Warplanes strafe a beach as cameras record their assault. A crowd watches the explosions. Onlookers, awed by the pyrotechnic effects, cheer the moviemakers whose magic they're watching.
But then the smoke clears. Corpses litter the beach. Fragments of bodies are strewn about. Blood leaks into the sand. Spectators scream. Others cry. Some faint.
Then someone yells "Cut" and the dead rise, brushing off their cosmetic wounds and picking up the rubber limbs that were gory, severed stand-ins for their own healthy, intact ones. The audience's horror gives way to wonder. Spectators again applaud the technicians who have crafted such convincing illusions.
Watching The Stunt Man provides that same dizzying sense of movie illusions triumphing over reality. This enthralling movie sustains wonder even as it exposes the illusions it creates.
The Stunt Man (1980; directed by Richard Rush; written by Lawrence B. Marcus, adapting Paul Brodeur's novel;) is about making movies, so sometimes the action we're seeing takes place in the movie we're watching. Other times it takes place in the movie we are watching being made in the movie we're watching. And sometimes what seems to be one turns out to be the other. It's disorienting, but delightfully so.
The Stunt Man takes us behind the scenes of an ambitious anti-war film being made by Eli Cross, a charismatic director played masterfully by Peter O'Toole. He wants to make a "relevant" movie, but the commercial success and critical acclaim that have led the studio to allow him the freedom to do so came just a few years too late for him to be able to make his masterpiece during the U.S. war against Vietnam. So he is left in the late 1970s trying to make a movie about the first World War and hoping to avoid the misery suffered by another director. That man made a good anti-war movie, but watched it encourage many people to flock to Army enlistment offices. O'Toole is driven to ensure that his classic does not do the same.
Onto O'Toole's set stumbles a fugitive from the police (Steve Railsback). He has just escaped being hit by a vintage car that then crashed off a bridge into a river, where the driver drowned. The driver was a stunt man filming a scene for O'Toole's movie. Rather than allow tragedy to thwart his plans for triumph, O'Toole solves his production problem by pressuring Railsback to take the dead stunt man's place. He has no experience and is nervous about the prospect, but the chance to avoid arrest is too much to pass up.
Railsback's taking over as the new stunt man draws both him and us into a world of movie make-believe. Characters who seem real are making a movie that seems real. But the experience is -- for both the movie's stunt man and the real-life audience -- like something out of a fantasy. Early in the movie, O'Toole addresses both him and us when he says, "Welcome to Wonderland, Alice."
The new stunt man is quickly wrapped in a world in which movie magic and what passes for real life travel together, part ways and then cross paths again in unanticipated twists. O'Toole makes Railsback do dangerous stunts because he knows the man is desperate not to be turned in. Railsback is chased through rickety, burning buildings by actors pretending to be soldiers. He is chased across rooftops while airplanes fly by and shoot at him. Many times he seems certain to be injured. Ultimately he is forced to recreate the stunt that led to his predecessor's death.
Before he faces that danger, the stunt man falls in love with the star of the movie that he is helping to make. Barbara Hershey is exceptionally attractive and the movie beautifully takes advantage of her beauty. There is a striking moment in which she is shown through a cut-glass window. The light bathes her in a radiant glow that looks like a halo of diamonds and mist.
But Hershey is more than just a pretty face and she gives a nicely nuanced performance. In one scene in The Stunt Man's pretend movie, the character Hershey plays is ashamed. O'Toole is concerned that Hershey's actress won't be able to pull it off, so he shames her in front of her real parents just as cameras are set to roll. Hershey radiates anguish that agonizes us as well.
O'Toole's callous treatment of Hershey, with whom he once had a one-night stand, seems to reflect the dark heart of his character. But does it? Like so much about the movie, we're kept guessing ... even after it seems things have been cleared up.
O'Toole gives a majestic performance that holds up everything else in the movie. His solid foundation supports a dazzling structure that would collapse in on itself if he played the part with less assurance and gusto.
Crucial support for that structure comes from Railsback, who impressively avoids being overshadowed. His fugitive is haunted and pragmatic, a man trying to make the best of circumstances that suggest Fate is not his friend. The comic/tragic scene in which he explains to Hershey why the police are chasing him is a spectacle in which the only thing subtle is Railsback's performance. Rage explodes from him, but he's clouded in confusion as well. While Hershey's character ends up laughing so much that she has to run to a bathroom, Railsback finishes the scene hunched on the floor and weighed down by baffling misfortune.
The word "should" defines much of The Stunt Man's place in film history. It should have been a huge commercial success. It should have ensured director Richard Rush a career so varied and triumphant that his best-known movie would not be The Color Of Night (1994), an interesting failure known mostly for inaccurate pre-release speculation that it would feature Bruce Willis' full Monty. The Stunt Man should have won Peter O'Toole the Best Actor Academy Award for which he was nominated. (For that to happen, it should not have been released in the year that Robert De Niro starred in Raging Bull). The Stunt Man should have given Steve Railsback a career with a peak higher than his guest appearance as a man kidnapped by extraterrestrials on The X-Files. The Stunt Man should have guaranteed that Barbara Hershey would be remembered as more than the wind beneath Bette Midler's wings in Beaches.
And The Stunt Man should be seen by anyone who loves movies.
Early on, a helicopter carrying O'Toole's character is knocked off course for a moment when a bird hits the windshield. The pilot yells, "That crazy bird tried to kill us." O'Toole replies, "Shall we go back and ask the bird's opinion?"
Part of the genius of The Stunt Man is that the audience identifies sometimes with the bird and sometimes with the movie's makers. Often we are disoriented when they've hit us with something out of the blue. Other times we feel we're flying with them, held aloft by the magic of movies.
"The Stunt Man" is well worth paying for but you can see it for free. The movie, which features a terrific Oscar-nominated performance by Peter O'Toole, is available on Hulu.com through May 2014. The site shows commercials but otherwise there is no cost, and you don't have to register as a member unless you want to.