Stunt Man, The (1980) A-
“The Stunt Man” opened to rave reviews for its wily, inventive, totally unpredictable movie-within-movie narrative and for Peter O’Toole’s performance as a diabolical, messianic director.
Adapted from Paul Brodeur’s novel, Richard Rush’s story of a Machiavellian movie director and his accidental employee takes a darkly humorous look at movie reality vs. factual reality.
Rush and O’Toole poke fun at the likes of such narcissistic, megalomaniac, and legendary Hollywood directors as Eric Von Stroheim, Cecil B. DeMille, John Ford, and Orson Welles.
It begins on a high note: Running from the law, handsome Vietnam vet Cameron (Steve Railsback) stumbles on a movie set just in time to interfere with a staged accident, causing (perhaps) the stunt man’s death.
Rather than turn Cameron in, director Eli Cross (Oscar nominee O’Toole) decides to punish him in his own eccentric way by making him an offer he can’t refuse (to paraphrase Brando’s Don Vito Corleone from “The Godfather”): replace the dead stunt man in return for safe harbor.
Despite objections about Cameron’s inexperience, Eli keeps him on, figuring that a vet will add an extra charge of realism to the World War I epic-adventure he’s shooting.
Further complications ensue, when leading lady Nina (Barbara Hershey, at her most beautiful) returns Cameron’s affections, which makes the obsessive and possessive Eli all the more inscrutably mercurial and nastier.
For his part, the tough-yet-vulnerable Cameron begins to wonder and worry how far Eli will go to get the stunning screen effects he wants, and if he would think twice about killing the stunt man.
Placing a Vietnam vet in the midst of movie-making chaos, Rush adds a pointedly contemporary ironic spin to Cameron’s confusion; the war experience that makes Cameron a good stunt man wreaks havoc on his life.
Rush disorients the audience by seamlessly interweaving scenes from Eli’s movie with scenes of its being made. This ingenious, vastly entertaining movie was made independently two years before Rush found a studio to release it. When Fox opened the film theatrically, it became a commercial flop, never finding the audience it deserves. The studio simply did not know how to market such an original, offbeat, darkly humorous picture.
Nonetheless, “The Stunt Man” became a cult movie later on, when it was released on VCR and DVD.
The film’s sly commentary on the blurred line between movies and real-life became all the more striking in the 1980s, when former B actor Ronald Reagan became president.
Oscar Nominations: 3
Director: Richard Rush
Actor: Peter O’Toole
Screenplay (Adapted): Lawrence B. Marcus and Richard Rush
Oscar Awards: None
This was O’Toole’s sixth Best Actor nomination, but he lost to Robert De Niro, who won for “Raging Bull.”
The winner of Best Actor was Robert Redford, who won for Ördinary People,” a feature that also won Best Picture and Adapted Screenplay for Alvin Sargent.
Running time: 135 Minutes
Directed by Richard Rush
Released: June 27, 1980.
DVD: August 6, 2002
20th Century Fox Film.
Peter O’Toole as Eli Cross
Steve Railsbach as Cameron
Barbara Hershey as Nina Franklin
Allen Garfield as Sam
Alex Rocco as Jake
Sharon Farrell as Denise
Adam Roarke as Raymond Bailey
Philip Bruns as Ace
Chuck Bail as Chuck Barton
John Alderman as Carlbinarri
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