Today’s cinema adventure: The Stunt Man, the 1980 feature by director Richard Rush about a runaway fugitive who stumbles into the middle of a film shoot and finds cover working as a stunt man, only to realize that the movie’s megalomaniacal director may be planning to kill him for the sake of filming the ultimate stunt. A difficult film to place within a genre, it was shot in 1978 and ended up shelved for two years by a studio that didn’t know how to advertise it; when it finally hit the screen it was only given a limited release, and it was largely overlooked by the public. Nevertheless, it garnered considerable praise from critics and managed to earn several Academy Award nominations, including one for its star- and its main appeal, then and now- Peter O’Toole, whose performance represented something of a comeback in his storied career.
Adapted by Rush and Lawrence B. Marcus from a novel by Paul Brodeur, The Stunt Man follows a young Vietnam War veteran who is running from the law, having committed an unspecified crime after returning from his tour of duty. With officers in hot pursuit, he runs into the middle of a film shoot, inadvertently disrupting a dangerous automobile stunt in which the driver is accidentally killed. With a sudden new opening for a replacement and only a few days to finish his ambitious anti-war epic, the movie’s director, Eli Cross, takes the young outlaw under his wing, offering him a safe haven and a new identity- in exchange for completing the aborted stunt himself. As he prepares for the big moment, learning the tricks of the trade and attempting to bond with the gregarious crew of movie-making gypsies that have taken him into their fold, he begins to suspect the flamboyant and mercurial Cross, who is obsessed with realism, of plotting to orchestrate his death in order to capture it on film. Things are further complicated when he finds himself in a blossoming romance with the film’s leading lady, heightening his dilemma over whether to flee back into a permanent life on the run or stay and risk his own untimely demise.
If the premise seems a bit gimmicky, it is; The Stunt Man offers a highly improbable premise, riddled with plot holes and unlikely conceits. This, however, is part of the sense of wicked fun that permeates the movie. Rush and Marcus never take the pseudo-thriller plot too seriously; although they give an appropriate amount of weight to the psychological conflicts of its hero, they make certain that the overall tone is decidedly comic, flavored with cynical irony and self-satire, and they derive a great deal of nudging humor from the tricks they work on their audience. Within its far-fetched scenario, The Stunt Man plays with our expectations and our preconceived assumptions in order to keep us off balance, establishing its young protagonist as our access point into its smoke-and-mirrors world and ensuring that we, like him, are constantly betrayed by appearances; this is, after all, a movie about making movies, and in keeping with its subject, nothing is what it seems. At every turn, we are presented with illusions- many of them clearly established as such- and then find ourselves surprised when the truth behind them is revealed. The film shrewdly manipulates our willing suspension of disbelief, understanding that we want to buy into its various cons, and exploiting our natural inclination to believe what we see. Rush spends most of his movie exploring examples of the conflict between truth and illusion, from the oft-repeated assertion that King Kong was only 3′ 6″ to the extended sequence of WWI carnage enacted in front of a throng of horrified spectators at the beach, making for a highly amusing display of magic in which the tricks being performed mirror the tricks being played on us by the magician behind the camera.
Of course, this idea of illusion vs. reality, which fits so perfectly into the metaphoric possibilities of a self-reflexive movie about movies, is nothing new; it has been highlighted in works ranging from Fellini’s 8 1/2 to Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder, providing fodder for low comedy to high tragedy and everything in between. The Stunt Man, however, ties it to another theme, perhaps more immediately relevant to the lives of everyday civilians not lucky enough to be working in the film industry- namely, the difficulty of trust in a culture full of deliberate lies and manipulation. Our hapless hero, ironically dubbed “Lucky” by his newfound protector (or, perhaps, persecutor), is full of paranoia and mistrust, the result of buying into a much bigger and more insidious con game than any cinematic sleight-of-hand perpetrated by Eli Cross and his crew; he has been cheated by a system that sent him to war on the promise of making him a hero and now treats him as a pariah, and had his hopes for a happy future shattered by faithless friends and lovers. When the nature of his crime is revealed, we discover it was an act of anger and frustration over the raw deal into which he has been suckered- like so many of his generation. Is it any wonder, then, that when he is offered a new lease on life by a representative of the dream factory, a man who blatantly and unabashedly manipulates truth and illusion in order to achieve his ends, he is wary of being suckered once again? This is the central conflict of The Stunt Man; in a world devoted to illusion and deceit, where pretty lies often disguise ugly truths and trust is only a lure by which the foolish are led like lambs to the slaughter, the only hope of self-preservation is to doubt everything and everyone around you. As Eli Cross puts it, late in the film, “Paranoia is a social disease; it’s got by screwing your fellow man.” Whether he offers a cure or euthanasia is the primary question of The Stunt Man, and I wouldn’t dream of answering it here. Suffice to say that the course of treatment has a few twists and turns.
Rush guides his film with bravura flair, capitalizing on his rare opportunity to both celebrate and send up the conventions of movie-making. Infusing it with a certain tongue-in-cheek aura of self-awareness, he nevertheless dives headlong into the numerous opportunities for old-fashioned movie spectacle, with the added layer of showing us the spectacle behind the spectacle; he gives us a delight akin to seeing a magician reveal his secrets, only to discover the revelation itself is part of the trick. He also takes advantage of the film-within-a-film milieu to capture a sense of bygone Hollywood glamour in the midst of the nuts-and-bolts candor of the contemporary setting, aided considerably by the extensive use of the historic Coronado del Rey Hotel, which serves as a location for much of the film; and though his film is primarily focused on psychological concerns, he fills it with action, not just within the framework of the “meta-movie” but expanding it outward into the surrounding real environment of the film as well. The result is a movie that takes its time to get to its point but maintains the feeling of a brisk pace, enhanced by all the inherent details of its film-shoot backdrop, and keeps us engaged in its game of interchanging fact and fiction right up to the final playful moment.
The Stunt Man benefits from Mario Tosi’s cinematography, with its exploration of various qualities of light, both natural and staged; and the rousing score by Dominic Frontiere conjures the circus atmosphere of the movie-making world with a bravado that matches that of its director (the one onscreen, that is), and even includes a haunting vocal tune, “Bits and Pieces,” co-written by veteran songsmith Norman Gimbel and performed by the iconic Dusty Springfield. As for the cast, a fine ensemble of likeable faces clearly enjoys itself with the material. The titlular hero is played by Steve Railsback (whose careeer was mostly defined by his portrayal of Charles Manson in the TV film of Helter Skelter), who lets us see the vulnerable little boy inside even as he pulls off the hard-edged toughness he uses as a protective mask, and conveys the impression of a young man walking around in a state of prolonged shell-shock- which, of course, is not far from the truth. The beautiful Barbara Hershey is highly effective as the leading lady (of both the film and the film within it), marvelously embodying the multi-layered quality of an utterly contemporary woman; she is sensual, independent, confident and full of a zest for her life and her work, but she also reveals the insecure little girl underneath the worldly actress- and, most importantly, she manages to find the balance between candor and mystery that keeps us from really knowing the sincerity of her feelings for “Lucky.” Alex Rocco is memorable as an exasperated local lawman, as are Allen Goorwitz, Chuck Bail, Adam Roarke, and Sharon Farrell as various members of the film’s cast and crew; but, without question, The Stunt Man belongs to its star, Peter O’Toole.
As Eli Cross, O’Toole’s famously over-the-top persona finds its perfect match; zooming around in his helicopter, descending from the heavens on his crane, and constantly enfolding his underlings with the enormity of his personality, he gives us the ultimate egotistical film director. He is vain, dictatorial, demanding, pretentious, manipulative, and arrogant; yet he is also generous, gregarious, compassionate, and clearly more aware than anyone else of his own ridiculousness. Cross plays himself with gusto, and O’Toole plays Cross with just as much of it; the legendary actor has said he based his performance on David Lean, the famously godlike director who helmed, of course, Lawrence of Arabia. This may account for the unmistakable air of authenticity that underlies his work here, for despite his fully appropriate chewing of the scenery, every moment of his performance is infused with an absolute honesty and a fully recognizable humanity. O’Toole’s Eli Cross is exactly the kind of larger-than-life man who is both worshiped and feared by those beneath him- and considering his God-or-the-Devil role in the proceedings of The Stunt Man, it’s a quality that fits to a tee, and makes the entire film work like gangbusters.
The Stunt Man is one of those odd little films that time forgot; a staple in the early days of cable TV, many have seen it- and liked it- and yet it has slipped into relative obscurity, no doubt due to its effervescent qualities that are likely to disguise its deeper matter for audiences who aren’t paying close attention. For myself, I have noticed that when it comes up in conversation with someone, almost invariably the other person’s eyes light up- “Oh yeah, that’s a great movie! I haven’t thought about that one in years!” I’m happy to say that it holds up well, perhaps seeming even better now, though clearly the behind-the-screen technology it shows us is a bit dated in some ways. The high-spirited camaraderie it depicts among its film-making “family” is timeless, however, and so are the themes it so cagily explores. After all, today’s world is as full of phonies and liars as ever, and it is perhaps more difficult than ever to let our defenses down, for fear of being taken in and played for a fool- or worse. The Stunt Man, in its quaint little tale of Machiavellian plotting in an insular world, provides an apt metaphor for the difficulties of overcoming paranoia in our own.