What I remember:
This was a well-reviewed movie that came out near the end of the era of Big Studios dabbling in Independent filmmaking. The Evans effect, as I call it, was wearing off. Studios were now starting to doubt the stylized film as a money maker, and Reaganomics was about to take over the business minds of America. Basically a very dark time in our country’s history, signaling a very dark time in the arts.
“The Stunt Man” was a late shining beacon, a last bastion of creative ingenuity coupled with great action, humor and pathos. Virtual unknown Steve Railsback was cast in the title role, with the main co-leads being the ever frenetic Peter O’Toole and the ever alluring Barbara Hershey (alluring, that is, until “Black Swan”---boy did THAT movie destroy a sexual icon for me!).
I saw this one in the cinema, and was completely into it from the opening sequence. The really effective part was that you are never sure if Cameron (Railsback) is in trouble or not. It always seems like the Director, Eli Cross (O’Toole) is out to get him, or that he doesn’t really care as much about the sanctity of life when compared to the importance of his movie. There is also a God as Director or Director as God thread that is constantly amusing and confusing. The fact that his name is “Cross” was not lost on me.
I always enjoy a film that keeps me guessing about whether we are watching something that is real or imagined, especially when it’s the characters AND the audience that are unsure of this. That is the case with “The Stunt Man”, you and Cameron are never really in control. We spend the entire film hanging on for dear life, and it’s about as much fun as you can have at the movies.
"Do you not know that King Kong the first was just three foot six inches tall? He only came up to Faye Wray's belly button! If God could do the tricks that we can do he'd be a happy man!"—Eli Cross
Vietnam veteran Cameron (Steve Railsback) is running from the police when he stumbles onto the set of a rather large WWI film. He nearly gets run over by a stunt man in a Dusenberg, and in the process seems to cause the car to go off a bridge and into the water. It turns out that Bert, the stunt man in the car drowns, and Cameron is enlisted by the film’s director, Eli Cross (Peter O’Toole) to cover-up for the fatality by posing as Bert. This serves the double purpose of misdirecting the police from busting both of them. Cameron learns to do stunts, some of them quite dangerous. All the while he wonders if Eli is actually insane, and trying to kill another stunt man, namely Cameron, all in pursuit of the most realistic action.
Ella Fitzgerald scats a few notes, hits a high G, and a glass shatters in the adjacent studio. The ‘70’s TV ad then asks “Is it live, or is it Memorex”. For you young’uns, Memorex was a brand of cassette tape (oh GOD please don’t make me explain THAT), back in the days when a decent quality of tape made the difference between music sounding like it was recorded in a toilet or music sounding like it was drowning in a tub. Let’s just say that there are a lot of reasons why digitally compressed mp3’s sound pretty damn good to me. In any case, the ad’s point was, their tape was so good at reproducing sound that a high note that could break crystal live, could also do it after having been recorded on Memorex tape. Never mind that they probably had the tape playing at 2 million decibels, and that at that volume Ella’s high note could have broken the windshield on a Hummer.
Why do I bring up this little tidbit of forgotten trivia? You see, that’s the underlying current of “The Stunt Man”, probably the most reverent AND irreverent movie about the movies. Is it live? Is this really happening? Is our hero really dancing the Charleston on the wing of a Sopwith Camel at 1,000 feet? Is he really falling off the roof of a hotel and through a skylight into a brothel?
Or, is it Memorex? I mean, did the entire action sequence happen as an elaborate “gag” for the picture? Is the director of this movie so hell-bent on fooling around with his cast, that he will orchestrate the most complicated shenanigans just to get the most out of his cast and crew? My understanding about filmmaking is that most directors spend the film hanging on for dear life, and praying that their vision comes through unscathed by the vicissitudes of neurotic cast members, strange weather happenings, technical disasters and egomaniacal studio executives. It seems a tad ridiculous that he would have time to do all these extra machinations.
Thematically, there’s just not a whole lot going on here, other than the very obvious idea that it’s all make-believe in the moving pictures, dahling. There is a bit of moralizing on behalf of our Vietnam Vets, particularly when Cameron tells Nina (Barbara Hershey) of how he got into trouble with the cops. There’s no question that he’s a good guy, albeit not the sharpest knife in the kitchen. You are never led to believe that perhaps he might be a bloodthirsty killer who is really taking advantage of the situation. Cameron is definitely a hero, and the juxtaposition of his low-brow street smarts with Eli’s erudition makes for much of the fun and conflict in “The Stunt Man”.
I was right in my memory of the allegorical spin; Eli Cross--director, God. Cameron/Lucky-- everyman, stunt man, lovable loser. It’s a bit like the story of Job, except, this God is having much more fun with his whipping boy. God is also allowing his whipping boy to get his own kicks thanks to an affair with the comely leading lady, and some cash for his gags.
Profundity is not what “The Stunt Man” offers. What you get instead is a great amusement park ride with a lot of twists and turns, and some profoundly clever film styling to make it all the more memorable.
The opening sequence informs the audience immediately that this is no slapdash action/comedy thrown together without care. Nope, it’s as intricately laid out and complex as a Rube Goldberg contraption. Everything connects until finally you see the police enter a luncheonette wherein our hero is finishing a sandwich. It’s always fun trying to figure out where Director Richard Rush will spin you next, as he guides you through his carnival maze.
The look of the film is very much ‘70’s soft focus, and there are lots of candid shots of regular folks who look like regular folks, not unlike Michael Ritchie would do in a film like “Smile” or “Bad News Bears”. Strangely, only one scene, the beach attack, is shot so the public can witness. Everything else in our unnamed film within a film is closed set.
Rush has Eli constantly swooping in on people, especially Cameron. He seems to be constantly lurking somewhere and pops in and out of scenes like Endora (Agnes Moorhead) in TV’s “Bewitched”. You get the idea that he is in complete command, no matter how much he denies it. This is why you question if he really was responsible for Bert’s death.
Rush claims he was the inventor of the “rack focus” shot. This may or may not be true, but it is obvious that he can be expert at camera and editing hijinks. When Eli and Cameron first meet at the beach shoot, Rush uses a circle tracking shot wherein you can’t tell who is circling what. The camera tracks around, Eli moves counter to the camera motion, Cameron keeps his distance from Eli. It’s balletic, and must have taken hours to block. “The Stunt Man”, it’s said, took 9 years to get made, and at times it feels like 8 of those years were spent concocting the difficult setups, gags and designs of the film.
Just a few other fine filmic moments:
1) The Hitchcockian cut from Cameron yelling upon finishing a dangerous gag cuts to his scream during an orgasm as he makes love to Nina.
2) In the garage, as Cameron realizes he can just drive away in the Dusenberg rather than do the perilous stunt, Nina’s smiling face comes into the frame reflected by the car’s windows. It is a hall of mirrors moment, similar to the end of Welles’ “Lady From Shanghai”.
3) As his car sinks into the river, Cameron, frightened that Nina is in the trunk and will drown, sees Eli and Nina on the bridge just before he goes under.
Other efforts by Rush pale in comparison to this amazing piece. He also made the early ‘70’s counterculture anthem “Getting Straight”, which played at being a serious spin on the Kent State tragedy and other campus protests. “Getting Straight” was a mess when it was released, and has been subsequently forgotten. His attempt at a buddy movie, “Freebie and the Bean” was another misfire. Only “The Stunt Man” was a critical success. Generally when this happens, you must conclude that you are dealing with a lesser talent that just got lucky. But this is truly a case wherein luck was the residue of design, and “The Stunt Man” is designed like a great Italian sports car.
Steve Railsback seems an odd choice for so prominent a role against such heavyweights as O’Toole and Hershey. Yet in a way he is perfect as the kind of good looking but lower class shlub, who really only has his youth and survival instinct to counter the predicament in which he finds himself. At times he is so natural, it is hard to think of him as acting, and he comes across as some guy they found and threw into the leading role. We know he had range, since he played Charles Manson in that lovely biopic “Helter Skelter”.
The other two leads, are nicely played by our well known stars. Peter O’Toole is typically the persona we all know; slightly effeminate, very erudite, charismatic, brilliantly funny, staggeringly British. He yells and laughs his way through the part of Eli Cross like he was born to play it. One of my favorite scenes comes when he is trying to elicit “shame” from Nina. He lets it drop in an obviously planned way that her parents (visiting the set on her birthday) were allowed to see rushes from the movie, and one of those scenes had her bare-assed naked in bed with the movie’s lead. You can see how upset she gets when she finds this out, and Eli simply goes, “Now….shame.”
As for Barbara Hershey, well, in this era she could be changing a tire dressed in a burlap sack, and I’d still love her. The first time we see her, she is in full old lady make-up, and succeeds in talking to the cast and crew without being recognized. She subsequently falls into the ocean, and Cameron rescues her. She begins tearing off her prostheses, revealing the beauty we all know and love. It is a great moment, and it amplifies her attractiveness. She has other fine moments, particularly a scene when you realize what a self-centered actress she is, and how intrinsic to this kind of person egotism can be. As I said in my piece about “In A Lonely Place”, it always helps when you are portraying something you know well.
Also worth mentioning is the performance by Alan Goorwitz (nee Garfield) who we all know from his great supporting turns in “The Conversation”, “The Candidate” and other classics. He is perfectly cast as Sam, the screenwriter. He is at times Eli’s conscience, at other times simply the voice of reason, and at other times the typical Hollywood lifer who would sell his firstborn for an option. I’m a fan, and always have been. Nobody delivers comedy or pathos as perfectly as Alan.
There are no stinkers in the cast, even Alex Rocco as the local police chief does the job very believably, even though it’s not a well-written part.
ON SECOND LOOK
It’s definitely not “The Tree of Life” in about every way possible. It isn’t very weighty. It isn’t slow and labored either. “The Stunt Man” accomplishes beautifully what it sets out to do: It shows the movie making process as a series of believable lies and tricks, and helps us to understand just how much energy, hardship and sheer elbow grease must go into making a good film. All the time, it is a fun joyride that keeps the audience constantly on their toes, with lots of eye candy on the icing.
1st Look- ★★★★ 2nd Look-★★★ 1/2