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Back in the early ’70s, director Richard Rush got the crazy notion to mastermind a glorious union between the popcorn palace and the art house. He would make a wildly popular action-adventure movie, smartly laced with interwoven threads of existential philosophy, cinematic deconstruction, and socio-political analysis. This bizarre Holy Grail—a golden blend of thrills, spills, and contemplation—was The Stunt Man (1980), and even though it didn’t set the world on fire as intended, the film remains one of the noblest, most subversive attempts to fill mainstream cinema’s soda fountain with vintage wine.
In The Stunt Man, Peter O’Toole is ideally cast as Eli Cross, the director of a First World War movie who replaces a drowned, possibly murdered, stunt man with fugitive Vietnam veteran Cameron. It’s a pact that might turn out to be Faustian in the most diabolical sense, as the picaresque Cameron exchanges the “real” dangers of police pursuit for the faux-peril and trickery of movie work. “King Kong came up to Fay Wray’s belly button,” the potentially monstrous Cross reminds Cameron, at the same time channeling the suspension of disbelief, our deal with Hollywood, into murky waters.
Quickly established, Rush’s ingenious take on the classic film-within-a-film premise unfolds with delirious, fractal energy into a meta-movie about universal paranoia, the nature of illusion and reality, the warping of America’s psyche post-’Nam, the fragility of public trust post-Watergate, and a host of other intelligently spun sub-themes. At the same time, Rush supercharges adrenaline levels, ’70s style, offering up the partial demolition of a hotel, airplane wing-walking, the spectacular plunge of a speeding car off a high bridge, and the soft-filtered sight of Barbara Hershey’s bare ass, among his many gifts to our inner vicarious-thrill-seeker.
“If you’ve got something to say, you better slip it in while they’re laughing and crying and jacking off over the sex and violence,” says Cross, in one of many scenes generated by Rush’s beautifully controlled feedback loop of art-life-art imitation. At several points, Cross directly addresses the problems of making meaningful war movies, echoing Rush’s own observation (made to a Rolling Stone reporter in 1981) that coverage of the Vietnam War on the nightly news too often looked like a slickly-produced scripted drama.
Like Brian De Palma’s Body Double, The Stunt Man is a wildly enjoyable un-peeling of Hollywood—the act of watching, the chicanery of deception and illusion, the dizzy feeling of not knowing whether we should be looking ahead at the screen or glancing back over our shoulders towards real life. And Rush’s control over the material is still a thing of wonder.
Befitting a story built on confounded expectations, The Stunt Man didn’t pan out exactly as planned. Neither a stack of great reviews nor three Oscar nominations could save the film from Hollywood’s margins—it was hamstrung by executive inaction during a tepid, delayed roll-out in 1980, and Rush liked to say that the movie wasn’t released: instead it “escaped.” Even if his ascent from exploitation flick journeyman to unlikely auteur lacked an incandescent blaze of glory, Rush’s visionary art-house/actioner hybrid remains an irresistible slice of inspired, Trunkworthy madness.