On Richard Rush’s The Stunt Man (1980)

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by Jennifer Valencia

Richard Rush‘s The Stunt Man (1980) uses a variety of elements from different genres to tell its story. From action the stunt man scenes to the drama revolving around the relationship between the two main characters: a film director, Eli Cross (Peter O’Toole) and Cameron, a.k.a Lucky Bert (Steve Railsback), the reluctant stunt man of the title. The Stunt Man does not settle into one groove. It mixes various types of genre, themes, and action by creating layers which the viewer must sift through in order to get to the heart of the story. I can see how the film attempts this, but it falls flat. I find Rush’s storytelling lacks depth. Throughout the film Rush guides the audience to the core message but once we arrive at this message it is laid out in such a way that it settles into an afterthought.

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The Stunt Man is about named Cameron who falls upon a film shoot while he is running from the cops. The director of the film shoot, Eli, convinces Cameron to hide from the police on his set by posing as the stunt man whom Cameron has accidentally caused the death of earlier. Cameron is then transformed into a double for the main actor and is given the new name of Lucky Bert. After some training, Cameron, a.k.a Bert, starts filming the stunt scenes for Eli’s film. Amongst all this he begins an affair with Nina and he soon suspects fowl play on set by Eli. Nina and Cameron plan to run away before shooting the last scene in which he believes Eli wants to stage his death in order to achieve a realistic performance.

You can see the lack of substance in some of the performances: Steve Railsback’s performance seems forced and strained. He is supposed to be a cocky yet troubled young man, but Railsback’s is over dramatic in his attempt and hardly believable. The love affair that occurs between Cameron and Nina Franklin (Barbra Hershey) is also predictable. There is no chemistry between them and so it is hard to understand why they are in love. Barbra Hershey is suppose to play a screen siren who is not only beautiful, but mature in both her personality and acting ability. In her first encounter with Cameron she exclaims to him “I am the movies,” after he mentions that their encounter is just like something out of the movies. After watching her performance as Nina this statement falls by the wayside since any maturity or confidence this character is suppose to have is replaced with a character who is flighty and more naive than Cameron. She plays Nina more like a hippie type character who can do nothing more than smile and who believes she has all the answers, but really has no clue.

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The only convincing performance is that of Peter O’Toole. His character, Eli Cross, exercises a godlike control over the entire production. His power is most obvious in the scenes where he is seated in the crane hovering over the set. Eli is the one who holds the strings and Cameron becomes increasingly aware of this as the film goes on. Eli cannot finish his film without a stunt man and Cameron is in need of sanctuary. Eli continues manipulating Cameron by withholding information about the scenes Cameron has to do. This causes Cameron to become more and more paranoid believing that Eli is trying to kill him for the sake of getting the best possible takes. Eli does this because he needs Cameron on his set. Cameron reminds Eli of the person he is making his film about. He uses Cameron for inspiration and manipulates him to get the reactions that he wants.

At the end of the day it is all about Eli’s film and the message he is trying to get across: an anti-war statement. Eli is a director who has something to say but seems to have a hard time pinpointing just how to say it. It is through his interactions with Cameron that this dilema becomes clear to him. In a dinner scene near the beginning of the film, Cameron discusses making his film relevant with his writer Sam (Allen Garfield). Eli confesses that ”War isn’t the disease… It’s only one of the symptoms.” But Eli needs to determine what the disease is in order to make the film relevant. Through his interactions (and the way he manipulates Cameron), Eli is able to pinpoint that the disease is in fact a social one – and it stems from the paranoia in all of us.

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At its heart, The Stunt Man is a story of the making of a film. I thought the film was successful in how it handles the theme of filmmaking. The irony and self reflectivity of this concept is not lost on the viewer. We are constantly being reminded of the production. We are also directed to the idea that since this is a film about filmmaking almost everything is fabricated and manipulated for the film shoot. I particularly enjoyed how Rush uses circus music to compare the film production to the concept of putting on a show. At the end,  the entire film crew enters on to the shooting location of the final scene like a circus rolling into town. On lookers observe them go by as they point and smile; one of them even mentions that they look like a circus.

There is a song at the beginning of the film in which there is a line: ”Nothing is quite as it seems.” Nothing is as it seems. The boundaries between reality and fiction are continually blurred in this film. Rush does a fine job of repeatedly pulling the rug from under the viewer. We are introduced to Nina as an old woman but in fact she is young and vivacious. She puts on special effects makeup to fool the crew. Even some of the characters have difficulty in sorting out what is real and what isn’t. Cameron is often scared for his life while shooting his scenes but he is oblivious to the fact that precautions have been set up to keep him out of harm’s way. It is this constant haze that feeds the paranoia which is at the heart of this film.

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The Stunt Man was for the most part entertaining but whatever relevance it was seeking became lost in its meagre attempts to make it meaningful. In Rush’s documentary, The Sinister Saga of Making “The Stunt Man” (2000), he claims that the film has a subversive message because it deals with the subject of war (in this case Vietnam), the effects of war, and the paranoia in all of us. I had hard time finding the connections between these ideas. Cameron is suppose to be the physical embodiment of the film’s ideals and message. He represents a Vietnam vet who’s experience in the war and modern day America have shaped him into a hard character who is suspicious of those around him, but his time in Vietnam seems to be an afterthought to the character. It is more a means of playing up the cocky hard exterior he claims to have. Eli mentions, not as a fact but as an assumption, that Cameron fought in Vietnam for two years and he killed many people. Cameron exclaims “…Hey I didn’t kill that many people…” Cameron is the key to Rush’s and Eli’s message, but Railsback’s performance lent nothing to the hard and troubled man Cameron was suppose to be. I could not believe Cameron to be that man and therefore I was not convinced of what the film was trying to say about the modern man.

Ironically, The Stunt Man is a film that was saved from being lost forever by Rush’s efforts to have the film made and seen by not only the public, but by critics who could make or break it. The picture was released even though many wanted it to disappear. I think the film fails to bring the audience something memorable. Its aim was to make something that was both entertaining and meaningful but it failed to do both. The Stunt Man’s lack of solid acting, its overall surface message, and lack of clean visual storytelling left me unsatisfied.

 

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jenn

 

* ‘The Sinister Saga Of Making ‘The Stunt Man’’: http://variety.com/2000/film/reviews/the-sinister-saga-of-making-the-stunt-man-1200461462/

* Peter O’Toole’s most underrated performances: http://www.thewrap.com/movies/article/peter-otoole-retires-6-underrated-performances-47171

*Like The Stunt Man, Actor Steve Railsback Needed Years to Get Off the Ground: http://www.people.com/people/article/0,,20078065,00.html 

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6 thoughts on “On Richard Rush’s The Stunt Man (1980)

  1. Pingback: Academy Monday – Watch: ‘The Stunt Man’ (Richard Rush, 1980) | Seminal Cinema Outfit

  2. A good appreciation of a flawed classic.
    “The Stunt Man” was one of a whole slew of “you-have-no-idea-what’s-REALLY-going-on-here-even-after-the-last-twist” movies that were hot from the late ’60s into the mid-’70s (one of the best of them is the little-known Brit cult-flick, “The Shout;” definitely worth checking out if you can find a copy in any medium).
    “Stunt Man” doesn’t hold up too well — its reach clearly exceeded its grasp — but it was an audacious attempt, and O’Toole is, of course, mesmerizing.
    One thing you didn’t mention that I thought was really impressive when I first saw the movie, but that seemed cheap and obvious on re-viewing it years later, was the repetitive habit of having the camera pull back to reveal that everything you’d just seen had been a reflection in a mirror, rather than the actual scene itself.
    A question for anyone who cares to weigh in:
    Is it just me, or does it seem that Railsback was cast because he’s supposed to look so much like a slightly younger Peter O’Toole?
    I was especially struck by [what seems to me to be] the resemblance at the 25-minute mark in the flick, which is when the beard he’d been wearing up to that point is removed by the film-within-the-film makeup artist, to reveal for the first time the character’s full face.

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