[24 September 2006]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
He was more of a fashion accessory than a celebrity, a chiseled example of Hungarian beefcake perfectly complementing his wife’s over-sexualized cheese. But there was more to Mickey Hargitay than as brawn to Jayne Mansfield’s buxom beauty. While together they may have resembled biology gone baroque, individually, Hargitay and his much more famous bride were athletics and oranges. She was a considered caricature of the era’s leading visage of sensual beauty. Her talent was never measured in performances, but in appearance. For the rest of her tragically short life, Jayne Mansfield would fight against her summarization as a sex object, trying to avoid being championed solely on her chest. For her foreign born husband however, physicality was all he had.
Born into an athletic family (the Hargitay’s frequently preformed as an acrobatic troupe in their native Hungary), bodybuilding was not young Miklos’ first passion. He was a championship ice skater, and skilled at soccer. It wasn’t until he came to America in the 1940s to escape his country’s compulsory military service that he discovered the joys of muscle training and toning. Considered by most to be an odd, even perverted obsession with the human form, there was very little fame, or fortune, in being a muscleman. Yet the minute he discovered the joys of the gym, Hargitay proved he was a natural at the fledging sport and it wasn’t long before he was winning titles long dominated by Americans. In 1955, Hargitay was crowned Mr. Universe, matching the accomplishment of his inspiration and idol, Steve Reeves.
The surrounding recognition finally placed him within the flickering cultural spotlight. The saucy old school actress and nightclub personality Mae West – never one to pass up a well-built body – immediately hired Hargitay to be part of her revue in New York City. Suddenly, the untrained 30 year old was appearing before cosmopolitan crowds, the leering butt of West’s wicked wordplay and entendres. One night, reigning Broadway novelty Jayne Mansfield came to the Latin Quarter club to catch West’s act. The legend goes that, when asked what she was interested in that evening, Mansfield cooed “I’ll have a steak…and that man on the left”. Soon, Hargitay and his newfound heartthrob were inseparable.
They married in 1958. Hargitay went on to take a few small roles in Mansfield’s movies, including the triumphant big screen translation of her Great White Way hit Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? He even got to mimic his inspiration Reeves by portraying the mythic strongman in 1960’s The Loves of Hercules. It wasn’t long though before the novelty of both Hargitay and his honey started wearing off. After his stint hosting a TV exercise program and her string of unsuccessful starring roles, the couple soon found themselves working within the ridiculed realm of exploitation. In 1963, Mansfield bared all for the camera with Promises! Promises!, and 1964 saw Primitive Love, a sort of sex comedy spoof on the Mondo movie craze sweeping cinema.
Like all pairings that seem more aesthetically than interpersonally pleasing, Hargitay and Mansfield grew apart, then divorced. Taking custody of the three kids (including future Emmy winner and Law and Order star Mariska) and attempting to find a place in the unforgiving realm of fame, the more or less lost 41 year old wasn’t prepared for the shocking news of his ex-wife’s gruesome death in 1967. Reduced to performing a puerile, tacky club act overloaded with insinuation and kitsch, Mansfield was traveling between shows when her car was hit, head on, by a semi-tractor trailer truck. Killed almost instantly, the resulting carnage was brutal, becoming a media milestone in the still developing realm of tabloid journalism. The grindhouse gang even utilized the ghastly accident scene photos for an incredibly distasteful “documentary” on the actress entitled The Wild, Wild World of Jayne Mansfield. Of course, a grieving Hargitay and his children were featured in all their devastated sorrow.
Now totally on his own, celebrity wise, Hargitay tried. He played a sadistic figure of vengeance in the Eurotrash classic The Bloody Pit of Horror, and starred in a few low budget Italian genre efforts. Yet by the mid 70s, his uniqueness had all but worn off. Mission: Impossible had given Peter Lupus (another noted bodybuilder) a shot at stardom, and he had proven much more versatile. Besides, another Eastern European was establishing his muscle man credentials on the circuit, and by the time of Hargitay’s final film role in 1973’s Rites, Black Magic and Secret Orgies in the Fourteenth Century, Arnold Schwarzenegger was on his way to his third straight Mr. Olympia title – and future superstardom. By the ‘80s, Hargitay was nothing more than a footnote, a forgotten figure in the life of an equally lapsed “love goddess”. In one of those ironies that only show business can support, a 1980 biopic of Mansfield featured Schwarzenegger as Jayne’s buff better half.
His latter years were not empty. Hargitay had remarried in 1967, and new wife Ellen would be his last life partner, remaining by his side until his death from multiple myeloma at age 80 on 14, September of this year. Hargitay had also been successful in business, and Schwarzenegger often pointed to him as the role model by which he modeled his professional and athletic career. Daughter Mariska slowly built her resume in Hollywood, and now stands as one of TV’s dramatic powerhouses. And thanks to the archival aspect of the new home video revolution, much of his and Mansfield’s dismissed work has enjoyed a kind of kitschy, cornball nostalgia. Yet lost within all this retro revisionism and show business scavenging is a wholly forgotten fact. Hargitay and Mansfield represented the beginnings of the body objectification that the present day pop culture lives by.
Unlike Marilyn Monroe, or the more obvious examples of sexual stardom to come, Jayne Mansfield was a classic cartoon, carnal in only the way an over-inflated dish like she could be. And in the world of corporeal synchronicity, she required a man large enough to fit her copious and unapologetic feminine fertility. Hargitay, all tight skin sculpting and Greek god idolatry, was the perfect personal accompaniment. He was considered male model of machismo - a manlier Steve Reeves, a less militant Jack La Lanne. Better yet, he proved that a few hours in the gym and some minor consideration for the way one looked could and would land you the sex siren straight out of the pages of those newfangled “men’s” magazines. They were the Tommy Lee and Pamela Anderson of the Eisenhower era, the Nick and Jessica of the pre-Camelot crowd. In a world not ready for outright discussions of lust and physical love, Mansfield and Hargitay represented the possibility, and the problems, associated with same.
Sadly, with his passing, Hargitay takes with him the last vestiges of that time. The couple’s infamous ‘Pink Palace’ – a cheesy mansion complete with a heart-shaped swimming pool – has long been raised by the current owner, and the seemingly outrageous physical forms that the couple carried have been usurped by individuals buying completely into the omnipresent plastic surgery concept of personal success. In a time where overweight businessmen accompanied their haggard housefrau wives to the local hot spot for a few potent potables and a little so-called sophisticated entertainment, Mansfield and Hargitay were said ideal’s illustrated Id. Now, they are just forgotten facets of a pre-revolution sexuality.