Directed By: Richard Rush
Starring: Peter O'Toole, Steve Railsback, Barbara Hershey
Tag line: "If God could do the things that we can do, he'd be a happy man . . ."
Trivia: Ryan O'Neal originally was slated to play the lead, but dropped out and was eventually replaced by Steve Railsback.
Director Richard Rush ‘s 1980 film, The Stunt Man, is a scathing satire of both the Hollywood system and the depths to which some filmmakers will sink in order to get the “perfect shot”.
Cameron (Steve Railsbeck), a Vietnam veteran, is on the run from the police. While trying to evade capture, he inadvertently disrupts a film shoot and, in so doing, causes the death of the production’s stunt man. The only person to witness the tragedy was the movie’s director, Eli Cross (Pete O’Toole), who was watching from a helicopter. Fearing the local authorities may shut his production down, Cross convinces the sheriff (Alex Rocco) that Cameron is the stunt man, and that he, in fact, survived the accident. This clever ploy secures Cameron’s freedom (his physical appearance is even altered to resemble that of the deceased stunt man) while also allowing Cross to continue making his movie. Yet as Cameron soon discovers, life with Eli Cross is more traumatic than he ever could have imagined. Forced to perform death-defying feats with little or no advance knowledge of what’s in store for him, Cameron lives in constant fear, and despite the reassurances of the picture’s leading lady (Barbara Hershey) and its writer (Allen Garfield) that everything will be fine, he doesn’t trust Eli one bit. So, when it’s time to do the stunt for the film’s big climax, Cameron isn’t sure if he can go through with it.
The Stunt Man is, at times, a very funny movie, but it’s also a dark one, and much of that darkness comes courtesy of Peter O’Toole. The actor delivers a bravura performance as Eli Cross, the raging egomaniac who, rumor has it, once tried to kill a cameraman for missing a crucial shot. O’Toole’s Cross looms heavy over the entire film, pulling everyone’s strings to get them to do exactly what he wants. As an outsider to it all, Cameron acts as our guide through this bizarre world of make-believe, and like him, we find ourselves wondering where the movie ends, and reality begins.
Railsback is convincing as the confused title character, and both Hershey and Garfield are solid in their respective roles. The Stunt Man also features some truly harrowing stunt work, impressive even by today’s standards. Yet it’s Peter O’Toole who steals the show. Playing a man who’s equal parts God and the Devil, O’Toole delivers yet another of his patented witty performances, and netted himself an Academy Award nomination in the process.
In the end, you may not remember everything about The Stunt Man, but odds are you’ll never forget Eli Cross.