On the run from the police, a young vet (Railsback), sporting a growth of beard and a thousand-yard-stare, finds himself on a bridge, an antique German limousine bearing right down on him. Throwing himself aside, he hurls a chunk of metal at the car just as it turns around for another swipe. Covering his head, the vet waits. Nothing. Looking up, he sees where the car has gone off the bridge. As he peers over the side, he is confronted with a stern and unhappy-looking man, glaring at him from the seat of a crane. Cameron, the vet, has just cost Eli Cross (Peter O’Toole) a shot—an unforgivable sin on the set of his World War I epic. The Duisenberg is gone. The stunt driver is dead. But Eli offers the man an amazing deal: as long as Cameron takes the deceased man’s place, there will be no police report, no charges filed. For that would delay the production.
With the new nickname of “Lucky”, Cameron joins the crew and a lie is agreed-upon. Everyone goes about their business without a question of the man’s background or even his sudden appearance. There’s a movie to shoot. Before too long, Lucky Cameron develops an infatuation with the lead actress, Nina (Barbara Hershey), though she recovered from a relationship with Eli by entering into one with the film’s star, the supercilious Raymond.
In the meantime, Eli’s picture is lacking meaning. He’s fighting city ordinance, studio pressure, budget woes. And his strange fascination with Lucky is making the new stuntman very uneasy. The longer he stays on set, the more convinced he is that Eil is plotting to kill him for the film’s grand finale.
Director Richard Rush, fresh from the inexplicable success of a dreadful buddy-cop movie called Freebie and the Bean, was given a novel written by Paul Brodeur. It was an existential study about finding yourself surrounded by a world of big studio illusion. Columbia wanted Rush to take it on, even though Francois Truffault and Arthur Penn were already fighting for the rights. Rush couldn’t see the inherent “movie” in the book, and yet elements continued to haunt him. But when he agreed, Columbia no longer wanted it.
For several years, Rush tried to get The Stunt Man made. Peter O’Toole was already unswervingly aboard to play the enigmatic and egomaniacal Cross. At one point, according to Rush, an early draft of the script had been appropriated for the Burt Reynolds stunt man comedy Hooper. Finally, the Film Gods smiled and Rush and company went into production at 20th Century Fox.
Subtle, neurotic and multi-layered, every scene in The Stunt Man is about multiple things at once. Paranoia, obviously, but also the stress of filmmaking and simply living. About the surreal nature of the reality-bleed once you become engrossed in the movie-making process. The normal animal desires between (in this case) men and women. The question of how far will Eli Cross go to finish his film? (“I therefore order that no camera shall jam and that no cloud shall pass before the sun.”) He seems to bear no animosity towards Cameron, but he’s never easy to read. Lucky Cameron succumbs quickly to the fantasy, seeing himself as Nina’s lover, as Eli’s hero. His Viet Nam vet status is never implicitly discussed, but, through Steve Railsback’s amazing performance, we can see the haunting behind his eyes. When he finally reveals his crime to Nina, it’s absurd, seemingly inconsequential to what he’s been through and what’s he’s in the midst of. In a way, the disease of paranoia mirrors the anxiety all Americans felt in Viet Nam’s aftermath. And in a way, it’s really all “just” a movie.
Unappreciated and under-run at its time—even after it was nominated for three Oscars—The Stunt Man disappeared from theaters quickly and remained a buried treasure for many years. Severin’s Blu-Ray retains many of the extras from the original limited edition Anchor Bay issue, best of all Rush’s own documentary The Sinister Saga of the Making of the Stunt Man. In addition, there are several deleted and extended scenes, including one that broke the hearts of all involved once it was lost—a scene that defines Nina as a woman and not an object of desire, perhaps the pinnacle of Barbara Hershey’s career, unseen for decades.