In 1980, a film called The Stunt Man was released. It was widely lauded (and garnered three Academy Award nominations) but unsuccessful at the box office and today has been widely forgotten. I do not even think that there is currently a home video release in print.
This is unfair; at the very least, the film deserves some large re-examination. It still subscribes to the auteur theory at a time in which this had become the exception rather than the norm. As such, it is the most underrated film of the 1980s. Now, it is not perfect. But then, it is interesting enough to warrant a viewing – for everyone.
The film is about a convict named Cameron (Steve Railsback) who manages to escape from the police. During this escape, he wanders onto a film set and accidentally kills a stunt driver by causing his car to crash. The director of the film, a man named Eli Cross (Peter O’Toole, whose performance earned one of the nominations) offers him a job to replace the stunt man. An actress on the set, Nina Franklin (Barbara Hershey) begins an intense affair with Cameron, while Cameron slowly goes mad due to the pressure Cross has placed upon him. He can no longer can tell the reality from the film, and begins to fear for his life.
What makes this the last of the great “auteur” films? Well, for one, it does have the grand sort of scale that the films seemed to require. Everything about the film feels larger than life, both on and off-screen. For the movie within a movie, we see the meticulous planning that the director has planned. But we never actually SEE what the film’s ultimate intent is. And that is where the film achieves its grand scale – in art, it is about what is imagined rather than what is shown. This film is full of imagination. There are several fights (that, for whatever reason, reminded of the scenes in 8 1/2 in which Guido meets his producers) between Eli and his backers, as he complains about items in the script that he used to think were great.
It is such an internal look of the creative process that it does have to be seen. And Peter O’Toole is the man who makes it work. It is said that he based his performance on David Lean. I believe it; Eli Cross is a man who seems pleasant on the surface but carries many bizarre quirks and a singular vision that does not look highly upon people. Perhaps this was revenge for O’Toole’s treatment on Lawrence of Arabia (mirroring some of the film’s dialogue, it is easy to picture Lean become upset at a misplaced prop: “Who can imagine a bush in the Sahara desert?”) The film absolutely required something like O’Toole to make it work.
But what of the rest? So far I have praised the film for O’Toole and for its vision. Many others have done so. What makes the film special is the fact that it was able to examine film creation in two ways – from a technical standpoint and a psychological one. Yes, we are awed at seeing how Stunt men are trained and how complex shots are always carefully planned out. The best scene of the film is a run through of a chase on the rooftops between Cameron and German soldiers (the film Eli is shooting is an epic set during World War I). Audiences are wowed, seeing how careful everyone is and how realistic even the forgery can be.
But what is more incredible is the depth that these situations are given. It is important to observe Cameron’s face throughout the proceedings. A cut appears on his face, and he tries to wipe the blood away, convinced it has gone wrong. Only later do we see the make up being pulled from his face. He is still genuinely scared, even after the cameras have stopped rolling.
Those scenes of emotion show how much passion still goes into the making of a film, even if we are not sure what that film is. It is one of the reasons that may people fall in love with the medium – at the very least, The Stunt Man is a rare film that manages to capture the passion behind the art. Other films try this approach; very few succeed.
I am not sure if this is a victim of the times or last great remnant of an era when Hollywood still tried to produce art for art’s sake. I do know that I want to watch the film again. That may be a high enough compliment.