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It has been eight years since Pumping Iron, a film documentary by George Butler, introduced Arnold Schwarzenegger to a world that had paid only scant attention to bodybuilders since that beach bully kicked sand in the face of a scrawny Charles Atlas.

Butler returns now with Pumping Iron II: The Women, and while most people of both genders will find the exceptionally muscular women grotesque, the documentary itself is engaging and intriguing—and only the insensitive person will end up not rooting for the most grotesque and unnatural of the contestants.

The Women is a much more absorbing story than the original one, in which Schwarzenegger's ruling personality had more sovereignty over the film than did his glistening body. Both Pumping Irons build to world-championship showdowns, but in The Women there is more plot and less biography. Indeed, it can be said without exaggeration that Butler has filmed a far superior picture from a true story than most moviemakers do from fiction. Why, it's hard to believe that such a bunch of bumbling judges could possibly exist, and, get this, one of the main characters, Lori Bowen, is in love with a male go-go dancer. She wants to win the bodybuilding championship so she can get her hero out of his G-string and take him away from all that.

Apart from the simple suspense that goes with the winning of the championship, there is a larger principle to be confronted and resolved, one that speaks to the very essence of women's bodybuilding: Should women compete under the same rules as men? Or should "femininity" be commingled with muscularity to produce some sort of composite ideal? In one fascinating—and, to be honest, teasing—sequence, Butler shows several of the competitors in a locker-room shower and lets the camera dart about from biceps to deltoid, cleverly avoiding all the erogenous parts. Is this the centerfold of the future?

Most of the bodybuilding hierarchy and a majority of the contestants fear for their sport's image if muscles are to be the only criterion. In the film, the senior judges try to force the broader view on the others, causing one of the junior judges to respond that penalizing anyone for being too muscular in a bodybuilding competition is akin to a ski coach telling his team not to ski too fast. A male bodybuilder, who favors the same standards for women's judging as for men's, moans, "What are they trying to do, turn this into Miss America?"

Ironically, he is speaking even more truth than he realizes, for Miss America has always had the same sort of conflict: Do you simply pick the prettiest girl and be done with it, or do you consider other factors, such as personality and talent? In both cases, whether curves or muscles, the issue is complicated. Consensus femininity is ever elusive, and invariably, for both sexes, in the eye of the beholder.

I remember when I judged Miss America, a woman expert advised me, "Honey, what it comes down to is that the female judges vote for somebody they'd most like to look like, and the male judges vote for someone they'd most like to sleep with." And, frankly, very much the same sort of base emotions seem to be revealed by bodybuilding judges.

The pivotal player in Pumping Iron II is Bev Francis, an Australian and a former weightlifter, a charming lady inside an altogether manly scaffold. Her main competitors, more traditionally shaped, include, first: Rachel McLish, a veritable hullabaloo of contradictions—she's a Bible-quoting, born-again Christian who flirts shamelessly with the loose-eyed male judges, and is not above trying to pad her top a bit. Then there are Carla Dunlap, a black pseudo-intellectual, and Bowen, whom you may recognize as the woman in the Lite Beer commercial who lifts Rodney Dangerfield.

As the emcee of the championships, George Plimpton is befuddled by the bizarre goings-on; he appears to be the victim of someone else's April Fools' Day prank.

Ah, but George Butler is the real star. In a Hollywood world full of docudramas, where even the truth is false, it's nice to see that an American-based auteur can succeed so impressively with unadulterated European cinema verité. It's time for Butler to venture beyond the grunting and the greased muscles, but, certainly, the two Pumping Irons are the beginning of a superb body of work.