1980 / Best Director

Film #556: The Stunt Man (1980)

Sometimes whilst writing for this blog I come across films that I’d never heard of before and this next movie is a case in point. The Stunt Man was a film that was nominated for some fairly big awards in 1980 including obviously the best director prize for Richard Rush a man who is possibly best known for helming the infamous Color of Night. But in Oscar terms The Stunt Man’s biggest claim to fame is in providing Peter O’Toole with the sixth of his eight Best Actor nominations, none of which ever netted him a win. It’s also probably the least well-remembered of O’Toole’s nominated films possibly because he’s not the leading actor in the film or indeed the titular stunt man.

Instead the star of The Stunt Man is Steve Railsbeck who plays Cameron a Vietnam veteran and fugitive who just happens to stumble onto the set of a World War I movie after he potentially kills the film’s stuntman. It is O’Toole’s slightly dodgy director Eli who gives Cameron the chance he needs by sheltering him from the police by agreeing to make him the movie’s new stuntman. The film then plays out as a thriller as Cameron isn’t quite sure why Eli is keeping him there and certainly most of the director’s crew advise him to cut the youngster loose. But Eli is portrayed as a rather strange character throughout at one point trying to elicit the emotion of shame in his lead actress Nina by telling her he’d shown a clip of her nude scene to her visiting parents. It is Nina who actually provides the catalyst for the rest of the action as she begins to fall in love with Cameron whilst her former lover Eli becomes jealous. This sets up a final scene in which Cameron has one more stunt to do but tries to escape with Nina as he believes Eli is trying to have him killed. What follows is a bit strange and I feel it perfectly summed up the tone of The Stunt Man which is a film that never quite knew what it wanted to be.

Certainly the opening credits and Dominic Frontiere’s jaunty score suggested to me that this would be some sort of satirical look at the film industry but I felt it never quite got there. Indeed the scenes where the film was at its best were the ones featuring Eli and his dogged determination to get the right shot at the right time. This was partly because Rush and co-writer Lawrence B Marcus had written all the best dialogue for the totally nutty director who was the most compelling character by a country mile. It’s a shame then that the action centres around the deathly dull Cameron whose fate I didn’t care about for one moment and who’s relationship with every character felt forced. Part of the reason for this has to be the performance by Steve Railsbeck, an actor who I’ve never heard of before and probably for a very good reason. Railsbeck is wooden throughout the film and has no convincing chemistry with Barbara Hershey who gives a spirited performance as leading actress Nina Franklin. In fact O’Toole and Hershey have much more chemistry than she shares with Railsbeck therefore you are willing for Eli and Nina to rekindle their relationship once again. I feel Rush’s nomination may have come via some of the film’s set pieces, most notably its climactic sequence, although at times I felt the film was over-directed. I do believe the biggest contributing factor to The Stunt Man’s Oscar success has to be because it deals with the movie industry which is always a winner as far as the Academy is concerned. However I wasn’t impressed by anything that happened in The Stunt Man and thought it only worked when the magnificent Peter O’Toole gave what I consider to be more of a supporting turn as Eli.

Rush’s nomination at the 1980 ceremony came at the expense of Michael Apted, whose direction of Coal Miner’s Daughter was sadly overlooked. Whilst the direction in Coal Miner’s Daughter wasn’t exactly flashy when compared to fellow nominees Raging Bull and The Elephant Man it was a step up from what Rush did on The Stunt Man. Overall I found The Stunt Man to be a rather unremarkable film that contained a memorable performance from Peter O’Toole and possibly garnered as much love as it did from the Academy due to its sideways look at the film industry. Unfortunately for The Stunt Man, the reason it has never really achieved much longevity is because it received a limited release to the extent that the always witty O’Toole said that it wasn’t released it escaped. But I can’t see why anybody would particularly want to watch the mundane The Stunt Man today unless like me you were some sort of Oscar completest.

Next Time I return to a much more familiar place with a world-famous director and a film I’ve watched on multiple occasions.

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