“Why do they use so much blood? It ruins the realism don’t you think?”
An onlooker shares his disgust at a gore-strewn WWI movie set, as smoke clears after a battle enactment to reveal a beach of body parts. Cheers turn to screams, then laughs from a civilian crowd unsure where Hollywood action ends and actual carnage begins.
The response? “Asshole.”
Any movie that opens with a dog licking his balls has already drawn the line on liberal squeamishness. Richard Rush’s Oscar-nominated The Stunt Man (1980) is an irreverent table-turning masterpiece, continually blurring illusion with reality to contrast the trauma of war with the theatre of life.
Don’t worry, everything is part of the show.
A Vietnam vet on the run from the police (Steve Railsback) stumbles onto a movie location mid-shoot in time for the death of the star stuntman. Talent spotted by megalomaniacal director Eli Cross (Peter O’ Toole), the desperate drifter is offered a job as unfortunate replacement and renamed ‘Lucky’ as the movie’s new talisman.
However, as the disturbed survivor finds himself performing increasingly dangerous stunts for his egopathic new boss, the lines between Hollywood fiction and genuine horror begin to merge in the young man’s paranoid mind. Lucky may be Cross’s muse, but is the auteur trying to save or sacrifice him in his search for the true nature of war?
Nothing is what it seems. Lucky doesn’t know who or what is real, with the audience tricked with him in ignoring the joins between Hollywood magic and genuine danger. The hapless hero dives into the sea to rescue an old woman who, to his horror, peels off her makeup to reveal ingenue starlet Nina (Barbara Hershey). She then demands he continues the chivalry and carry her ashore, enjoying the fantasy.
The action setpieces couldn’t be done in one take, despite claims to the contrary. A rooftop chase would have taken days to film with a myriad of camera angles and stunt set-ups, but is shown as one mad scramble, culminating in a ribald fall into a whorehouse, where the naked girls are stunt pros too. There are multiple sleight of hand layers, so we are watching a fantasy spin on a real take of a fantasy.
The movie revels in the artifice. Tonally, The Stunt Man flits between action, satire, slapstick and drama on a lunatic dime, echoing the crazed schizophrenic mindset of the main characters. Lucky may be romantic, desperate, suicidal or just trying to stay sane in an insane world, but like him we’re just enjoying the ride while it lasts.
Director Richard Rush was a Hollywood outsider working his way in, scoring early hits with Jack Nicholson starring hippie exploitation flicks, Hells Angels on Wheels (1967) and Psych-Out (1968), before banking big with rebellious action-comedy Freebie and the Bean (1974).
His acidhead sensibility filters into The Stunt Man’s shifting perspectives, being both a celebration and deconstruction of cinema. It is a movie about itself. The happy accidents of the onscreen plot occurred during the production as well.
O’Toole has the time of his life as the monster director (supposedly based on his experience under David Lean); Railsback’s woodenness, all fixed grin and wide eyes, actually suits the PTSD of an ex-Marine who doesn’t know what the hell is happening anymore; Hershey is naturally gorgeous as the girl anyone would fall in love with, real or not.
Overlaid with an insanely catchy score from Dominic Frontiere and dreamy song lyrics from Dusty Springfield (perfectly capturing the WTF haze with the chorus of “reality is yours to deny”), The Stunt Man is pure lightning in a bottle.
It scored three Oscar nominations (O’Toole for Best Actor, Rush for Director and co-writing Best Adapted Screenplay) and bona fide box office. As an X-certificate movie tackling big themes of love, death and starshine it still rolls with the joie de vivre of Bondian candyfloss.
Any philosophical messaging may be just be another meta-layer commentary on itself. In an insane world how seriously should we take anything? If life really is just a theatre where we can’t see the roof, maybe the only sane reaction is, as Lucky suggests, to dance a jig on the wing of a plane and hope it doesn’t crash.
After all, that’s what they did in the movies.