The Stunt Man

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Richard Rush’s award winning dark comedy The Stunt Man (1980) blurs the boundaries between reality and the imagination of filmmaking within the context of adapting Paul Brodeur’s novel. The plot, about a Vietnam veteran turned fugitive from the law who hides out as a stunt man on a movie set, equates the unrealities of the cinema with the psychic reality of emotional trauma. As much as Rush’s film is a sinister satire of movie making it’s also a subtle meditation on the frailties of the human psychosis.

The dramatic core of The Stunt Man is the relationship between the title character, Cameron/Bert (Steve Railsback), and director Eli Cross (Peter O’Toole). From the minute that Cameron comes running into Eli’s production the director has him in his control. Eli Cross is a Svengali of a filmmaker; manipulating his cast and crew through emotional abuse, extortion, physical intimidation, bribery and deception. But in Cameron’s case Cross employs his myriad of manipulative tactics to control Cameron so as to direct him towards his own catharsis, redemption and survival. Of course Cameron is slow to realize this and resents Cross’ control over him.

Cross’ interest in Cameron is that he sees in the fugitive veteran what he believes to be the emotional heart of the WWI picture he is making embodied in a single man. If he can control and “help” Cameron then he can imbue his film with Cameron’s spirit. This kind of relationship is par for the course in films about Hollywood and movie making. One sees this same dichotomy in Inserts (1975), Burden Of Dreams (1982), and The Bad & The Beautiful (1952) to name but a few. What Rush does with The Stunt Man that’s so interesting is that he avoids all signifiers that would otherwise orient the viewer by indicating what is a scene from the film within the film and what is the reality within the context of the film.

Rush succeeds in keeping the viewer as on edge and as disoriented as Cameron is in his new environment. Though The Stunt Man is essentially a behind the scenes drama, these tactics and Rush’s general approach subvert the standards of that type of narrative. All of Rush’s cinematographic skills give The Stunt Man a quai-Godardian quality that is reinforced by O’Toole’s magnificently unhinged performance that owes something to Jack Palance’s work in Le M├ępris (1963).

The kind of auteurist filmmaking in The Stunt Man is unique to its moment. By 1981 the directors like Eli Cross (and even Richard Rush) would cease to be the most powerful figures in Hollywood. The Stunt Man, for all its venomous satire, seems to celebrate the age of the New Hollywood just as it draws to a close. Eli Cross could easily been seen as a version of someone like Francis Ford Coppola or William Friedkin; a director whose power outweighs their capacity for self control. Ironically it would be this lack of self control that would lead to the downfall of the golden age of auteurism.