“You must have heard surely of movie magic. You should be a stunt man, who is an actor, who is a character in a movie, who is an enemy soldier. Who’ll look for you amongst all those? People like to believe in things, and policemen are just people. Or so I’m told. Frankly, our problem is so simple it’s almost beneath us. Now listen to me: that door is the looking glass, and inside it is Wonderland. Have faith Alice! Close your eyes and enjoy.”
The movie recommendations are back after our two-week-long pause while we tended to the main festival. Since there’s a cautious sense of optimism in the air and businesses are opening back up across the country, I will continue sending my musings but in a curtailed schedule of Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. I hope this new adjustment works well for all of us.
We go to the movies suspending our disbeliefs, willingly accepting that what we’re watching is an illusion. We completely give in to the artifice, at times gasping when we see something shocking or shedding a tear when Rick puts Elsa on the plane out of Casablanca. One aspect that I’ve found intriguing about movies is how I’m able to disconnect from my everyday issues by actually entering someone else’s story and expression of reality. I have always been caught too much in my head, and the cinema gives me the opportunity to disconnect from all the noise surrounding me. We long for a sense of control in our lives, and film–with its beginning, middle and end–gives us continuity and assurance. When my youngest niece was little she wanted to watch “The Lion King” over and over again, for the repetition was comforting. We cannot control our lives and destinies, but we can still find stability in movies. At the height of last year’s chaos, I could always find solace in re-watching movies I’d explored before.
All of the above ideas are explored in the feverishly entertaining “The Stunt Man” (1980) directed and co-written by Richard Rush, who died last week. The film was an obsession of mine when it first came out and it has continued to fascinate me ever since. It defies genre classification. It’s an action film for sure, with extraordinary edge of your seat sequences. It has a great amount of comedy, and some of it is slapstick. It also plays out like a thriller, and there’s a romance at the heart of it. It comments on our treatment of veterans, and it floats existential musings about fate. In addition, it’s one of the best movies about movie making, and it features an Oscar-nominated turn by Peter O’Toole. He’s unforgettable as the egotistical director who will go to whatever length possible to get the best shot. “If God could do the tricks that we can do he’d be a happy man!” he declares.
The plot is so devilishly ingenious. Cameron, a Vietnam vet, is running away from the police when he stumbles onto the set of a movie about World War I. Its director Eli Cross has recently lost a stunt man in a production accident… or was it? Cross knows Cameron’s secret, agrees to disguise him, bleaches his hair and makes him his new stuntman to hide him from the detectives. But now Cameron is indebted to Cross who forces him to perform intricate and difficult action scenes – progressively escalating their level of danger. To Cameron, the precarious stunts feel too real, and he starts to suspect that Cross wants to endanger him in order to capture the ultimate spectacular act of his own death on film. Or could all this be part of Cameron’s paranoia? There’s also Nina, whom Cameron starts to fall in love with, but she might be seducing him as part of a scheme, and could Cross also be calling the shots on her behavior?
“How tall was King Kong?” Eli Cross asks Cameron. Director Rush is always visually reminding you that this is all make believe, blurring the line between reality and illusion. Early on in the film when Cross is striking the Mephistophelian bargain with Cameron, he takes him up on a crane from which he directs the film, a rig that gives him a godlike presence (as does his usage of a helicopter). The two men hover above the ground, the ocean behind them and the camera moving as their elevated structure turns and changes our perspective. The movie has some really high aspirations, but on the surface it is all highly entertaining. You don’t have to worry about the heady stuff, but it’s there and it’s tasty. In the first stunt sequence that involves Cameron hopping around the rooftops of the famed Hotel Coronado, the line between our expectations, what is real and what is actually a trickery, is blurred. We think Cameron’s experiencing it all for the first time. We even see him getting injured, with a bleeding wound on his cheek– only to later see the stunt coordinator peel the latex off his face.
Richard Rush received a best director nod and a second for his screenplay. He sets it all up in his opening credits. A police car, a dog licking his privates, a hovering helicopter, reflections on a diner glass window, and our leading lady’s commercial appearing on a screen. O’Toole is grand, supposedly channeling David Lean in his characterization. It’s a nuanced Shakespearean turn – yes that’s meant to be a contradiction.
Pilot: “Dam bird tried to kill us.”
Eli Cross: “It’s your point of view.”
Available to stream on HBO Max, HBO, Hulu, Kanopy, DIRECTV and PopcornFlix
Screenplay by Lawrence B. Marcus. Adapted by Richard Rush.
Based on the novel by Paul Brodeur
Directed by Richard Rush
Starring Peter O’Toole, Steve Railsback, Barbara Hershey, Allen Garfield, Alex Rocco, Sharon Farrell, Adam Roarke and Philip Bruns
About Writer and Director Richard Rush
Early in his career, Rush directed the youth-targeted flicks “Hells Angels on Wheels” (1967) and “Psych-Out” (1968) — both featuring a brash, young Jack Nicholson — and went on to helm and produce one of the first Hollywood buddy-cop comedies, “Freebie and the Bean” (1974). Rush also directed and produced “Getting Straight” (1970), a hip countercultural comedy that starred Elliott Gould and Candice Bergen and was one of the first films to center on the Vietnam War. “The Stunt Man” (1980), a blistering satire of behind-the-scenes moviemaking, starred O’Toole, in one of his finest roles, as the manipulative movie director Eli Cross. When an escaped convict (Steve Railsback) wanders onto the set of his war picture and causes the death of a stuntman, Cross allows him to take the dead man’s place, then puts him in all sorts of perilous situations — all to get the perfect shot. It took Rush almost a decade to get “The Stunt Man” off the ground, and he was rewarded with Oscar noms for adapting (with Lawrence B. Marcus) the novel by Paul Brodeur as well as directing. He produced the movie as well. Despite accolades from critics and effusive praise from the moviegoers who saw it, “The Stunt Man” was grossly mishandled by its distributors and never received a wide release, a lamentable situation that Rush addressed in the 2000 DVD documentary “The Sinister Saga of Making The Stunt Man.” In an interview before the 2016 Coronado Island Film Festival (The Stunt Man features a wonderful scene filmed surreptitiously outside the Hotel del Coronado), Rush was asked why it took so long for him to get a green light. “The financial history of movies made about movies was questionable. Plus, they didn’t want to reveal the secrets of the stunt world to the public,” he said. “[But] the real reason for the rejection is they wanted a picture that could be described in one sentence. Was it a comedy, a tragedy, social satire or action adventure movie? The answer was yes, and they couldn’t pigeonhole it. Ten years later when we made the movie, it came out exactly the way I wanted it to.”
Richard Rush was born in Manhattan on April 15, 1929. He and his family moved to Los Angeles when he was 7, and he attended L.A. High and film school at UCLA. He then shot training films and did PR work for the U.S. Air Force, an “amazing period of training” for him. In 1960, Rush made his directorial debut on Universal Pictures’ “Too Soon to Love,” which he also wrote and produced. A romantic drama about two teenagers and an unexpected pregnancy, it featured Nicholson in only his second big-screen appearance. Rush then wrote and helmed “Of Love and Desire” (1963), toplined by Merle Oberon and Steve Cochran, and helmed “Thunder Alley” (1967), a stock car movie that starred Fabian and Annette Funicello. The latter was his first film for American International Pictures. AIP was “the teenage exploitation studio that knew the secret the studios didn’t, which is that if you want to attract a certain demographic, you make your major cast that age group, and they’ll come to see themselves,” Rush said in a 2011 interview with the A.V. Club. “Also, you should deal with themes that are important to them. Since I was very rebellious, my characters were always very rebellious, which seemed to be the keynote of American youth at that time.” Rush employed real bikers for “Hells Angels on Wheels,” wrapped the hippie flick “Psych-Out” in 13 days, directed a second motorcycle picture, “The Savage Seven” (1968); and helmed the low-budget spy drama “A Man Called Dagger” (1968). Rush had a breakthrough with “Getting Straight,” an intelligent dissection of academia and the shallowness of the protest era that would become Columbia Pictures’ highest-grossing film that year. Gould plays a disillusioned graduate student, and Bergen is his chameleon-like girlfriend in the movie. “The book for Getting Straight was a novel [by Ken Kolb] that was intriguing. I told the studio if they would let me play the story in current times, at a university protesting the war in Vietnam, I would be obliged to do it,” Rush said. “The studio was very much government-connected, and it was daring of them to let me have the go-ahead.”
While he was dickering with studio executives over “The Stunt Man,” Rush was offered the chance to direct and produce Freebie and the Bean, starring James Caan (already attached) and Alan Arkin (his choice) as cops who run roughshod over San Francisco. It was Warner Bros.’ top money-maker in 1974. “We did a new screenplay based on the idea, which appealed to me, of two bad cops who run around town like an old married couple, constantly arguing with each other,” he said. “I’m not sure which was the husband and which was the wife, and I don’t think they were sure either.” Rush’s 12th and final feature as director was the erotic thriller “Color of Night” (1994), starring Bruce Willis. Rush received a screenplay credit on “Air America” (1990), a saga about a C.I.A.-run airline in Cambodia that starred Mel Gibson and Robert Downey Jr. He spent years on the project, but his script was rewritten… Rush teamed with Laszlo Kovacs on six films, and he said he and the famed cinematographer developed the filming technique known as “racking focus,” when the focus is shifted from one object to another in a frame. Rush appeared as an airline pilot in the 1987 Railsback-starring film “Distortions.” An avid aviator himself, he owned a relic World War II plane equipped for aerial photography. In addition to his wife — they were together for 48 years — survivors include his son, Anthony, and grandson, Shayne. “He will be remembered for a string of landmark films in the 1960s and ’70s, culminating with his 1980 multi-Oscar-nominated classic, “The Stunt Man,” which is widely regarded as one of the greatest films of all time,” his wife wrote in a statement. “But to those who were privileged to know and love him, he will be even more warmly remembered, and missed, for his integrity, his loyalty, his endless generosity of spirit and his boundless support and mentorship of other filmmakers, writers or indeed anyone who ever dared to, in the words of his Stunt Man hero Eli Cross, ’tilt at a windmill.'” (hollywoodreporter.com)
Richard Rush on Bringing “The Stunt Man” to the Screen
…The creative process started in the 70’s when I had been approached to direct it, but there were regime changes, and the champions of the project were all of a sudden gone. It was a tricky adaptation from Paul Brodeur’s book, and it took a lot of time and energy. Working with O’Toole was one of the great moments of my career, he’s one of the greatest actors of all time, and knowing how much he loved the film has always made me very happy. The Stunt Man could never be made today, and knowing that, I’m extremely happy that we did what we did, and that over the years, the response from fans and critics has been beyond inspiring to see. But it was a hard film to get made, with many obstacles.”…It was a very long process totaling 10 years from script to screen. I had the audacity to think that I could make a picture that would explore illusion and reality, and I wanted to use the film as a mirror for the paranoid mindset that we all live through at one point or another. And I got double Oscar nominated, for writing and directing, and of course Peter O’Toole was nominated for Best Actor. It’s all about trying to keep your finger on the pulse of society, and figuring out what’s relevant…” (wearecult.rocks)
Peter O’Toole on Joining “The Stunt Man”
“Many years ago, a woman gave me the sack. She said goodbye. And she left a note. It said, “Someone has made a film just for you. It starts with a cat p—ing in a dustbin whose contents are then searched by two crooked policemen. And then it gets a great deal worse. Also, there’s plenty of tomato soup in it.”…Yeah. Tomato soup! That’s what she said. It was called ‘Freebie and the Bean.’ I went to see it and indeed she was quite right. [Laughs] It had all those ingredients and made me chuckle a great deal, and there were vats of tomato soup in it. Blood. Tomato soup. Months, months, months later, I was in Los Angeles with a friend at a party and a chap began to speak to me about a script. I have a habit of grinning roguishly and then going away, if you follow me. As we were leaving, my mate said, “That chap made a very good picture called ‘Freebie and the Bean.’” So I went back and I said, “You made the Freebie and the Bean”? And it was Richard Rush. And the script he had was ‘The Stunt Man.’ I was determined to play it. Really determined. It was one of the only parts I ever really wanted to play. It’s the old Noël Coward statement: “Nobody’s born a star…” Hang on, let me get it right! “Nobody’s born a star. It has to be the right part, in the right play, at the right time, and you’ve got to be good at that!” Which is kind of the standard one sets for oneself. And it was the right part in the right play at the right time, and I wanted to do it and off we went.” (ew.com)
About Screenwriter Lawrence B. Marcus
Born in Beaver, Utah, and reared in Chicago, Mr. Marcus left school after the eighth grade. He began writing for radio while serving in the military during World War II… his 18 feature-film credits included ”Petulia” and the Oscar-nominated movie ”The Stunt Man,” died on Tuesday in Los Angeles. He was 84. Among his better known films were ”Justine” (1969), directed by George Cukor; ”Going Home” (1971), starring Robert Mitchum; and ”Alex and the Gypsy” (1976), starring Jack Lemmon and Genevieve Bujold. ”The Stunt Man,” a black comedy with a screenplay by Mr. Marcus and Richard Rush, the film’s director, was released in 1980 and starred Peter O’Toole as an autocratic director. Mr. Marcus nearly abandoned one of his most successful projects, the script for the 1968 film ”Petulia,” which starred Julie Christie, George C. Scott and Richard Chamberlin. It was directed by Richard Lester. ”I finished the first 35 pages and sent them off to Mr. Lester with a letter telling him that this was silly, that I didn’t like the pages, and that I quit,” he recalled years later. ”I got an immediate wire from him: ‘Love the pages; hated the letter; work.’ ”’ In the 1980’s he taught screenwriting at New York University…Marcus passed away in 2001. (nytimes.com)