Directed by Richard Rush
Screenplay by Lawrence B. Marcus, from an adaptation by Richard Rush of a novel by Paul Brodeur
Starring Peter O'Toole, Steve Railsback, Barbara Hershey, Alan Goorwitz (Garfield), Charles Bail, Sharon Farrell
The Stunt Man was one man's labor of love, and is one of the best films about moviemaking ever made.
Director Richard Rush fell in love with Paul Brodeur's novel and knew he had to make it. He wasn't exactly a Hollywood name: his most famous film at the time was the minor hit Freebie and the Bean, but Rush went out to turn the book into a film. After years of work, Rush managed to get together the cast he wanted and started filming.
The Stunt Man is the story of Cameron (Steve Railsback), a drifter who is wanted by the police. As he tries to escape them, he is nearly run down by a car, which swerves and ends up plunging into a river, killing the driver, Burt.
Which was the entire plan. The driver was a stunt man working on the World War I drama Devil's Squadron, directed by the somewhat mad director Eli Cross (Peter O'Toole). Cross takes Cameron on as a stunt man for the production, where he meets and falls for it's star, Nina Franklin (Barbara Hershey). He wants Cameron to take Burt's place when the redo the stunt.
Only the question becomes, is it a stunt, or will Cross try to kill him for the film?
It's a movie that keeps you off balance and which blurs the line between reality and moviemaking. One or my favorite moments in all of film is when professional stunt man Chuck Barton (Chuck Bail), is going over the river plunge, explaining to Cameron what will happen. Cameron is sitting in the car, and Barton is telling him how the car will fill with water. "At this point," he says, "you'll be needing some air, so you reach down beside the seat for the air tank." Cameron reaches down, but there is no air tank. "Don't worry," said Barton. "It will be there."
And the question is: will it?
This is one of Peter O'Toole's greatest roles. His Eli Cross is mad, impulsive, profane, and a genius and meglomaniac. As Cross says, "If God could do the tricks that we can do he'd be a happy man!" He keeps everyone guessing as to what he will do up to the final moment. It is a bravura performance; you can't take your eyes off him for a moment.
Railsback plays Cameron* as a man with a past, a Vietnam vet who comes home a bit dazed by the experience. He's not a traditional conflicted vet, and his brush with the law is more comedy that drama (something the movie mixes brilliantly).
There also should be mention of Chuck Bail. Bail was actually a stunt man, and his Barton was probably based on his real-life personality. The way he takes Cameron under his wing is also a joy to watch.
Also fine is the always good Alan Goorwitz** from Cry Uncle plays Sam, the scriptwriter who is frustrated by Cross, but who recognizes his genius. Barbara Hershey plays Nina beautifully, and Sharon Farrell is good as the production's hairdresser.
There should also be a special mention of Dominic Frontiere's film score. It is by far one of the best -- so good that, for years, filmmakers would use bits of it for movie trailers when their music for the film wasn't ready.
Rush finished the film in 1978, happy with the results, and delivered it to the studio. Which refused to release it.
Evidently, they felt they had a flop on their hands. They figured the costs of releasing it would be greater than any profit, so it made more sense to take the loss instead of incurring a bigger loss due to advertising and distribution expenses.
After two years, Rush managed to get the studio to open the film for a week in Seattle. The box office was enthusiastic enough for the film to finally be released.
Alas, the studio seemed to be right. Despite making a few best of the year lists, the film performed poorly.
However, if my experience has anything to do with it, the reason may have been due to a major screw-up on the part of the studio. I went to see it early in a local theater and noticed as I watched that Cameron said something he couldn't possibly know. Later, Peter O'Toole gave him that information. And, as I thought about it, I realized that the reels were being shown out of order. Once I figured out where (one scene abruptly cut out, then a later one continued that point), I was able to put the film together in my mind to see what was there.
Was this just the one theater? I don't know. I do know, however, when I saw it again in a second theater, the film stopped for a moment at the point where the reels were reversed, as though someone found the problem and fixed it.
In any case, the film. though well-liked in some circles, faded away. This was before videotapes, so it did not show up on TV due to the language. It was fourteen years before Rush directed again, with the flop The Color of Night and I can't help but wonder if some of that was due to his nagging his studio to lose more money.
But the film is a great one in all respects. If you love movies, you'll love the film.
*His name, by the way, is an important plot element.
** He started out as Alan Garfield, changed back to his real name of Goorwitz, then returned to Garfield a few years later.