How Tall is King Kong? (The Stunt Man, 1980, Richard Rush)
The Stunt Man is a movie about – among other things – how human beings experience the passage of time. Within it, moments blend into one another in a way that is not like real life – this is one of those movies that is very emphatically A MOVIE in ten foot high letters – but reflects real life in a way that is more real than realism.
It is also one of the most interesting and clever movies about making movies that I’ve ever seen. Director/Screenwriter/dedicated son of a bitch Richard Rush combines the playfulness and magical realism of 8 1/2 with the creeping tension and acerbic satire of The Player (and incidentally, The Stunt Man is a movie that basically does everything for me that I wish The Player did). And between three very different but all wildly effective performances from Peter O’Toole, Barbara Hershey and Steve Railsback, the film gives us a wholly unique look at filmmaking – and specifically, historical epic filmmaking, that classic province of lies – from all the angles
But I’m getting ahead of myself. We have a ways to go before the film gets into the dirty business of moviemaking. First, we get a dog licking his balls.
After that somewhat ignominious opening, we meet Cameron (Railsback), a scruffy denim-jacket wearing dude with “weird loner” written all over him, on the run from the cops for reasons unknown. After an energetically shot foot chase, Cameron tries to hitch a ride from a conspicuously fancy vintage car that then careens off a bridge into the water below. This turns out to be the latest stunt in the shooting of a big budget World War I epic, and Cameron – a Viet Nam vet – finds himself where he last wants to be, strafed by a helicopter and surrounded by people with cameras. And this is where enigmatic director Eli Cross (Peter O’Toole) first catches his eye.
As it happens, the stunt didn’t go so well, in about the worst way a stunt can fail to go well. Confronted by angry policemen, with one fewer stuntman and one more weird loner on hand, Cross sees an easy out. As does Cameron. The two defuse the situation and enter into a mutually beneficial arrangement: Cameron will assume the identity of deceased stuntman Burt and be the new stunt double for pretty boy leading man Raymond Bailey (Adam Roarke), and Cross won’t tell the police he’s here. And if that isn’t a sweet enough deal, Cameron/Burt will also get $650 (1970s dollars) per stunt, as well as getting a chance to cozy up with chameleonic leading lady Nina Franklin (Barbara Hershey).
And now we get into the real meat of the movie. Because it turns out the deal may not be as sweet as it seems; Eli Cross’ megalomania goes beyond typical Hollywood director levels. He’s soon shoving the, for his part, very game Cameron/Burt into more and more dangerous stunts, and throwing him curveballs even as they film. Cameron/Burt, now made up in a blonde shag that calls to mind O’Toole in his younger years, starts to wonder if the original Burt’s death wasn’t so much a tragic accident as the logical end result of Cross’ filming style, which may be as much an expression of sociopathic and even murderous desires as it is dedication to his craft. And the more Burt (I’m just gonna follow Cross and the movie’s lead on this one and call him Burt from here on out) slips into his double- no, triple- no, quadruple-role, the less he can be sure of anything.
So yes, this is one of those “what is reality?” movies. But don’t worry, we’re not talking the Baudrillard-aping pseudophilosophy of The Matrix here. Rush never stoops to literally sitting his lead down in a chair and asking him “what is reality?” Its all expressed in the filmmaking itself. I’m thinking particularly of the first big mid-film stunt sequence, which is extraordinary:
We start with a self-contained bit where chief stunt coordinator Chuck Barton (actual stunt man and therefore perhaps impressively good actor Charles Bail) takes Burt through all the motions of a particularly complicated stunt sequence, from a footchase on expressionistic angled rooftops to hand-to-hand fighting and dodging tracer bullets on the same, to a death-defying leap and a crash-landing on a “perfectly safe” stunt awning.
When we then see the filming of the stunt sequence itself, it is not presented as such. It is presented as we might see it in the finished product, with one expert stunt flowing into another expert stunt without pause (as is to be expected in a movie called The Stunt Man, the stunt work is fantastic, making the movie a great love letter to a type of filmmaking that has been almost totally eradicated by CGI), underscored by a jaunty Ragtime-influenced soundtrack – but also with quick behind-the-scenes asides that the viewers of the film-within-a-film would not be privy to.
The effect is indescribably disorienting. We know that this is not what the filming of a stunt sequence looks like, not just because we are canny filmgoers, but because the film that we are watching went out of its way to show us that. So when we see Steve Railsbeck playing Cameron playing Burt playing Bailey stopping to exchange coworker-banter with Barton in the middle of a complicated action scene, we’re not really sure what the hell it is we’re watching. It’s certainly not reality, and it’s not the film-within-a-film either. No, what we are watching is, after all, The Stunt Man itself. But I can think of no other movie that so pointedly asks the viewer to consider what the act of watching the film itself means (indeed, the closest comparison I can think of is not a film at all, but Italo Calvino’s labyrinthine novel If On A Winter’s Night a Traveler…).
I’ve surprised myself here by writing almost 1000 words without mentioned the ten-ton fucking elephant in the room that is Peter O’Toole’s performance. That might be because it’s hard to do justice to. Like in Lawrence of Arabia and The Ruling Class (as of yet the only other performances of his that I’ve seen), it’s an uncompromisingly dominating performance, one that casts a large shadow even over the scenes he doesn’t appear in (Railsback almost certainly has a lot more screen time). According to popular lore, O’Toole based his performance on David Lean, with a wardrobe cribbed from Richard Rush himself. It’s a pitch-perfect movie star turn, with O’Toole pushing his usual charisma into overload with plenty of Mick Jagger swagger and a scarily simmering sense of menace that more than justifies the nomination for a Best Actor Oscar he had no hope of winning (as with The Ruling Class in 1972, O’Toole had the bad luck of having a very bizarre performance nominated up against a mortal lock; Brando for The Godfather in 1972 and De Niro for Raging Bull in 1980).
As with a lot of cult films, particularly of this vintage, The Stunt Man is a bit of a boy’s club, but Barbara Hershey still manages to give a vibrant, scene-stealing turn as the unpredictable Nina Franklin. It’s a role that could easily play as pretty thankless – the one beautiful woman on the set that all the men are fighting over – but Hershey turns it on its head with a performance almost as volatile and off-kilter as O’Toole’s, keeping both Burt and the audience in the dark as to her motivations but still letting the audience in on her inner self at key moments, particularly her reaction at an especially cruel mid-film bit of manipulation by Cross. She also gets a great Ophelia reference in her last scene, complete with a final line that’s one of my favorite in the movie.
Between those two, Railsback is somewhat the weak link of the main cast; it’s not until he really settles into his role-within-a-role-within-a-role-etc. that he hits his stride, and I like the way he always hints but never confirms that Burt might – might – be smarter than he lets on. Still, I kept waiting for most of the movie for him to reveal the intensity of his frankly traumatizing take on Charlie Manson in Helter Skelter – and sure enough, when he finally does, it doesn’t disappoint, in a mesmerizing two-hander between him and Hershey late in the film that goes from romance to tragedy to psychological horror to comedy back to tragedy and then back to comedy again, all in the span of about five minutes.
But still, this is the O’Toole & Cross show, as they both remind us in a tremendous “and don’t you fucking forget it” gesture in the film’s closing moments. It’s a role and a performance that would make The Stunt Man a must-see even if it didn’t have so much else to offer – and there’s still so much I haven’t mentioned! From the virtuosic, humorous editing by Caroline Biggerstaff and Jack Hofstra to Allen Garfield’s wonderful supporting turn as the weirdly endearing little creep of a screenwriter to how appropriate it seems that Rush got his start directing Korean War propaganda films to – you know what, I’ll just leave it off there. The Stunt Man is really all about the magic of the movies, and what better way to communicate that than by letting you experience it for yourself? Just don’t get too lost in it.