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Richard Rush, the semi-legendary, often too-independent film director who cut his teeth on such American-International drive-in quickies as Hells Angels on Wheels (1967) and Psych-Out (1968), knows what it feels like to never receive the attention from the American public that you probably deserve, even when you successfully pull off a shockingly original film.
"I was lecturing at a university film school to a bunch of potential film students and asked them if any of them had seen my films," Rush told the British film journalist Paul Hupfield in 2001. "I started with Color of Night (1994), and I'd say about 80 hands went up out of a room of about 200 kids. Then I asked if anyone had seen The Stunt Man (1980), the film I actually wanted to talk to them about, and only two hands went up. Two hands in a room of 200! I thought, 'Oh boy, my film is totally lost on this generation...'"
The Stunt Man, a bizarre swirl of pseudo-surrealism that stars Peter O'Toole as an egotistical, dangerously manipulative film director named Eli Cross, is easily Rush's most critically revered movie, having garnered three Oscar® nominations (including nods to O'Toole for Best Actor and Rush himself for Best Director), so it makes sense that he wanted to discuss it with a captive audience. But he surely must have been a little bit prepared for the crowd's lack of enthusiasm, since that's how most of Hollywood responded to his years-long attempt to get the picture made. Then, once he actually made it, he had troubled getting it released!
Steve Railsback plays Cameron, a Vietnam War veteran who's being chased by a local sheriff (Alex Rocco) for an unspecified crime when he stumbles upon Eli and his crew shooting a World War I epic. When a stuntman accidentally dies due to Cameron's interference during a stunt, Eli recruits Cameron to replace the stuntman - by taking on the dead man's identity and thus hiding himself from the police. This leads to Cameron's infatuation with the movie's lead actress, Nina Franklin (Barbara Hershey, looking knock-dead gorgeous), who may or may not be manipulating Cameron for unknown reasons. Then again, every character in the movie seems to be manipulating someone for unknown reasons.
Dreams and reality mesh together in The Stunt Man, often within the same shot, and the viewer is never quite sure of the key characters' motivations. O'Toole's Eli hangs above the entire cast and crew of the movie-within-the-movie he's shooting - sometimes literally, when he swoops down on his camera crane - like a viewfinder-wielding God.
The Stunt Man is a quirky jigsaw puzzle of a picture that reveals more secrets about, in Rush's words, "the panic and paranoia over controlling our own destinies" through repeated viewings; it can also leave you marveling at its utterly odd ingenuity the first time you see it. Regardless of how you feel about it, it's without a doubt one of the more cleverly conceived pictures of the 1980s.
Rush originally turned down The Stunt Man, which was based on a novel by magazine writer Paul Brodeur, in the early 1970s, even though Columbia Pictures told him Arthur Penn and Francois Truffaut were also interested in directing it. That was the kind of exalted filmmaker Rush was competing with at the time, since his previous picture for Columbia, a hip Elliott Gould comedy called Getting Straight (1970), had been one of the studio's biggest recent hits.
When the other filmmakers also passed, Rush slowly started viewing Brodeur's book as a reflection of his own career - his intense quest for perfection on the set fit quite snugly with the novel's maniacal, omnipotent director. "There was an irresistible metaphor in the book that kept haunting me, and I kept going back to it in my head," Rush has said. Finally, he wrote a treatment that was significantly different from the source material, with the additional and quite important twist of making the central characters sane in a world gone mad, rather than the other way around. This approach was a remaining vestige of a beloved, long un-produced project, the rights to which Rush had recently sold to Kirk Douglas- none other than One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (Douglas' son, Michael, would eventually produce that picture in 1975.)
Columbia, unfortunately, rejected Rush's first draft of The Stunt Man, saying it was difficult to understand and didn't fit in any particular genre...which was Rush's exact intent. "They couldn't figure out if it was a comedy, a drama, if it was a social satire, if it was an action adventure...and, of course, the answer was, 'Yes, it's all those things.' But that isn't a satisfactory answer to a studio executive." Rush was finally able to get the rights to The Stunt Man for himself and tried shopping it to other studios, with no luck, for more than ten years. Finally, he secured financing from the independent producer, Melvin Simon, and started shooting it without a studio's involvement.
Rush's cast, including O'Toole, had been hanging on forever hoping for this moment. O'Toole, in particular, was raring to go. When he originally read the script a few years earlier, he called Rush long distance from England and said, "I am an articulate, intelligent man. I read the screenplay and if you don't give me the part I will kill you."
O'Toole's Eli is a raging, pontificating amalgam of Richard Rush characteristics, and everyone working on The Stunt Man knew it. This even applied to the clothes O'Toole wore. Te actor spent several days trying to come up with a suitable costume for Eli when Rush finally handed him an outfit that was an exact replica of the one Rush was wearing on the set that day, including the view finder he had hanging around his neck!
Rush, also like Eli, would stop at nothing to get the footage he needed. At one point, the FAA wouldn't allow the director to have an old biplane fly too close over San Diego's Hotel del Coronado that served as one of the movie-within-the-movie's sets. Rush couldn't accept this, and neither could his stunt coordinator, Chuck Bail, who plays a version of himself in the film.
Eventually, Rush secured the right to land the plane at a nearby Naval base, then Bail, who volunteered to fly the antique aircraft, "developed radio trouble" and lost contact with the closest control tower, at which point the plane mysteriously began to "stall" directly over the hotel. Bail then performed a handful of diving runs and machine gun passes while Rush filmed him with five strategically located cameras.
Once filming was complete, Rush had to start jumping through hoops all over again. No major studio would distribute The Stunt Man, and Rush knew he would need a major player's help to recoup the initial investment. But after extremely positive previews in Seattle, Phoenix, and Columbus, Ohio, and a lengthy test run at a cooperative Seattle theater, the picture finally won the Grand Prix Award at the Montreal Film Festival. So 20th Century Fox agreed to pick it up...and eventually dumped it in a handful of theaters with virtually no publicity!
After The Stunt Man was nominated for the Oscars®, Rush was promised by Fox it would be released in more theaters, and it was; three more theaters were sent prints, and the movie died a quick death. Talk about the panic and paranoia of controlling your own destiny!
Director: Richard Rush
Executive Producer: Melvin Simon
Associate Producer: Paul Lewis
Screenplay: Richard Rush, Larry Marcus (based on the novel by Paul Brodeur)
Cinematographer: Mario Tosi
Editor: Jack Hofstra, Caroline Biggerstaff
Music: Dominic Frontiere
Art Design: James Schoppe
Set Design: Richard Spero
Costume Design: Rosanna Norton
Cast: Peter O'Toole (Eli Cross), Steve Railsback (Cameron), Barbara Hershey (Nina Franklin), Allen Goorwitz (Sam), Alex Rocco (Jake), Sharon Farrell (Denise), Adam Roarke (Raymond Bailey), Philip Bruns (Ace), Chuck Bail (Chuck Barton).
by Paul Tatara