Directed by Richard Rush
Written by Lawrence B. Marcus (screenplay), Richard Rush (adaptation), Paul Brodeur (novel)
Starring Peter O'Toole, Steve Railsback, Barbara Hershey, Alan Garfield, Charles Bail
As you might guess, I love movies, so I'm a sucker for movies about moviemaking. And by far and away the best is The Stunt Man.
How good? Well, the first time I saw it, they showed two reels out of order. It made the entire plot more than a tad confusing, but I still loved it. (It wasn't until I was leaving the theater that I swapped the sections of the film in my mind to get the plot straight.)
The Stunt Man is the story of the filming of a World War I epic, being directed by Eli Cross (Peter O'Toole). Cross is a madman artist, someone who is not beneath playing games with actors, stuntmen, and passers-by in order to get the effects he wants. It's hard to see on the image, but the poster for the film depicts O'Toole as a film director with a devil's tail, which is quite appropriate. Cross does have a bit of satanic madness to him.
Cameron (Steve Railsback) is a Vietnam vet with a past who unknowingly stumbles upon the set, and accidentally causes the death of a stuntman during a stunt. Cross dragoons him into replacing the dead man in a stunt that requires he crash a car into water, and takes Cameron under his wing, telling him about filmmaking with the immortal line, "If God could do the tricks that we can do he'd be a happy man!" But can Cross be trusted?
Cameron is never sure. One of my favorite moments in the film is when he's being briefed about his stunt. Chuck Barton (Charles Bail) is telling him that, as the car sinks, Cameron will need to take a hit from the air tank under the car seat. Cameron reaches for it, but it's not there. "Don't worry," said Barton. "It will be there." But will it?
This is one of Peter O'Toole's best roles. His Eli Cross is a fascinating, larger-than-life bravura character who dominates the film and whose presence enlivens every scene. Railsback plays what could be a cliché -- a Vietnam vet scarred by war -- and makes him a very sympathetic and likeable character. Charles Bail (a stuntman himself) is also very good as the head stuntman who tries to show Cameron the rudiments of the trade. And Barbara Hershey is memorable as the star of the film and love interest.
And though I rarely notice such things, the score by Dominic Frontiere is superb. For years, whenever a movie found itself without a completed score for the theatrical trailer, there was a good chance they'd take music from The Stunt Man.
This was a labor of love by director Richard Rush. He worked on the script, but it took him 9 years to get it filmed, and, as an insult, the studio refused to release it for another two years. Finally, bullied by Rush, who evidently had it screened for one week in his native Seattle to great reviews and business, it was released. It picked up three Oscar nominations and a Golden Globe.
It was the pinnacle of Rush's career, alas. It was 14 years before his next movie, The Color of Night, which was not so well received. But The Stunt Man is essential viewing for anyone who wants to see movies about moviemaking, or anyone who loves the great offbeat performances that Peter O'Toole can give so effortlessly.