It’s a shame I had to trek downtown to Tribeca to experience Pumping Iron II: The Women, which played as part of the 92YTribeca’s “Outsider Sports” series (on a double bill with Afghan Muscles—kudos to the creative programmer!). Not that I have anything against attending a free screening of a 16mm print courtesy of the New York Public Library. It’s just that George Butler’s follow-up to his Schwarzenegger-starring Pumping Iron needs to be disseminated on DVD in a 25th-anniversary edition complete with all the bells and whistles. Yes, this semi-doc is a film geek’s dream, one that leaves you thinking about things beyond its bodybuilding theme and hungering to learn more.
Arriving in theaters fresh on the heels of Flashdance fever, the film’s nods to that cinematic time capsule are so transparent as to be laughable, ranging from its cheesy ’80s pop soundtrack, to the competitors’ Aqua Net heavy hairstyles and “Jane Fonda Workout” wear. But beneath the superficial knockoffs lie both filmmaking and a storyline rife with controversy. Pumping Iron II: The Women follows several muscle-bound females leading up to The Caesars World Cup in Las Vegas. Filling Schwarzenegger’s shoes is Rachel McLish, a femme fatale, bodybuilding diva every bit the showboat as the future Governator. Australian Bev Francis, a former power-lifter turned bodybuilder whose masculine looks call into question the female bodybuilding ideal, is the outsider Lou Ferrigno character. Country girl Lori Bowen and brainy Carla Dunlap, the only black woman represented, fill lesser roles.
What’s most fascinating, however, are the dirty little secrets Butler chooses to leave off-screen, starting with the competition itself. Since I’d never heard of The Caesars World Cup—with its outrageous $50,000 purse—I did a quick Wiki search and learned, “The Caesars World Cup was a contest created specifically for the film. The competitors were a mix of professional and amateur bodybuilders, which was actually a violation of IFBB rules. Charles Gaines, one of the writers of the film, was included on the contest’s judging panel. He was interviewed for the movie but not identified, and had never previously seen a female bodybuilding contest.”
Uh-huh. In other words, Pumping Iron II: The Women was a prescient piece of staged reality years before there was such a thing as reality TV. Sure, there are signs that Butler’s film (based on his book Pumping Iron II: The Unprecedented Woman) is more fiction than doc, notably during a soft-core shower sequence in which the women get philosophical while soaping up, as well as numerous clunky improvised scenes about as natural as porn dialogue: “I love to play bingo with my grandmother at church,” Rachel says while walking the Las Vegas strip with her sexy foreign hunk, then later musing, “I would marry him in a second but I don’t think I know him well enough,” while lying in a tanning bed. “What are ya gonna do with the money?” a trainer asks Lori, who is bent on going one-on-one with her idol Rachel. Her dream? Her boyfriend will be able to stop stripping. Cut to him shaking his muscled booty for dollars.
And yet Butler’s choice to blur the line between truth and white lies meshes well with his bodybuilding subject, a sport that like baseball relies heavily on discreet “enhancements.” Like baseball commissioners who know that strict anti-drug enforcement will lead to fewer home runs (thus fewer butts in the seats) the IFBB judges must play to their audience who demand bigger be better. This becomes even more highly charged when your job is to anoint the “female bodybuilding ideal.” While Bev is portrayed as the underdog, the so-called “pioneer” who views herself as pushing the sport to the next level, it’s hard to see her in this light in the year 2010. Manly Bev declares she wants to show the world that a woman can look like a “Greek god,” which follows that a Greek “goddess” is somehow inferior. In retrospect, this seems as antiquated as Henry Higgins wondering, “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” For Bev the perfect woman is not a woman at all.
Therefore Bev’s credibility when it comes to being the embodiment of female empowerment, fighting against the “Playboy” centerfold ideal, is about as high as Barry Bonds’s. (After all, Bev is every bit as—chemically—enhanced as any bombshell with breast implants.) Which, interestingly, turns petite Rachel, the primping villainess who shamelessly flirts with the judges, who is threatened with losing points for wearing an “illegal” (breast padded) bathing suit, into the true heroine. Rebellious Rachel is much more subversive than polite Bev who, like any good little girl, plays strictly by the rules. Indeed, Rachel’s politics were before her time. Twenty-five years later it’s the proud femme who is the strongest woman in the world.