Archive for The Stuntman

Rush Job

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 26, 2017 by dcairns

Filmed mainly around California’s famous Hotel del Coronado, its plot involves a fugitive protagonist in disguise hiding in plain sight with a showbiz job, but it’s not SOME LIKE IT HOT, it’s THE STUNT MAN, which I finally saw after having it at the back of my mind ever since seeing Peter O’Toole promoting it on a talk show in 1981. I distinctly recall the clip where Steve Railsback’s character (doubled, one presumes, by a real stuntman) crashes through a skylight and plummets towards a bed, from which a copulating couple separate and roll off instants before his impact. I can still hear O’Toole’s amused voice intoning, “actually the woman was a man, and her bosom was rubber.” My fourteen-year-old self had perked up at the fleeting glimpse of nudity afforded by the clip, and was now disappointed and a touch confused that the stimulating frames had actually depicted a bloke with prostheses.

Without being aware of the fact, my teenage self had also seen another film by the same director, Richard Rush, the notorious FREEBIE AND THE BEAN. When you’re a kid, provided you’re fairly unenlightened, that’s a great movie. Car crashes, violence, antisocial behaviour… When you’re an adult, it SHOULD be profoundly problematic: sexist, racist and toxically, deeply and violently homophobic.

This all came back to me only while watching Rush’s own making-of documentary — during THE STUNT MAN I had fondly imagined it to be the deranged product of a cultish one-hit wonder. And then I remembered THE COLOR OF NIGHT and the tacky video effects of the doc started to make sense — what we have here is a macho yet somewhat self-questioning, brazenly vulgar sensibility which uses style as a decorative element rather than a constructive one. I’m not sure such a sensibility could ever make a perfect film, but maybe it could manage a really good one. I’m still not sure if THE STUNT MAN is this film (FREEBIE and COLOR sure ain’t). But it’s interesting.

Steve LIFEFORCE Railsback, troubled Vietnam vet, is on the run from the law when he blunders onto the location of director Peter O’Toole’s WWI epic, accidentally killing a stuntman. O’Toole covers up the fatality by getting Railsback to replace the slain man, which apparently his cast and crew are all happy to go along with. Over the course of the next two hours, Railsback falls for movie star Barbara Hershey, takes part in a series of insanely elaborate stunt sequences, and comes to suspect that the Mephistophelean O’Toole is plotting to murder him and get his death on film.

We were watching this because Richard Lester had mentioned to me that Lawrence B. Marcus, who wrote the final draft of PETULIA had written it, and it was odd that it didn’t lead to more and bigger things. I looked up Marcus and was surprised to learn he’d been writing movies since 1950’s DARK CITY. His IMDb bio is fascinating — there’s a Lester story I didn’t know. I suggested that THE STUNT MAN may not have boosted Marcus’s career as much as you’d think, despite his Oscar nom, because it was such a troubled production. “But interesting!” said Lester, enthusiastically.

O’Toole is excellent — his post-CALIGULA career was kind of ice-cold at this time, but he followed this up with MY FAVORITE YEAR — both films somehow suit his premature elder statesman quality — he seemed like some kind of survivor of a bygone age when I saw him on TV as a teen. (He was just a little older than I am now, but had, you know, done a lot of living, something I’ve done my best to avoid.) His and Richard Harris’ interviewers always seemed amazed he was alive, though it would have been even more startling, surely, had they been dead and still appearing on Parkinson. Barbara Hershey is also very good, though Rush apparently likes big and loud and frenzied performances. Hershey’s ability to look unbelievably gorgeous while twisting her face up in the throes of whatever passion is required by the action at hand seems like a special effect in itself.

Allen Garfield is not quite as glamorous as all that. I hope I can say that without causing offense. But he’s really good as the film’s writer, and it’s nice to see him not playing a sleaze, unbeatable though he is at that.

Leading man Railsback is, arguably, more problematic. Though much better than he was in LIFEFORCE, for sure — I think he’s hampered by the lunacy of every line and situation in that film. But the facial muscles that stood him in such good stead to play Charles Manson in Helter Skelter on TV do make him seem a little edgy, even for this movie. It’s fine that we think his character may have a serious criminal past (quite believable whenever he smiles), and may have combat shock and be delusional (believable during all the other facial expressions, and there are many), but perhaps a problem for the film that one is fighting a recurring impulse to lash out in self-defense with the nearest blunt instrument (in my case our Tonkinese cat, Momo). In a sense, despite the crime and insanity, his character is supposed to be a sort of innocent, out of his depth amid the madness of a film shoot.

But that doesn’t stop the film being interesting, it just makes it work differently. Perhaps less well. But it’s still an intriguing show. The movie O’Toole’s character is making looks dreadful, which is often a problem in behind-the-scenes dramas — the film being made never seems to hang together. But if you had a fully functional movie idea, why wouldn’t you be making that, instead of making THE STUNTMAN?

As befits the title, the stunt sequences are spectacular, even if the realistic acrobatics, pyrotechnics and daredevilry are somewhat undercut by the preposterous duration of the sequences being staged — I always assumed they’d break these things down into simpler, less risky and more controllable segments, although I’ve seen some bits of behind-the-scenes stuff from John Woo shoots which were eye-opening.

Rush’s appearance in his own documentary seems to explain his films nicely. Big hair, porn star mustache, deep, deep tan, muscles, corny sense of humour, adam’s-apple the size of a Fabergé egg — he seems Hemingwayesque, in a seventies kind of way. The rambunctiousness, the vulgarity, the thrust towards deep and meaningful statements, the energy (cranes, helicopters, steadicams whenever possible), the gaudiness (starburst filter! animated blast of light to take us into the next scene!) all makes sense when you see him. And for all the negative qualities associated with macho intellection and showy zooms and rack-focuses, he and his film are oddly likeable.

Also the score, by Dominic Frontiere, which contributes to the off-balance tone by adopting a circus attitude, pushing a light-heartedness that the movie only occasionally reaches for otherwise. Rush says it took them ten years to get the script made because the tone was so intentionally erratic, the subject unfamiliar (HOOPER and other stunt pics got made first, which actually helped them look like a bankable proposition), and studios couldn’t think how to sell it.

O’Toole loved his crane, apparently.

“I don’t think this music is right for this film,” protested Fiona.

“Well, it’s not obviously right… it’s interesting.”

 

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