Last year he gambled that he could broaden his demographics by combining the audience for his thrillers with the audience for his comedies (Twins, Kindergarten Cop) and released Last Action Hero, nominally aimed at children. The response was devastating - 'a movie reeking of tunnel vision, insularity, smugness, cynicism and virulent, self-serving commercialism', according to one of the friendlier reviews - and Columbia Pictures suffered a record loss of dollars 124,053,994. It was his first flop and like everything else about him, it was big.
Undeterred, this year's attempt to update is a romantic comedy-cum-spy epic entitled True Lies, which opened this week. It cost almost as much as Last Action Hero lost and is already slowing down at the US box office: dollars 85,168,601 in three weeks. Its chances of delivering major profits are dim. Worse, neither fans nor foes are happy with Schwarzenegger hedging his bets between kiss-kiss and bang- bang. Watching Arnie make sheep- eyes at Jamie Lee Curtis, the Modern Review's editor, Toby Young, wonders: 'Why does he bother? Why doesn't he just stick to killing terrorists?' Yet the bloodshed is what continues to upset the American movie critic Michael Medved, who wonders if the Ubermensch icon isn't just a fading phenomenon of the take-no-prisoners Eighties.
Schwarzenegger must be wondering the same thing, too. Despite his best efforts, the hit of the season belongs not to him but to Tom Hanks's Forrest Gump. Audiences prefer Hanks's idiot savant to Schwarzenegger's swaggering agent, regardless of Arnie's strategic impersonation of a suburban computer salesman with marital problems. The conundrum appears insoluble - how can Arnold Schwarzenegger be 'life-like' when his size, ego and asking price are all infinitely larger-than-life?
Still, it wouldn't do to dismiss him as last decade's thing just yet, even if that techno-obsessed decade did seem peculiarly suited to his indestructible man-machine persona; wasn't his android assassin in The Terminator cinema's number one example of typecasting? Reinvention, change, transformation and a will to win whatever the cost: these are the constants in Schwarzenegger's life.
Anyway, that's how the myth goes. Here's this skinny boy with fallen shoulders and a shrunken chest who imagines a life beyond rural existence in Thal, Austria. Body-building is to be his ticket to America - and Hollywood. At the age of 15 he frightens his doting parents - the policeman Gustav and his housekeeper wife, Aurelia - by dropping soccer for weightlifting. He pumps iron till he's sick (literally) or passes out, yet his obsession is so overwhelming that he breaks into gyms so he can exercise seven days a week. He hits 270lbs and the European titles accumulate, and then, in 1968, the American; seven times Mr Olympia, five times Mr Universe, once Mr World.
It's upward from here - the documentary Pumping Iron introduces his spoofy preening and posturing to the world outside muscle competitions. He makes no-budget trash like Hercules in New York, gains respect for Bob Rafaelson's cult classic Stay Hungry, co-stars in the comedy western Cactus Jack, does television (The Jayne Mansfield Story). Then the stay-greedy Eighties arrive. It's Arnie's era: a time of makeover and takeover and keep- fit. Welcome Conan the unstoppable, the world's number one star. America loves him.
When he marries JFK's niece, the television personality Maria Shriver, Democrats even forgive him for being a Republican. After all, it's the perfect match - if any clan could understand the billion dollar man's compulsive competitiveness and need for the limelight, it's the Kennedys. And who cares if he is a foreigner, because he's also the Dream made bulging flesh. As Vitaly Korotich, the editor of the Soviet magazine Ogonyok, remarks: 'Europeans see America as clever and important, but Americans see themselves as muscular and big - as Arnold Schwarzenegger.'
That's the officially approved version. The alternative take is altogether darker and more Freudian. Wendy Leigh's unauthorised biography, Arnold, claims that he took to body- building in self-defence against his father, a vicious, authoritarian drunk and ex-Nazi Party member who took sadistic delight in scaring his second son till he wet his pants: 'Gustav has striven always to diminish Arnold. Now Arnold retaliated by expanding himself. Literally.' Well, second sons do try harder.
Mark Simpson, author of Male Impersonators, sees Leigh's point but argues differently. He suggests that by embracing the punishment and 'discipline' of body-building, Schwarzenegger in a sense freed himself and became the Dominator. Which may be so.
Leigh painstakingly portrays a control freak unable to abide weakness or dissent in any form. Schwarzenegger does react badly to criticism. As early as his fantastical warrior in Conan the Barbarian, photographers would be reprimanded if his picture was unflattering. The chat-show giant Johnny Carson was told to introduce him as 'an award-winning actor - not a body builder'. Michael Medved recalls how a publicist claiming to be speaking for Schwarzenegger reacted to a bad notice: 'Arnold saw your stinking review and he's mad as hell. He wants you to know that he thinks you're a pansy and a wimp and a jerk, and he's a smart, educated guy who speaks English better than you do. One day he's going to be the biggest star in Hollywood but you aren't going to be worth shit]'
The reporter Jessica Berens remembers meeting him to talk about his business ventures - real estate, gyms, exercise videos, Planet Hollywood - and being told, before the interview began: 'Now pay attention to this. If I press this button here it means a question is boring. If I press the button here it means you have asked a very exciting and creative question.' If it was a sample of the star's famed Teutonic humour, Berens wasn't amused.
Yet one hardly blames him. Image is all-important to stars, and to this star more than most. If he is touchy it could be because he began as something of a joke. 'A condom full of walnuts,' said Clive James, famously. The line haunts Schwarzenegger, no matter how many Chagalls, Miros and Picassos he collects, a reminder of when he flexed his muscles for a living and people laughed when he talked, not merely because of an almost impenetrable accent that 20 years of elocution lessons had done little to lighten, but because he was a body-builder and who thought a dumb body-builder could talk? So, unlike others, he will go after the press if he feels wronged, as the News of the World and the Sunday Mirror know to their cost. They had to pay undisclosed libel damages for claiming that he held fervent anti-Semitic views and had participated in a naked photo-shoot for a gay magazine.
Yet if he demands to be taken seriously, his shrewd triumph is to have transformed himself into a joke that everyone could share. Taken full-frontal, his strength would be frightening (not to mention sexually menacing), so the imposing edifice is built on self- mockery and a battery of user-friendly catchphrases: 'I'll be back'/'You sure are one ugly motherfucker'/'Consider this a divorce'/'Hasta la vista, baby'. His charm makes him his own best parodist and, until recently, magically discounted his many, many contradictions: an Austrian who is as American as apple pie, an idol who made his unnaturalness appear wholesome, a supporter of feminism who insists his wife does not wear slacks in public. . . As an anonymous actor gasps: 'You've gotta hand it to this guy. He makes movies that are gratuitously violent, shallow, one-dimensional and politically incorrect. Then he goes on every television show and disarms criticism by talking about changing his new baby's diapers. In the area of manipulating the public, this guy has no peer.'
Until now. It's possible that the mellowing effect of three daughters ('the Graces') will manage to accomplish what a host of aliens, hitmen and shape-shifting robots could not: kill Schwarzenegger off. Fatherhood has made him 'see things in a much more sensitive way' and sensitivity and Schwarzenegger are proving an indigestible mix. Meanwhile, younger rivals such as Jean-Claude Van Damme are snapping at his heels, and the studios are looking at the numbers on True Lies and wondering if Arnie is past his peak, like those other cartoon characters Eddie Murphy and Sylvester Stallone.
Of course, should he fall from favour, he could do what another has- been actor did and make that stab at politics he is always talking about. As his friends keep telling him, the governorship of California is his for the taking. The logic is inescapable: who would dare say no to the Terminator?