Nominated for three academy awards (Best Director [Richard Rush], Best Actor [Peter O’Toole] and Best Screenplay [Lawrence B. Marcus/Richard Rush]), The Stunt Man is one of my all-time favourite films (no surprise, then, that it shows up on my Top 100 List). Although there have been numerous films featuring movies-within-movies over the years (1995’s Get Shorty, for example), The Stunt Man succeeds marvellously at making us question the truth of what we’re seeing, but not in an arty-farty way; this movie is balls-to-the-wall fun, all thanks to the inventive script and stand out performances from Peter O’Toole (as Eli Cross, the director of the WWI anti-war film that our protagonist stumbles onto), Steve Railsback (Cameron aka Bart aka Lucky, the Vietnam war vet running from the law) and Barbara Hershey (Nina, the lead actress in the WWI movie). The music by Dominic Frontiere hits just the right notes (ugh) of playful whimsy and action (usually reserved for the movie-within-movie’s stunts, or Eli doing his crazy director thing. There’s a reason why the Devil in the movie’s poster looks like O’Toole). The setup: Cameron finds himself pretending to be Bart the stunt man in a WWI anti-war film, a just-crazy-it-migh-work plan to avoid capture by the police who are hunting Cameron for crimes unknown. He seems a bit … high-strung; is he a killer? A rapist? But Eli takes him under his wing and initiates the rouse about Cameron really being Bart (a stunt man whose death is partially Cameron’s fault), becoming his saviour (or is he?) and his tormentor in the process. Nothing is quite as it seems, as Cameron slowly begins to think Eli wants to capture his dying breath in the spectacular, climatic stunt at the end of the shoot.
For Story, I give it top marks (+3) for the way it plays with our expectations while still being fun and thrilling. This ain’t no art-house film. You could argue that the scenes of them filming the WWI stunts are not very realistic (in terms of the shots) but even on repeating viewings this doesn’t bother me or take me out of the movie. The Look scores a +2. I’ll give it a +2 for Overall Casting as every part was perfectly cast, and Peter O’Toole nails the egomaniacal director thing (Charles Bail is wonderfully droll as the stunt coordinator who shows Cameron the ropes. He’s been a stunt coordinator and does uncredited stunts in this film, too). Finally, for Commitment to Genre this also gets top marks (+2).
The soundtrack gets a point (+1) for the three main themes – the playful, almost circus-sounding composition which Frontiere uses in different orchestrations throughout the film; the driving, action movie theme typically associated with Eli and the WWi stunt scenes, and the love theme. I’ve still got them playing around in my head a week after watching it on DVD (even ordered the LP online since there’s only one CD version and it’s (a) expensive, and (b) paired with An Unmarried Woman. Ugh.). I’ll deduct one point (-1) for the opening escape from the cops as we could have used more scenes involving evading the manhunt to establish Cameron as a force to be reckoned with. It also makes the cops (who apparently had him surrounded at the diner) look lame. I’ll deduct one more (-1) for the ease in which a Vietnam war vet becomes an accomplished movie stunt man merely after being shown how to do a front roll. I think it might take a bit more work than that. Finally, I’ll add a point for what I consider to be Peter O’Toole’s best role since Laurence of Arabia. No idea who he based his portrayal of a director on, but man it’s good (especially in the scene where he manipulates Barbara Hershey into giving him what he wants from her character (emotionally) by telling her her visiting parents watched her nude sex scene in rushes the night before. What he doesn’t tell her, but what the audience strongly suspects, is that he did that on purpose knowing what he needed to shoot with her the next day. Brilliant).