TV talkshow host Jay Leno is one of the most overrated comedians in the US so, when he asked his studio audience last week to "please welcome, the next governor of the great state of California ... Arnold Schwarzenegger," it was tempting to believe this was another bad joke. In fact the worst Leno could be accused of was allowing personal feelings to color his political punditry. Schwarzenegger, Leno's friend and fellow Republican Party supporter, is not the "next governor" of the richest, most populous, most powerful state in the Union. Not yet.
A peculiarly Californian drama will play out over the next five months while voters decide whether to get rid of Governor Gray Davis. Peculiar in that Davis was only re-elected to office last November peculiar in that the state's electorate has the legal right -- it's called a "recall" -- to dump any politician who is is deemed to be guilty of an "egregious act." (In effect, all election results in California can be thrown out at a time of the voters' choosing.)
Davis, a bland Democrat with roughly the same star power as a Schwarzenegger toenail, is accused of plunging the state into a US$38 billion budget crisis. If, as seems increasingly likely, he is forced from office then a fresh gubernatorial election will be held in November. The list of aspiring, plausible Republican candidates grows daily but in newspapers, on talk shows, and especially, in the nightmares of the Democratic Party, there is one name that keeps on coming back like a -- well, like a Terminator.
Naturally, the actor's supporters point out the same was said of Ronald Reagan before he was elected governor of California. For his part, Schwarzenegger has hinted he might one day run for elective office but for now seems happy to let the speculation run amok.
"I just want to talk about the movie," he said when Leno asked him directly if he coveted Davis' job.
The movie is called Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. Yet while he has tried desperately to keep the conversation focused on its special effects and the beauty of co-star Claire Danes, his interrogators had other ideas.
Schwarzenegger's story has an uplifting, aspirational theme that appeals to American voters. The son of Austrian policeman, he moved to New York in the early 1970s to further his career as a body- builder, winning six Mr. Olympia contests. In between times, he put himself through business school, invested in real estate and parlayed his obsession with fitness into a profitable video and book sales business.
Indeed, he might have remained a businessman but for the success of the 1977 documentary Pumping Iron, which turned him into a minor celebrity and planted the seed of his Hollywood ambitions. But it wasn't until he was offered a 74-word part in an obscure sci-fi film that he finally became a star. The first Terminator film was released in 1984. The next decade was golden.
T3 is the third in the series of high-action, high-budget, high-body count tales of a time-traveling, monosyllabic robot's effort to save John Connor, himself the savior of the human race. Released in the US to meet the July 4 holiday market, the film cost US$170 million (US$30 million of it the star's salary) and -- if the pre-release trailer is anything to go by -- ploughs the same mindlessly entertaining field as Terminator 1 and 2. Less predictable than the plot, however, is how Terminator 3 will fare at the box office.