Times Film Critic

You can almost feel the awe with which film maker George Butler contemplates the athletes of "Pumping Iron II: The Women" (at Los Angeles' Gordon Theater). And they are an awesome sight, muscled like racehorses; tanned--by the grace of God, Man Tan or those tanning coffins--to the subcutaneous layer, and able to break the likes of you or me over their knees like pickup sticks.

But even these, one of whom holds a mental picture of Wonder Woman as she steps out to compete, pale beside Bev Francis, Melbourne's gift to the sport. Francis, who before our eyes goes from a 181-pound power lifter to a 145-pound body-builder for her first competition, may be the image of the woman of the future.

Or she may not. At the heart of Butler's extremely entertaining film there lurks a serious question: What is femininity? And who can recognize it?

Certainly not the dithering judges of this World Cup Championship competition, which was held in Las Vegas' own Caesars Palace in 1983. If ever an event and its setting were matched exquisitely. . . . If this were a dog judging, you wouldn't be too sure this group could spot the Scotties from the Afghans. In wild disagreement over "feminine" guidelines, the judges lose their calculators, doze during the competition and add a sense of surreal silliness to this glimpse of a sport that is, for many people, already pretty well into the ozone to begin with.

The film only hints at what propelled most of these women into body-building. Bev Francis says, in nice understatement, that she always felt she was a little different from other people, and always loved the look of muscles--on animals, on men and on women. She simply wants to knock people's socks off with her vision of what a woman's muscles could become.

(If you remember Babe Didrikson Zaharias and then add a self-deprecating charm, a wicked sense of satire and a whole lot more developed muscles, you begin to get a faint idea of Bev Francis.)

Butler, with cinematographer Dyanna Taylor (who photographed the women's Annapurna expedition), picks three more women to profile, in slightly more depth than the other contestants: Carla Dunlap, Rachel McLish and Lori Bowen, who can currently be seen picking up Rodney Dangerfield in a beer commercial.

There is the strong sense that Butler has chosen these possible finalists with the care you'd use in a scripted film: He has a newcomer (Bowen); a bright, articulate spokeswoman (Dunlap); a self-centered beauty who might have walked straight off (or possibly through) the set of "Dynasty" (McLish), and Francis, who becomes for this film what Arnold Schwarzenegger was for Butler's earlier "Pumping Iron"--an awesome, jaw-dropping spectacle who walks away with the movie.

In spite of occasional awkwardnesses in the presence of a camera, and a few conversations that you doubt ever got started (Bev Francis to Carla Dunlap: "So, Carla, what do you honestly think of my chances in the competition?" Lori Bowen to Rachel McLish in the tanning crypt: "I feel kinda awkward talking to you like this. . . ."), the film moves like greased (oops) lightning toward the competition itself.

And it contains those moments you pray for but could never stage, even in the most guided of documentaries, such as the unctuous voice of the backstage usher leading probably the most physically adept 20 people he will ever see in his life, saying, "Follow me, girls, please be careful, please do not trip."

Femininity, the judges never do get straight. Banality, they've got a hammerlock on.

There is a nice rhythm to the sequences of the women training (Paul Barnes and Susan Crutcher were the editors), and again, you feel the film maker's genuine admiration for his subjects. In the hands of anyone less sympathetic, this footage could have been cruel or mocking, and there isn't the tiniest hint of that here.

You might wince at the songs under the credits ("Fuuuuuture Sex"), or at a few of the heavy-handed visual metaphors, like the whirring dynamos of HooverDam, equated to the strength of the women gathering for the competition.

But the film is both marvelous fun and, in the person of Francis herself, a lesson in how shortsighted it is to judge by appearances. Bev Francis is the pussycat of the piece, a charmer who may steal audience's hearts as clearly as she has taken Butler's.

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