I watched “The Stunt Man” the other day, a 1980 film directed by Richard Rush and starring Peter O’Toole, Barbara Hershey, Steve Railsback and a lot of character actors. O’Toole plays Eli Cross, a despotic director of a World War I movie, whose filming interrupts the escape of a violent criminal, Railsback. Railsback’s character, Cameron, believes he’s being menaced by a Duesenberg sedan intent on running him down, so he throws a wrench at it. This sends the car off a bridge and kills the stunt man driving it.
Cross, eager to avoid giving an explanation to the police, hires Cameron as his new stunt man. Cameron learns the ropes from the movie’s stunt coordinator, and manages to deliver every one of the director’s harrowing stunts. Barbara Hershey plays the lead actress in the film as a free-spirited but professional woman, and an obvious admirer of Cross and his peculiar methods. The film plays with illusion and reality, but thankfully does not attempt to trick the audience. The viewer stays behind the scenes when the camera rolls, and then goes backstage to sense the romance and drudgery of film production. In addition, every stunt is treated as craft; we get to see how the crew sets up the stunts — which explains why this film lives up to its cult status.
The over-the-top Eli Cross is fond of saying, “Do you not know that King Kong the first was just three foot six inches tall? He only came up to Faye Wray’s belly button! If God could do the tricks that we can do he’d be a happy man!” Of course, Cross does not have the same power as God or even Charles Foster Kane in “Citizen Kane” because when the movie wraps, he’s not the deity anymore. But the harrowing journey in this film convinces me of his power.
The film the crew produces goes unnamed in the movie, although it seems to be made up on the spot. Perhaps the fictional studio planned to name it after finishing it. I would like to know what name they choose, since it’s an epic film with aerial battles, vintage cars and costumes, and hundreds of extras. In another film-within-a-film movie, “Sullivan’s Travels” from 1941, which is directed by the great Preston Sturges, a successful director sets off to make a message film called “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?” The director rides the rails with Veronica Lake and returns with the script to his bewildered Hollywood cronies. It would have been a nice touch to know the name of the Eli Cross film.