It was at a midnight screening of the admirably demented buddy cop movie Freebie and the Bean where I first became acquainted with Richard Rush, and a midnight screening seems the perfect home for his next and arguably greatest film, The Stunt Man. Looking back on it now, it’s kind of hard to believe the film was actually nominated for three Oscars (actor, director, and adapted screenplay), alongside a much more typical Academy choice, Ordinary People, which was the big winner that year. Rush is no Robert Redford — he possesses an outsider persona and subversive streak that makes The Stunt Man such a wonderfully strange film.
The film’s self-reflexivity and critical nature of moviemaking aren’t unique, and neither is its strategy of blurring the line between reality and fiction, but The Stunt Man has plenty to offer to the movies about movies subgenre. It’s as much a critique of excess conflated with art as it is a wildly entertaining genre piece in its own right. And let’s not forget it’s got one of the great Peter O’Toole performances.
Steve Railsback (both wooden and manic in equal measure) stars as Cameron, a Vietnam vet on the run from the law. During an escape from justice, he inadvertently causes the death of a stunt man working on a movie, and the film’s madman director Eli Cross (O’Toole) taps Cameron to be the new stunt man, where he can hide out from the police.
It’s not long before Cross has Cameron performing a litany of dangerous stunts, and Cameron himself is falling in love with the film’s leading lady, Nina Franklin (Barbara Hershey). Meanwhile, O’Toole’s production of the overstuffed WWI thriller is spiraling out of control and a suspicious police chief (Alex Rocco) is hanging around the set, trying to uncover the mystery surrounding the original stunt man’s disappearance.
The Stunt Man is not a polished film, wildly careening from scene to scene with an energy that occasionally seems misplaced, but the off-balance structure works to the film’s advantage more often than not. Here, emotions are heightened so often, nearly everything could be the product of an artificial Hollywood construct. O’Toole’s maestro of madness just adds to the sensation of imbalance, and as he piles undue expectations on Cameron, the film reaches its boiling point.
The Stunt Man is the kind of movie the term “cult film” was invented to describe, and this fantastic Blu-ray version will likely be a frequent guest at home midnight movie screenings.