Comedian Robert Klein sometimes does a bit about his role in Hooper, the stuntman movie that unsuccessfully sued The Stunt Man to be called The Stunt Man. He attended a college screening shortly after it opened and stuck around to expound on his feature-length Peter Bogdanovich impression. Tragically, the audience only raised their hands for Hal Needham, director of Hooper and one of the greatest stuntmen to ever fall down. Klein recounts their questions in Kentucky-fried cornpone, wondering how they flipped this car or jumped that ravine. It’s a bunt of a joke by any standard – the Waffle House crowd cares more about car chases than character work – but it’s also a profound misunderstanding. To paraphrase The Stunt Man’s own egomaniacal caricature of ‘70s swinging-dick directors, the only thing any self-respecting audience truly wants to know is how they found a monkey tall enough to play King Kong.
It cost Richard Rush ten years and two heart attacks to answer them with The Stunt Man, the story of an escaped convict hiding out in plain sight on a movie set as the blackmailed plaything of an omnipotent director who travels exclusively by crane-mounted hand of God. The 1973 novel on which it was based, by New Yorker staff writer Paul Brodeur, was enough of a Rorschach test to attract filmmakers as far afield as Arthur Penn and Francois Truffaut. Columbia Pictures wanted a straight-ahead action movie. Rush, a graduate of UCLA’s first film program who cut his teeth on Air Force training films and AIP motorcycle movies, saw more to it than that. As a result, Columbia passed on his script for coloring outside the lines of any definable genre. It would be the first Sisyphean slip on the hill toward production and a forecast of fate already sealed.
If the lithe blue devil on the poster didn’t clue you in, The Stunt Man is thinly veiled Faust. Peter O’Toole’s Eli Cross, that’s “Eli the Terrible” to friends, wears an eyepiece around his neck like a crucifix, though he identifies as an all-powerful being unaffiliated with the divine: “If God could do the tricks we can do, he’d be a happy man.” His control seems to extend beyond the Kliegs and the cranes. When he offers troubled Vietnam vet “Lucky” his heavenly protection, ordinary light through ordinary glass provides Cross with a halo of jewelry-commercial lens flares. He is fate, impure and complicated, the only one on set who knows the script better than the pathetic soul who wrote it.
He’s also a laundry list of auteur-grade abuse. Stop me if you’ve heard this one: He insists on live ammunition for the period-accurate rifles. When a twenty-two second shot goes wrong and the assistant director shrugs it off, Cross threatens to break his spine in front of the entire crew. He invites the lead actress’s parents to set, shows them the dailies of her nude scene, tells her about the “accident” right before a take, and rolls camera as she breaks down in front of her family. (He also happens to be sleeping with her.) He knowingly shelters a wanted criminal. He considers a good stuntman “two hundred pounds of hamburger in a blonde wig” and only needs a replacement because the last one died filming a car crash on a public bridge over a public river without a single permit.
Today, Eli Cross is a parody. In 1980, he was the publicized standard, even borrowing his real director’s wardrobe, as well as the ghost of cinema future. Two years later, an accident on the set of Twilight Zone: The Movie killed three actors and put an unofficial end to the Cross type. Forty years of aftershocks and allegations later, The Stunt Man carries unusual weight.
The metaphysical quandaries that scared Columbia Pictures are as bitterly soulful as ever. Steve Railsback’s “Lucky” was already chewed up and spit out by one higher power that left him to face a preordained fate, the same as most Vietnam veterans. When he finally notices familiar writing on the wall, this time with an even bleaker ending, it’s hard not to flinch when Railsback realizes, “I’m not real.” The Stunt Man was always about destiny and who gets a writing credit. The answer is still honest, cruel, and hidden in plain sight.
The final stunt is not so fatal as it seems. Cross gives away the game, all for the “art” like the rest of his manipulations. Lucky will live to cash his $1000 paycheck. Or $600, as his director argues. The Stunt Man ends on a slapstick contract dispute. The orchestra swells, cueing the warm-fuzzies; the movies win again and all the kooky characters who make them live happily ever after in the place “where the setting sun bleeds into a million swimming pools a man can hide in.”
The Stunt Man earned three Oscar nominations and six Golden Globes nominations, including one win for Dominic Frontiere’s old-time showbiz score. It found a Rocky Horror following just from its test screenings. Then 20th Century Fox cancelled its wide release because they couldn’t figure out how to sell it. His next movie came 14 years later with the erotic thriller Color of Night; he hasn’t worked on another project since. The Stunt Man remains a curio perpetually at the edge of overdue reappraisal.
The Eli Cross behind Twilight Zone: The Movie, meanwhile, is still working today.
How tall is King Kong? Cross says three-foot six. The Stunt Man says tall enough to hide behind.
“The Stunt Man” is currently available via Alamo On Demand.