Swan, Michael Clarke Duncan in The Green Mile, Linda Blair in The Exorcist, Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot, Ellen Burstyn in Requiem for a Dream, Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire, Sylvester Stallone in Rocky — all largely physical performances nominated precisely because of how they told a story with their movement, body language, posture, etc. You could also add to this list any performance in which an actor wins for doing a remarkable impression (Rami Malek, Jamie Foxx) or a starling body transformation (Joaquin Phoenix).
Hell, even in the year of Arnold’s eligibility there was a Best Actor contender who was nominated for an almost entirely physical performance: Jeff Bridges in Starman. In this largely forgotten (but still kind of fun!) John Carpenter sci-fi romance, Jeff Bridges plays the titular alien, a barely vocal intergalactic visitor who falls in love with the recently widowed Karen Allen. It’s a neat movie, and Jeff Bridges is indeed great in it, embracing the physical challenge of being believably human and alien simultaneously.
I love Jeff Bridges, he deserved his Best Actor win for True Grit and he should have been nominated (and won) for The Big Lebowski. Jeff Bridges is UNEQUIVOCALLY a better actor than Arnold Schwarzenegger. But Arnold was better in The Terminator than Jeff Bridges was in Starman.
And perhaps, the most important reason Arnold should have been nominated for The Terminator…
Arnold rules in this movie, and what else is the point of the Oscars, anyway?
This really could have been the whole article. Look, I love the Oscars deeply, but I recognize that the Oscars are largely a joke. Let’s not pretend nominating the “poster child for bad acting” is somehow delegitimizing the same institution that named Green Book its Best Picture.
Nearly four decades later, Arnold’s terminator remains one of the silver screen’s most memorable villains, a true icon that has spawned a hundred imitators and a still-going media franchise. This was *probably* not abundantly clear in 1984, but the movie was pretty obviously something special: it grossed about $80 million against a $6.5 million budget and launched the careers of both Arnold and James Cameron.
It’s not like the Academy doesn’t have a history of nominating popular works. Cameron’s own Titanic would go on to win Best Picture on the strength of its phenomenon; as lovely as it is, Titanic clearly isn’t the best movie of 1997.
Arnold Schwarzenegger is no Daniel Day Lewis. This is abundantly obvious. But I wish just once we’d be comfortable admitting the inverse is true as well: Daniel Day Lewis is no Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Now, don’t even get me started on how Linda Hamilton should have been nominated for Terminator 2...
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