It's surely a common experience for those seeing "The Stunt Man" (1980) for the first time to go scrambling for the nearest film reference book or Web site immediately afterward to find out more about Richard Rush, the writer-director of this amazing, one-of-a-kind film. It would be nice to report that they find a long list of notable films affirming Rush as one of the great, overlooked talents of recent movie history, but that isn't the case.
To be fair to Rush, some of his early films are not available, but what's out there indicates an erratic career of decent but terribly dated exploitation pictures ("Hell's Angels on Wheels," "Psycho-Out"), a couple of genuine turkeys ("Freebie and the Bean," "Color of Night"), and one work of singular brilliance…"The Stunt Man."
It is far from the first movie to toy with blurring the line between filmmaking magic and reality. From the slapstick of Buster Keaton's "Sherlock, Jr." to the intellectual musings of Jean-Luc Godard's "Pierrot le Fou" to the mischievous cynicism of Robert Altman's "The Player," countless filmmakers have taken fascinating explorations into their own medium.
Like the best of those films, "The Stunt Man" accomplishes the rare feat of making a movie as wholly entertaining as it is thought provoking. It is, to apply a term as limiting as it is useful, an "art film" in that it is complex and strange enough to turn off viewers simply looking for mindless escapism. On the other hand, it has plenty of action, tremendous wit, and visual pizzazz and energy to spare. What more could one want to escape from the tedium of the everyday?
Steve Railsback stars as Cameron, a fugitive who flees the law, unexpectedly arriving on a movie set where he immediately becomes a part of the action. Peter O'Toole is Eli Cross, the possibly crazy director of the film who may be a bigger threat to Cameron than the cops. Eli puts Cameron to work as a stunt man, but even greater than the considerable physical dangers the newcomer faces are the psychological hoops the director makes him jump through. Neither Cameron nor the audience is ever sure of Eli's motives or whether every emotional turning point is real or just part of the drama. That includes Cameron's dicey relationship with leading lady Nina (Barbara Hershey).
"The Stunt Man" constantly plays with perception, but it's more than a gimmick film. After a few scenes where seemingly real jeopardy is revealed to be part of the film production, you learn not to trust the narrative. Rather than undercutting the film's effectiveness, this makes it an even more powerful metaphor for a universal insecurity about our place in the world and how much control we have over it.
Railsback, a fabulous character actor whose unforgettable portrayal of Charles Manson in the TV film "Helter Skelter" stereotyped him as psychologically unstable characters, does a sensational job. He plays Cameron as someone clinging hard to his sanity even as the environment Eli creates seems designed to make him lose it. Because Cameron is a criminal, we can't fully trust him either, though he is clearly our stand-in as he tries to figure out the cinematic madhouse he has entered. Hershey is also excellent as an actress unwilling or unable to extract herself from the part she plays.
As befitting his role, however, it's Peter O'Toole who stands tallest in the spotlight. There have been few characters as winningly enigmatic as Eli Cross and O'Toole plays him perfectly, making the director's every unexpected move or reaction a delight. Cross is a dictator, magician, madman and charming host all rolled into one. It's one of O'Toole's very best parts and perhaps his very best performance.
Working from a novel by Paul Brodeur, Rush and co-writer Lawrence Marcus crafted a movie game with real meaning: a potent view of the manipulations we are put through in both art and life. Thematically, stylistically and narratively, it's a tremendously ambitious film, and a heck of a lot of fun as well.
"The Stunt Man" is available on an Anchor Bay DVD that includes an engaging audio commentary combining different sessions with the director and several cast members, including O'Toole, Railsback and Hershey. Some deleted scenes, trailers, production and promotional art, and the complete screenplay and director's notes (in DVD-ROM format) are also included. A two-disc limited edition release can also be found which includes Rush's feature-length documentary, "The Sinister Saga of Making 'The Stunt Man'." Though a bit too self-congratulatory and featuring some pretty cheesy video effects, the documentary does tell a compelling story of the film's production and difficulties in getting released. It is also available separately on DVD.
It's a problem with our all-or-nothing cultural evaluations that Rush's career is often written off as a great talent largely wasted on lesser projects, rather than viewing "The Stunt Man" as the moment when an interesting but uneven filmmaker finally found an ideal project and realized his full potential. Rather than seeing it as the exceptional feature in an unremarkable career, the film should be celebrated as a pinnacle an artist reached after a long, unsteady climb. Few people care what other mountains Sir Edmund Hillary scaled or the various setbacks in his career. He will always be known as the first man to reach the top of Mount Everest. And Richard Rush should always be known as the man who made "The Stunt Man."
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