Weekend Film Recommendation: The Stunt Man

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If God could do the tricks that we can do, he’d be a happy man.

The late Peter O’Toole signed on to many over the top, unconventional films (no small number of them when he was intoxicated). This resulted in him headlining some legendary stinkers (e.g., Caligula). But it also landed him plum roles in off-beat masterworks such as prior RBC recommendation The Ruling Class and this week’s recommendation: The Stunt Man.

The film was released to only a handful of theaters in 1980 (In O’Toole’s words, “it wasn’t released, it escaped”) because the studios had no faith in it. Some critics found the film pretentious, manipulative and tiresome, yet it ended up on other critic’s best of the year lists and landed three Oscar nominations. Over time it has attracted a cult following, which it very much deserves, despite its flaws.

The Stunt Man is a film that messes with the minds of the characters — and with the audience’s as well — by relentlessly mixing movie fantasy with reality. The unreality is embedded in the plot from the first. An alienated Viet Nam veteran named Cameron (Steve Railsback) is wanted for an unknown crime and flees the police, only to find himself in what seems to be World War I. But it’s actually a war movie being directed by Eli Cross (Peter O’Toole). Cameron has a run in with a man he thinks is trying to kill him, but who turns out to be a stunt man shooting a scene. The stunt man dies, and Cameron may or may not be responsible: only the film shot of the event by Cross could reveal the truth. As the police close in, Cross offers to hide Cameron within the movie company if the fugitive will become the stunt man and complete the movie! Cameron agrees, and from then on is manipulated, tricked and exploited by Cross while simultaneously trying to romance the lovely starlet Nina Franklin (Barbara Hershey), who seems to have genuine feelings for him…or is that just a manipulation too?

Yes, it’s one hell of a set up. But then again, the script is adapted from a novel in which all the lead characters are insane. The writer/director was Richard Rush, an eccentric, talented but ultimately unsuccessful Hollywood figure whose erratic career path is probably worth a novel of its own. If everyone has one great movie in him, this is Rush’s, and he went for broke, mixing black comedy, action, romance, suspense and satire with largely successful results.

The best thing about the film is Peter O’Toole, who turns in another of his unrestrained, arch performances as Eli Cross. His part is written to be larger than life, and he plays it to the hilt. They say the best roles for British actors are kings and drunks. O’Toole played many of both in his career, and was in real life a King among Drunks in his generation of actors. It wasn’t happenstance that he was nominated for an acting Oscar 8 times yet could never quite seal the deal with Academy Award voters (The Stunt Man was one of those disappointments). His distinctive style and obvious talent draws most of us in, but at the same time his flamboyant performances put a significant minority of people off because they feel that he is just playing Peter O’Toole again.

Other strengths of the film are the memorable score by Dominic Frontiere and some vivid supporting performances which help compensate for Railsback being rather one-note as the film’s hero. Also, true to its name, this film is full of jaw-dropping stunts.

The script, with its movie-in-a-movie, riddle-in-a-riddle structure is a matter of taste. I found it a work of near-genius, but I can understand why other viewers consider it exhausting and even alienating. This scene from the film gives a sense of the proceedings, and the compelling nature of O’Toole’s appropriately theatrical portrayal of a mad genius filmmaker. Give this unusual film a chance and make your own judgement.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

5 thoughts on “Weekend Film Recommendation: The Stunt Man”

  1. I also adored this movie, a long time ago, but have forgotten much of it, would love to see it again. And i say that by way of preamble to a complaint I have lodged here multiple times, and sorry for being a broken record (or a scratched CD, as the more modern Mexicans say). But if these are truly "Weekend Film Recommendations", then you really ought to include links to either Amazon Prime, Netflix, or Public Domain film databases/YouTube. Because obviously even if we had Netflix Physical DVDs rather than Netflix Streaming or Amazon Prime subscriptions, we wouldn't be able to order your suggestions in time for the weekend. And you may be a Brit (sorry for not being sure), so it's possible these films ARE available on British streaming services. But it would be ever so sporting, or wanking, or spiffing (I'm rather dim with Brit gerunds) if you'd try to steer us toward films we might actually watch this weekend.

    Love your reviews and suggestions, and your deep dives into some of the peripheral arcana are always entertaining. But I wanna see the fucking movies, and I wanna fucking see them THIS weekend.

    There, I've said it again,

      1. As I posted here some time ago, I consulted a legal expert and for me to direct people on my site to a free film on youtube creates a legal vulnerability for the site, so I don't do it. I don't know what paid services everyone uses…I tell people when it's on one that I use – I count on readers knowing their own situation better than I do and doing searching wherever is appropriate for them.

  2. Steve Railsback was known for playing Charles Manson (and little else), so I think the casting was a brilliant way to undercut his innocence in a way, whether intended or not. I'm guess 100 years from now that won't matter much though.

    I've read that Adolphe Menjou was cast in Paths of Glory precisely because he wouldn't realize the character he played was a monster.

    1. I really liked him as Manson, and did not like how he played this role (and others) as if that film had never wrapped.

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