Arnold Schwarzenegger: Not Dead Yet, at Least Abroad? (Analysis)

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Arnold Schwarzenegger

His career may not be as terminated as some people think, but the biggest obstacle to his art is his not-so-private life.

Just before Arnold Schwarzenegger’s paternity scandal erupted this week, QED International sold foreign rights to his film Cry Macho — which had been slated to begin production Aug. 24 — in Cannes. But then on Thursday, Schwarzenegger’s reps announced he was putting his projects on hold.

For Cry Macho, Schwarzenegger was to have received $12.5 million plus 25 percent of first dollar gross. No one knows when Schwarzenegger will return to show business, but a source says it won’t be right away, and the talents lined up for Cry Macho, like director Brad Furman, are expected to turn to other work.

But before disaster struck, Schwarzenegger’s salability was strong, according to two sources -- even though he hasn’t played a major film role since 2003’s Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. The foreign market was ready to pay for his return to the screen and to welcome him back as a movie star. That suggests that his long-term viability could be brighter than it appears at the moment.

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In Cannes, some observers simply shrugged off the news of his illicit liaison — after all, having both a wife and a mistress is almost a Gallic tradition. The bigger question the star faces is one of age. At 63, Schwarzenegger can’t stay away from the screen much longer if he wants to make a comeback.

Patrick Goldstein of the Los Angeles Times took a dimmer view on Friday, writing, “It was already pretty obvious that the Gubernator was too old and out of fashion to play a serious action hero ... it looks like he should find himself a new, less visible line of work until the media can work through the cycle [of scandal reportage].” Goldstein’s headline read, “Is his career going, going, gone?”

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But that isn’t what the market was saying. Cry Macho, which promised to be more of a character study than a full-out action movie, could have served as a transitional film for Schwarzenegger. Playing a washed-up horse trainer would have allowed him to acknowledge his age in a drama that would be more of a test of his acting chops than his physical fitness. And even in full-on action hero mode, there still was demand for the star: Witness the fact that just days before the scandal,  a new Terminator movie, in which he’s attached to star for hot director du jour Justin Lin, ignited a bidding war won by Annapurna Films.

“As for that CAA-inspired ‘once a movie star, always a movie star’ business,” Goldstein wrote, “I can only say: Mel Gibson? Nicolas Cage? Russell Crowe? I know Yogi Berra said it ain't over till it's over, but in showbiz, when it's over, its over for good.” Don’t tell that to Sylvester Stallone, though, since he’s stayed in the ring with 2006’s Rocky Balboa, 2008’s Rambo and last summer’s The Expendables, released when he was 64.

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The buyers’ interest in Cry Macho that QED found suggests that it may not be over yet for Schwarzenegger, at least in foreign markets, where A-level fame tends to persist longer than it does in the U.S. “You know what? He had a bump in the road. It’s not gonna be a debilitating thing that’s gonna wreck his career,” Cry Macho producer Al Ruddy told THR on Tuesday after the scandal broke, but before Schwarzenegger himself called a halt to his acting career.  

The trick now, though, is that when Schwarzenegger does decide it’s time to return to show business, he’ll have to choose his roles with even more care. Instead of age, the current scandal will be the elephant in the room. The animated series he had planned called The Governator was to have revolved around an ex-governor living with his wife Maria and their children and leading an exciting double life as a crimefighter, “using cutting-edge gear [and] custom-made ‘super suits.' ” Safe to say, that premise is dead.

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Cry Macho now probably becomes a trickier test case. Its horse trainer is hired to kidnap an untamed, 9-year-old boy, with whom he then strikes up an almost paternal relationship. Now that it's known that Schwarzenegger has an illegitimate son, who is around that age, would moviegoers be able to watch the film without drawing parallels to real-life events?

That was one of the issues that Mel Gibson has had to face with The Beaver,  his new drama about a man spiraling down into depression. Although the movie has won praise for his acting and Jodie Foster’s directing, it also may have scared away viewers who sensed that its hero’s emotional problems carry too many echoes of Gibson’s real life.  No one wants to see art imitating life — at least, not when the life in question is a nightmare.