The Stunt Man opens with an exquisitely interconnected sequence, introducing all of the principals–Peter O’Toole, Barbara Hershey and Steve Railsback–while concentrating on Railsback. Hershey’s introduction, which turns out to be the first of director Rush’s muddling of reality, manages to be both blatant and muted. I wonder how it plays on someone’s first viewing of the film (this time is my third or fourth). This opening sequence plays up the film’s almost screwball comedy–something Dominic Frontiere’s score makes possible.
But the film isn’t actually a screwball comedy. It’s a film about films, where there’s a blur in the difference between the two, whether it’s Rush cutting from an actual, practical effect sequence to a movie-in-movie shot or Railsback’s vet on the run meeting and falling in love with his dream girl, Hershey’s successful Hollywood actress. The Stunt Man practically begs for an intense analysis, since all three of the main characters are incredibly complex, but also Rush’s approach to telling their rather singular stories.
I hadn’t noticed before–probably because the first one or two viewings were at a young age and the last time I saw it, I was more concentrated on seeing it OAR for the first time–but O’Toole’s character is never explained. There are barely any hints at it. On one hand, he’s a megalomaniac film director who manipulates everyone around him for the best filmed result, but then there’s the exceptionally complicated relationship with Railsback’s vet. It occasionally starts to make sense, then almost immediately stops, with O’Toole, or the film, providing a contrary reason. Trying to make sense of it all–while Rush is busy filling the film with these big set pieces–puts the viewer on the same unsteady ground Railsback spends the entire film traversing.
Railsback–who never really had a major role after this one, never even had a role in a respectable production again from my perusal of his filmography–is outstanding. He’s got to be the lead with O’Toole around and O’Toole’s performance here is one of his best. It’s a catered career best performance–and one of the few I can think of where the actor exceeds the expectations. O’Toole has a great time with the role, but part of The Stunt Man‘s beauty is how it gets away from everyone involved. I’m not sure Rush and company knew they were going to make such a singular motion picture.
Barbara Hershey doesn’t get the film’s hardest role–Railsback has a couple gut-wrenching monologues where he asserts himself as the lead in spite of O’Toole’s glister–but where Railsback has so much to accomplish through dialogue, Hershey instead has to do it all quiet. She’s got Rush and Frontiere constructing the perfect arena for these physical expressions and they’re amazing. Rush doesn’t just know how to shoot her, Hershey knows how to act in his shots.
With the emphasis on stunts–not to mention the Vietnam connection (comparing this nearly unknown film to something more well-known and popular, like First Blood, is painful)--The Stunt Man becomes less and less accessible to audiences with each year. The film’s enthralled with the magic of filmmaking, the bottled wonderment; it’s also responsible for its contents–the Vietnam details are never cotton candy–and then there’s that screwball tone. It’s a difficult film to describe and should be seen instead. It hasn’t been, however, and the viewership isn’t going to go up and that state’s a bad thing.
Produced and directed by Richard Rush; screenplay by Lawrence B. Marcus, adaptation by Rush, based on a novel by Paul Brodeur; director of photography, Mario Tosi; edited by Caroline Biggerstaff and Jack Hofstra; music by Dominic Frontiere; released by 20th Century Fox.
Starring Peter O’Toole (Eli Cross), Steve Railsback (Cameron), Barbara Hershey (Nina Franklin), Allen Garfield (Sam), Alex Rocco (Police Chief Jake), Sharon Farrell (Denise), Adam Roarke (Raymond Bailey), Philip Bruns (Ace), Charles Bail (Chuck Barton) and John Garwood (Gabe).