50 Movies for 50 States: Week One – Alabama, Film – Stay Hungry

The United States has been well represented in the world of cinema. Still, while most people are familiar with Woody Allen’s New York, Tarantino’s Los Angeles or John Water’s Baltimore, Maryland, what about the not-so-familiar cracks and corners of the country?  Why can’t we have a crime thriller set in Amish country, a steamy psychological drama take place in Baton Rouge or a gross-out comedy with Rhode Island as its backdrop?

Well, we can. To prove it, I’m going from Alabama to Wyoming — each week choosing one film to represent each of the 50 U.S. states. The only criteria is that each movie is something I’ve never seen before. That should eliminate some of the more obvious choices, good films as they may be, allowing me to bring to the forefront some more obscure choices, oddities and forgotten classics alike.

Time for a road trip across the good ol’ U.S.A., one movie at a time.

Week One – Alabama

Stay Hungry, 1976, director Bob Rafelson, writer Bob Rafelson and Charles Gaines (novel), with Jeff Bridges, Sally Field, Robert Englund, Arnold Schwarzenegger

I’m a Yankee. I’ll admit my knowledge of Alabama doesn’t really extend much farther than Jim Crow laws and the horrible 80s country band. Yet, I didn’t want to take the easy road with this 50 Films for 50 States project and choosing a movie to represent Alabama focusing too much on racism or rednecks would be disingenuous. So I did my research — as always, much love to Wikipedia — and came up with this little Southern-fried gem.

Stay Hungry is a 1976 Bob Rafelson film – the overlooked follow-up to his masterpiece Five Easy Pieces and The King of Marvin Gardens, the film which came next in his filmography. It preceded 1981’s remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice (Side note: Pieces, Gardens and Postman are all currently available on Netflix Instant Watch.)

Stay Hungry stars recent Oscar winner Jeff Bridges, former Oscar winner Sally Field, as well as an eclectic supporting cast that includes Scatman Crothers (The Shining), Robert Englund (Nightmare on Elm Street) and Arnold Scharzenegger (Jingle All The Way, the California governor’s seat). One requirement of this project I’m doing –- choosing a movie for each of the 50 U.S. states –- is that each movie must be something I’ve never seen before. My unfamiliarity with the film, its odd cast of actors and actresses and Rafaelson’s reputation had me sold on Stay Hungry –- as well as its off-beat as fuck plot.

Let’s talk about that plot. I guess now is a good time to mention that bodybuilding is an integral part of Stay Hungry, hence the casting of Ah-nold as Austrian muscleman Joe Santo (I know, a real stretch). Stay Hungry, based on a novel by Charles Gaines, takes place in 1970s Birmingham, Alabama which, in some misguided decision, has been chosen to serve as the setting for the annual Mr. Universe bodybuilding competition. “The Dude” Bridges plays Craig Blake, a young scion who comes from a long line of wealthy aristocrats. Blake’s business is real estate and he and his partners have got their sights on a downtown gym which they want to convince its owners to sell in order to build an office high-rise. Blake meets with the gym’s owner, but soon loses focus of his goal to wrest ownership of the gym when he becomes more and more fascinated with the unusual, then new and rather unknown “sport” of bodybuilding.  He also starts a courtship with the free-spirited Mary Tate (Field), a gymnast and member of the gym crowd.

Problems arise when Blake tries to introduce his new gym buddies to the hoity-toity country club-belonging, Merlot-sipping crowd with which he’s spent his whole life associating. Blake’s golfing buddies are less-than-accepting of his new friends and much cracker-on-cracker drama ensues. Apparently, in Birmingham, Alabama, when white people can’t find black people to hate on, they turn on themselves.

Given Alabama’s poor track record when it comes to race relations, there’s little commentary on racism in Stay Hungry. In fact, until the end of the movie –- one of my favorite scenes in which participants of the Mr. Universe contest spill onto the streets of Birmingham — there’s only a handful of black people on-screen. When you do spot a black person, they’re serving drinks or cleaning hotel rooms. The biggest African-American role in Stay Hungry is Blake’s butler, played by Scatman Crothers. In the butler’s most prominent scene, he chastises Blake for his involvement in such a low-class activity as bodybuilding and his relationship with Mary Tate, not a proper Southern lady.

The most logical conclusion is Rafelson purposely avoided weighty topics like racism to keep Stay Hungry light. This is backed up by major changes he apparently made from the novel. Without giving anything away, the book Stay Hungry is much more of a downer than the movie. After the gloominess of The King of Marvin Gardens, perhaps Rafelson just wanted to have some fun and saw a movie about bodybuilding as an opportunity to let loose. The DVD of Stay Hungry includes an introduction by Rafelson where he explains that, in the three years after Gardens, he spent some time traveling around the southern United States looking for material to make a movie and became enamored with southern culture. Rafelson’s fascination with the South parallels Blake’s fascination with bodybuilding. Both are idealized views. Just like Blake’s exposure to bodybuilding does extend to its seedier aspects like steroid abuse and focus on superficiality, Rafelson’s portrait of the south does not delve into its not-so-picturesque past.

Does that make Stay Hungry any less of a movie –- just because it’s not “heavy”? Maybe a little. But does that mean we should be like Blake’s country club pals and judge Rafelson for “slumming it” by taking a slightly off-kilter career move and making a movie that’s actually (gasp) entertaining unlike Gardens — which I personally felt was kind of boring. Never mind that Rafelson’s career kind of sputtered out after Stay Hungry (Postman was a bomb). “Sputtered out” is kind of harsh. Spoiler alert. Let’s just say, like Blake’s decision at the end of Stay Hungry to give up on real estate become a full-time gym owner, Rafelson’s decision to make more mainstream pictures after Stay Hungry was his own way of turning his back on the pretensions of his past. Whether he continued to make good movies, that’s another story.

Bottom line is as long as you’re not looking for some kind of huge moral message from Stay Hungry, there’s plenty to enjoy. It’s funny. I mean, let’s not forget that Rafelson created The Monkees. He can do funny.  All the acting is excellent. Schwarzengger, basically playing himself, gives a great performance which netted him a Golden Globe. Field, in her first “adult” role, is surprisingly sexy. Englund, years before becoming a horror icon, is a lot of fun to see playing someone other than Freddy and Bridges – well – Bridges is Bridges.

Ask yourself this: Where else are you going to see the Terminator playing a fiddle or Gidget in the buff? That’s right. Nowhere. Stay Hungry is a one-of-a-kind movie and for that reason, has earned the right to represent the state of Alabama in this little project of mine.

Honorable mentions for Alabama include Fried Green Tomatoes, My Cousin Vinny and To Kill a Mockingbird.  Since I’ve seen My Cousin Vinny and To Kill a Mockingbird, they were excluded. I initially planned to watch Fried Green Tomatoes (I hear the plot has something to do with cannibalism, which seems right up my alley), but had to go with Stay Hungry, which edged out Tomatoes on sheer quirkiness value alone.

Next week – Alaska.

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