National Review

The Body Baroque

Competitors at the Mr. Israel bodybuiding contest in Tel Aviv in 2008. (Sharon Perry/Reuters)
The Gimlet Eye columnist D. Keith Mano gets pumped up about witnessing the battle for Mr. World, and Miss Body Beautiful.

Editor’s Note: This piece originally ran in the November 9, 1973, issue of National Review and is part of a weekend series of classic D. Keith Mano columns.

Bottles of baby oil lie scattered. Empty. Dead soldiers perhaps from a strange carouse. The men glisten. Pump, pump, pump: Their biceps come up, leavened bread. My God, the physical effort; I pull a muscle imagining it. They are mostly short men, not handsome; physiques exaggerated, burly as low rock walls. Compensation, I wonder, for what childhood slight? Mothers and wives watch: They seem overdressed in the semi-nude context. It’s a competition and a social event. Cordial: They’ve met before in the wings of six dozen different theaters. Some jerk towels backward and forward, bent over, lumberjacks at a two-handed saw, pumping, pumping. I see an exploded tattoo. The outline of some predatory bird, fragmented to a blue connect-the-dots sketch by muscle growth. Torsos are scarred with a pregnant woman’s stretch marking. Veins rush across them, crazy and desperate, overtaxed. Tonight one of these men will become Mr. World, 1973.

But the women are on now; Miss Body Beautiful. Strictly a bush league show. The entrants are nondescript; they know it. Most look as if they’d taken an innocent short cut from Lexington to Park across the Hunter College stage. They exit right with roses cradled gingerly, the thorns held just above soft parts. One woman has a 1920s bathing costume; her figure is roughly contemporaneous. Maybe a college scrubwoman ran home after work. A mobbed house raves by the numbers: forty or over. Sexual noises, wet and adolescent. The men are appraised in another mode. Loud, enthusiastic certainly, yet with Apollonian, reverent undertones. The last woman comes off, lips blue with embarrassment. You could dial her measurements and get directory assistance for downtown Chicago. It’s a joke. But the more contests you have, the more relatives and friends to hype your box office. Dan Lurie, the Sol Hurok of man flesh, understands that.

Mr. World now. I’ve seen a preliminary: rookie physiques just up from the farm system. It seemed grotesque, a boy preening in the locker room. But these are champions and they flabbergast. The ideal is to appear flayed, some anatomical diagram. Each has a personalized routine; certain displays, though, are obligatory. One foot steps forward: Gently it rolls, as it extinguishing a butt. Muscles pop out in the upper thigh. Ranges, foothills, recondite valleys: a small geography. Turn. Their behinds are infantile, made to fit a shooting stick. Backs flare out, opened with the slow, ominous intent of a cobra’s hood. Turn. Odd squares, two by four, begin surfacing: a set of spice drawers in the abdomen. Finale: Fists press together. A fierce blush fills from sternum to forehead. They pant. Huge muscles rise beside the neck; a painful secondary shrug. Applause: Claques shriek support. And I capitulate. There is a mad. outlandish loveliness to it.

Body building has its trial horses. Men past forty. Grey in the sideburns; posing briefs that bag around shrunken nates. One entrant in the Mr. America preliminary had a single major credit: the 1949 Pennsylvania title. A 24 year slump; another line of work might be recommended. One made his entrance with nothing, looked like the hanger Mr. World might have come on. And he wouldn’t leave. Blind, nasty determination on his face, he rummaged for muscles as for loose change. The crowd tried politeness: Maybe this guy’s bedroom mirror was on the fritz. Then impatience; then round booing. The human hanger caught on. Reluctantly. His final pose was a kind of Sicilian gesture, fist in elbow crook. Exit.

At intermission we get old Steve Reeves film footage. Then we get old Steve Reeves. Tall, greying, ambassadorial; he supplies legitimacy and a benediction. Seems bashful, though; I can barely hear him. Could be Reeves has been dubbed and redubbed so often as the Italian Hercules, he has no faith left in his voice. At last, the big attraction: Mr. Universe himself, Frank Zane. Backstage he wears glasses: Evidently there are no isometrics for the retina. Mrs. Zane is pretty. Mirrors at home must be worn to their quicksilvering. Zane travels with his own taped background music. Thunderous Dmitri Tiomkin chords, as if his sinews were a cast of thousands. But Zane is special. He teaches me the art of posing. It distinguishes him from the hunky, crass crowd. Zane’s body seems to lap dissolve: display after display, with an even, lithe grace. It’s beautiful. His muscles choreograph well, a school of small fish facing into new currents, agile and separate, yet with deep herd instincts. The crowd is maddened by it.

Frank Zane, Inc: also a well-developed corporate body. Flyers offer: “The posing brief worn by Frank Zane tonight.” One like it, they mean; unhygienic otherwise. “In white, blue, and black silky double stretch knit selected for its good looks and fit.” Eleven bucks. For twelve, “The new Frank Zane multiple formula tablets in bottles of 180.” Also training courses. “Championship Legs.” “Upper Body.” “Total Body.” “How I Won My Titles,” Number five appeals to me: “Cheating the Quality Physique.” That’s what I want: some short cuts. I ask about number five. Someone changes the h to an r, “Creating the Quality Physique.” I lose interest.

The Mr. World title is decided by a pose-off. Three men going head on. Biceps you could shot-put, Laocoons trapped, straining, in the serpent of their own brawn. The winner is evenly proportioned, along Zane’s lines. Mr. Second Place is so muscular he looks like the Michelin Tire logo. He has trouble lifting a leg onto the pedestal. Mr. World will fly to London for the Mr. Universe competition. Losers will return to a sweaty monasticism. Pullovers and Scott curls; back squats and bench presses; pecs, lats, rectus femoris, and vastus externus; vitamins and wheat germ; ridiculous sleeve sizes. It’s two months from winter. Winter is a bad time for them. Overcoated, you can’t tell a fine quadriceps from two yards of fat. The articulation is gone. They just bulk: mahogany highboys. It’s an insane life. But, hell, nobody kicks sand in their face at the beach.

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D. Keith Mano was a TV screenwriter and author of ten books, including Take 5, recipient of the 1987 Literary Lion award, and columnist at National Review magazine for 17 years.

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