We all have them – movies that “matter”. Really matter. Not just the films that caused us to become fans in the first place, but the examples of rarified cinema that drove us to dig deeper, to turn appreciation into fetishism, to think outside the mainstream box and build a better, more sustainable motion picture aesthetic. Beyond the seminal (Citizen Kane, 2001: A Space Odyssey) and the sentimental (Gone with the Wind, The Maltese Falcon), the rote (Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz) and the rebellious (Easy Rider, Apocalypse Now) lies a myriad honorable mentions – not quite considered classics, but very important to the formation and fulfillment of one’s vision of what the celluloid artform can and could be.
The Stunt Man is a pristine example this premise. Made by Hollywood outsider journeyman Richard Rush (after a couple of decades in exploitation and indies) and offering up quintessential turns from a cast including Peter O’Toole (who had the misfortune of being nominated for Best Actor in the year of Raging Bull), Steve Railsback, and Barbara Hershey, it’s like a backstage melodrama made by members of the Weather Underground. It doesn’t so much want to subvert perception (and audience perspective) as much as rip apart the very boundaries of fact and fiction. In his homage to the surreal life on a film set, Rush did more than expose the sins and scandals of the film business. Instead, he tied in our post-Vietnam/Watergate distrust of authority and counterculture contempt into a brilliant clarion call to increased cynicism and outright revolt.
Our story centers on escaped vet Cameron (Railsback). Hoping to avoid the police, he hides out on a movie set controlled by diabolical director Eli Cross (O’Toole). Previously, our hero had come across a car wreck being filmed on a nearby bridge, and he may have had some involvement in the fatal accident that occurs there. Inside the protective surroundings of the location, he starts to blend in. Soon, Cross offers him a job as the main lead’s stunt man, and Cameron accepts. Adopting the nickname “Lucky” he begins work with the cast and crew while catching the eye of wild child leading lady Nina Franklin (Hershey). As the cops continue to investigate the crash as well as Cameron’s escape, it’s business as usual for the anti-war film Cross is making. Lucky even begins a torrid affair with Nina. On the other hand, he believes that the fiery flamboyant filmmaker may be out to kill him, using his fugitive status as a means of making him do more and more dangerous stunts – including a repeat of the deadly one from the bridge.
The Stunt Man was, and is to this day, sensational. Middle fingers aimed directly at the Establishment – both in tainted Tinseltown and the rest of a pre-Reagan America – are rarely as masterful as this brazen bird flip. Any movie which starts off with a mangy stray dog licking himself and then mutates into a rumination on Man, God, the Devil, the director, and the dumbness of moviegoers can’t be playing fair, and yet Rush (whose entire career led up to this legendary effort) knows exactly what he is doing. This is a movie where nothing is left to chance, where the entire concept from premise to filming and follow-through are carved completely out of a pre-considered bit of inspiration. The script sat around for years, a deal buster for the filmmaker as he flitted around the ’60s and ’70s. But when Freebie and the Bean became a massive hit, Rush could call his own shot – and like any seasoned player, he knocked it right out of the park.
This was a special film for all involved, something the new Blu-ray release (from Severin Films) stresses over and over again. O’Toole believes he has never been – and will never be – better. His interview cements The Stunt Man‘s status as the most special movie in his entire creative canon (and it is quite an accomplished oeuvre). Similarly Railsback and co-star Alex Rocco became friends on the set, and have stayed that way for the last three decades. Even the often elusive Hershey shows up at a commemorative screening to discuss her participation – and pointed praise – for this particular effort. Indeed, the entire package is like a love letter to a forgotten paramour. As Rush recites his credits and Railsback discusses his film “family”, one gets the impression of a movie which is bigger than the already epic sum of its parts. Indeed, this was a life altering moment for all involved.
And why shouldn’t it be. The Stunt Man suggests such transformations. It tricks you into believing it is one thing and then comes along and completely countermands it the next. Like the best of the French New Wave, it has you reconsidering the boundaries of the very language of film. Like the post-modern movement in the ’70s, it’s a more contemporary riff on the otherwise archaic behind the scenes efforts. Just like Bob Fosse did the year before with the genius in-joke All That Jazz, Rush is filtering his years inside the industry to craft a cruel yet concise comment on the phony make believe aspects of movies, and everyday life. While never letting us forget that he works within a special social dynamic, Eli and his gang are also people – complicated, creative people. While they may also symbolize something dark, mysterious, and ethereal, The Stunt Man is still about individuals interacting and invading each other’s psychological space.
It’s the fragments of these interpersonal battles that hold the most weight. Sure, it’s fun to see Rush switch off between Lucky’s work in front of the lens and the often confusing shifts between celluloid magic and truth, but behind the bravado, the message is clear. We are only what we let the world see. We can be anything, do anything, and avoid anything (responsibility, feelings, jail) if we simply step out of the limelight and settle slyly into a world of our own making. For Eli, that’s a film set. For Nina, it’s the kingdom of a wilted flower child. And for Lucky, it’s the antithesis of Cameron, a chance to rewrite the past and become something other than a name in a book and a statistic on a police blotter. On the outside, The Stunt Man looks like nothing more than your typical “show business is insane” kind of insider screed. It’s all the other layers – obvious and inferred – that make it memorable…and matter.