Retro Review – “The Stunt Man” (1980)

There have been many films made about making movies but few of them seem to be so much in love with the filmmaking process as Richard Rush’s 1980 black comedy The Stunt Man. This is a film that not only goes behind the scenes but shows the audience how the stuff behind the stuff behind the scenes is created. It’s a fascinating film at times, very funny at others and even quite powerful in a few quiet moments. In essence this is a superb film that any true film buff shouldn’t miss and one that any film fan should give a chance.

The film opens with Cameron (Steve Railsback, still best known for playing Manson in television’s Helter Skelter) in a diner playing pinball. From his look he is obviously on the run from the police and soon enough the police come into the diner and put Cameron in handcuffs. He escapes and soon finds himself on a bridge with a car approaching. He gets in only to have the driver rudely remove him. Then it appears the car is going to run him over and Cameron throws a metal spike causing the car to careen off the bridge into the river below. Moments later a helicopter appears with a glaring Peter O’Toole next to the pilot and a man with a camera behind him. Wait. A man with a camera? It turns out the car was part of a movie scene and the driver was a stunt man who has been killed in this accident. This is the first of many pleasurable times that director Rush fools his audience and we are off on a ride where we never know when the next turn or loop is coming.

Cameron wanders on to the set of the movie, a World War I action film, and soon meets up with the egotistical and aptly named film director Eli Cross (Peter O’Toole) who is often Christ-like in his actions. He offers Cameron a chance to save himself by taking the place of the newly deceased stunt man or going to jail. What choice does he have? Before he knows it he is being taught how to take falls without hurting himself and then is jumping from rooftop to rooftop, dodging explosions and falling through plate glass windows. Before long Cameron begins to think Eli may be sadistically toying with him as a cat would to a cornered mouse, with Cameron ending up dead anyway. To the credit of the smart screenplay (by director Rush and Lawrence B. Markus) we are unsure of Eli’s motives for a very long time.

Enter Nina Franklin (Barbara Hershey), the female lead in the movie, who is instantly attracted to Cameron and he to her as well. To his dismay he discovers that Nine and Eli were once lovers so she isn’t one listening to Cameron’s concerns about his life. She is having problems of her own trying to deliver the powerhouse performance Eli is looking for. In one powerfully sadistic and sad scene, Nina’s parents are visiting and have been invited to watch the “dailies,” footage shot the day before. Unfortunately for them that includes a very graphic nude scene featuring their daughter. Eli acts shocked and mortified but never orders the footage to be shut off. Director Rush shows the anguish of the parents in a close-up of their hands tightly gripping one another. We never see their faces because we don’t have to. It’s a powerfully striking moment in a film filled with them.

A short time later they are filming a scene where Nina cannot find that moment to show true emotion in a funeral scene. She blames the fact that her parents are watching. Eli takes her aside and informs her of the “dailies” mishap and within moments she is in tears and Eli quietly orders the cameras to roll thus getting the reaction shot he needed. It’s an amazingly cruel moment but not for one second can you deny that this most likely happens often on a movie set.

Director Richard Rush has created his masterpiece with The Stunt Man. Considering his track record this triumph was somewhat unexpected. He has (to date) only made eight movies in the last forty years – most of them low budget films for Roger Corman. In 1970 he made Getting Straight with Elliot Gould in the story of student politics on a college campus. It was a critical flop but a box office success. His next film was five years later (Rush said the time it took between films was never his choice but the fact that he always had trouble with financing his films), Freebie and the Bean, a buddy/cop comedy with James Caan and Alan Arkin that featured loads of chases and car crashes but slighted itself in the story department. Again the film was a critical bomb but a box office success. His next (and last, to date) film would come twelve years later, the critically panned and box office bomb Color of Night with Bruce Willis.

Here Rush is in total command of a strong screenplay, something he seemed to lack throughout his career. He is consistently pulling the rug out of the feet of the audience but it’s done so skillfully you smile at being fooled, much like when watching a magician handing you your wallet. You smile because you can’t believe you were fooled even though you knew it was coming. When is an 80 year old woman really 30? When is the screams of a seemingly painful injury simply nothing more than an orgasmic shout of relief? How can a woman be in the trunk of a sinking car and on the bridge above at the same time? These are just a few of Rush’s little tricks. There are plenty more.

The film was barely released in 1980 after having sat on the shelf for two years. Rush couldn’t find a distributor for the film. He took the film to some small film festivals where the overwhelming response attracted the attention of 20th Century Fox, who agreed to a very limited release in the fall of 1980. As Peter O’Toole would later say, “The film wasn’t released. It escaped.” Reviews were mixed and the film flopped. End of story. Then the Academy Award nominations came out and the film received nominations for Best Actor for O’Toole and Rush received nominations for Best Director and Best Screenplay. The film didn’t win any awards but it opened the eyes of some people who gave the film a chance on a re-release in early 1981 in a double feature (remember them?) with the critically acclaimed but now forgotten The Idolmaker.

In the end The Stunt Man is a dark slice of life comedy that explores a world most of us aren’t privy to. The film is grandiose in its presentation but isn’t the world the film depicts rather grandiose? I would bet the ranch the film is based more on fact than fiction.

The performances are universally fine. This is O’Toole’s movie but Railsback is more than able to hold his own against the renowned actor. Two other fine performances I want to make note of are Alex Rocco (best known as Moe Green, the man who gets shot in the eye in The Godfather) as the local sheriff who knows Eli Cross is always putting one over on him but every time he gains a step on Eli he fails to believe he is still a step behind. Also good is veteran character actor Allen Garfield as the tormented screenwriter of the film. All he wants is for something that he has written to be filmed as is and given credit for it. It’s this kind of realism in all of the characters, major or minor, that makes this a special film. And let’s not forget the fine musical score by Dominick Frontiere. His main theme almost sounds like something you would hear at a circus.

How fitting.