Posted by Susan Doll on January 9, 2017
The theme of this semester’s campus film series that I co-direct with my fellow faculty member and partner-in-crime is “Movies About the Movies.” So, I was excited to discover that The Stunt Man (1980) is currently streaming on FilmStruck. Directed by maverick filmmaker Richard Rush, The Stunt Man stars Steve Railsback as a Vietnam vet on the drift who runs afoul of the law. When he stumbles onto the set of a movie shooting on location, the director takes him on as a stunt man to hide him from the police. A raging egomaniac, the director is played by Peter O’Toole, who brings charm, charisma and a dark streak to the roguish Eli Cross.
I first saw The Stunt Man in Chicago in the fall of 1980 in a preview screening arranged by Twentieth Century Fox. Rush was there to introduce the film and to answer questions afterward. He had spent several months that year previewing the film on his own to prove to potential distributors that it would draw audiences. He had been to Seattle, Phoenix and Columbus, and he also arranged for test runs in Seattle and Los Angeles. Finally, Fox negotiated a deal after the L.A. run drew good reviews and packed theaters.
That evening in Chicago, Rush regaled the audience with stories of his herculean efforts to get the movie made and distributed. I still have the glossy program that was given to audience members along with a press sheet that recounted the story in full. His association with The Stunt Man began in 1971, when Columbia asked him to take on the project after the success of his counterculture flick Getting Straight (1970). However, when the studio suffered some financial setbacks, they dropped the project. By that time, Rush was hooked and bought the rights to the original book by Paul Brodeur from Columbia. Unfortunately, no studio wanted to produce the film, supposedly because of its “complexities.” The book, which was published in 1970, was heavily steeped in Vietnam issues. As the decade progressed, the war ended and attitudes changed, forcing rewrites of the original script. Rush eventually penned nine versions of the story. Finally, a businessman-turned-producer named Melvin Simon bankrolled the project. Once it was completed, Rush faced distribution problems.
I recall how Rush loved presenting himself as the artist-filmmaker who believed in the intellectual integrity of his project. He believed audiences wanted to be challenged with films, and that the Hollywood suits were narrow-minded philistines uninterested in film as art. That was way back in 1980 when the Hollywood studio execs actually knew what a philistine was; I wonder what Rush thinks today.
Looking back, Rush’s experiences in Hollywood with The Stunt Man reflect the changes that occurred in the industry between 1970 and 1980. The project began during the era known as the Film School Generation when the centralized organizational setup known as the studio system had completely collapsed, but there was no system to replace it. Young directors with their fingers on the pulse of the counterculture stepped in to make box office hits such as Easy Rider (1969), The Graduate (1967), Cool Hand Luke (1967) and Rush’s Getting Straight and Freebie and the Bean (1974). Floundering studio execs began to toss money to any director with a script that might appeal to this new generation. Hence Columbia’s offer to Rush between his two big counterculture films.
By the mid-1970s, runaway schedules and runaway budgets were the norm on some of these projects, which had become more complex or experimental, like Arthur Penn’s Night Moves (1975) or Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie (1971). By the end of the decade, when Apocalypse Now (1979) and Heaven’s Gate (1980) became synonymous with directorial ego and excess, new studio heads saw the financial folly of the decade. Studios reorganized and retooled, taking back the creative control relinquished to the so-called “Movie-School Brats,” like Scorsese, DePalma, Coppola and others. The studios began to seek out directors interested in genre films with major stars and unambiguous, concrete endings. Small wonder that Rush had difficulties getting The Stunt Man made and distributed at the end of the decade. It was truly the end of an era.
In watching the film again after so many years, I was most interested in its Film School era sensibilities. The protagonist is an outsider to society, a Vietnam vet who is troubled and paranoid. His wartime experiences have left him alienated, adrift and with an identity crisis, which is represented by his multiple names in the movie. He replaces a stunt man named Burt who drowned doing a dangerous stunt, so cast and crew call him Burt, though director Eli Cross calls him Lucky. According to the credits, his real name is Cameron, though no one of significance calls him that. The characters engage in that 1960s hedonism in which drink and sex were the currency of the day, and Vietnam hangs like a specter over every scene or discussion of violence. The cast and crew of the film-within-the-film are bona fide bohemians—an alternative to the dull, nine-to-five, two-kids-and-a-station-wagon mainstream lifestyle that numbs minds and stifles creativity. The cast includes a who’s who of actors associated with the 1960s-70s, including Barbara Hershey, Allen Goorwitz (aka Allen Garfield), Alex Rocco, Sharon Ferrell and Adam Roarke. I came of age with this era of filmmaking, which influenced my beliefs and my identity. And, while I find nostalgia for a long-gone era a waste of time, I can’t help but miss the unconventional sensibilities, defiant attitudes and rebellious characters of the Film School Generation.
However, the first time I saw The Stunt Man I was caught up in the movie’s theme of illusion vs. reality. Like Lucky, who stumbles onto the movie set, we discover that everything with movie-making is an illusion. The mangled bodies on the beach after an explosion turn out to be extras covered in blood or buried in the sand; an 80-year-old woman who falls into the ocean is really young Barbara Hershey rehearsing her role; the protagonist with the youthful blond hair is an aging leading man in a wig. This theme is likely the basis for what Rush called “the complexities of the material,” though the film’s position on this weighty issue is vague and lines of dialogue about “the looking glass” and “Wonderland” are trite in retrospect. The continual tricking of the audience is more like gamesmanship than philosophy.
Though Rush may have reached for something that is not quite there, The Stunt Man is definitely worth seeing. The heart of the film is a scene-stealing performance by Peter O’Toole as director Eli Cross (Rush’s pseudonym when he directed exploitation flicks). At the top of his game in 1980, O’Toole manages to make the pseudo-intellectual observations that come out of his mouth believable, even profound. Also, the film’s use of every kind of stunt imaginable should make movie fans long for the days of stunt men—before CGI reduced action-oriented genres to video-game artificiality. To say they don’t make them like this anymore is an understatement.
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