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Stunt Man, The
Release Date(s)1980 (June 7, 2011)
Studio(s)20th Century Fox (Severin Films)
Every year when the Oscar nominations are announced, you can be sure you’ll hear the same old complaints about how conservative the Academy is, how they almost never take chances, blah blah blah. And sure, if you’re looking at the winners, that’s a valid criticism. But the winners only tell half the story. Every year, the Academy nominates several strange, offbeat movies in multiple categories. Don’t forget that David Lynch has been nominated for Best Director no less than three times. One of Sigourney Weaver’s Best Actress nominations was for Aliens. So to say that the Academy never recognizes movies with cult potential is simply untrue. And if they’d won... well, they wouldn’t exactly be cult movies anymore, would they?
1980 is now considered one of the years the Academy really screwed up. In a year that included Raging Bull, The Elephant Man, Tess, The Empire Strikes Back and Melvin and Howard, the Oscars for Best Picture and Director went to Robert Redford’s Ordinary People of all things. But even amidst such heavy competition, the Academy still found room to bestow three nominations on Richard Rush’s The Stunt Man, a virtually unclassifiable dark comedy that blurs the line between fantasy and reality, including Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actor for Peter O’Toole. That’s quite an accomplishment for a movie that no studio in town wanted anything to do with.
Rush was probably always considered a dark horse contender for Best Director but I believe if O’Toole had been nominated in any other year when he wasn’t up against Robert De Niro using his body like Play-Doh, he’d have been a shoo-in for Best Actor. O’Toole is mesmerizing as Eli Cross, a filmmaker with more than a little bit of a god complex. He crosses paths with a fugitive named Cameron (Steve Railsback) and makes a proposition. Eli’s film is in jeopardy because his stunt man disappeared after his car ran off a bridge, an accident that Cameron may have had something to do with. If Cameron agrees to take the stunt man’s place, Eli promises to hide him from the police.
But a rift seems to develop between the two men when Cameron strikes up a relationship with the film’s leading actress, Nina (Barbara Hershey). Eli and Nina used to be involved and Cameron isn’t convinced their relationship is over, especially when his stunts get more dangerous and it appears that Eli’s trying to kill him.
You’ll notice I used a lot of terms like “may have”, “seems to” and “appears” in that plot description. That’s because nothing in The Stunt Man should necessarily be taken at face value. This is a movie about paranoia and illusion. Rush’s film is both dazzling and disorienting, one of those rare movies that you want to watch again the second it’s over. It takes a clear vision to successfully make a film that tries to do so much at once. It’s an action movie, a comedy, a drama, and a slyly subversive take on the paranoia thrillers of the 70s. It’s to Rush’s extreme credit that he stuck to his guns and kept his vision intact throughout the nine long years it took to make this picture.
The Stunt Man originally came to DVD courtesy of Anchor Bay back in 2001 as an extremely fine limited edition. Severin now brings it to Blu-ray (it’s also available as either a single disc or double disc DVD set) that handily trumps the previous version. The video is a noticeable improvement on Anchor Bay’s DVD. It’s a fantastic new HD transfer supervised by Rush himself and the experience is extremely cinematic. This is like watching a brand new print projected under optimal conditions. The audio is available in either DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio or Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo. As a longtime fan of Dominic Frontiere’s wonderful score, I relished hearing it in 5.1 although the 2.0 version is also very good.
As for extras, virtually all of the bonus material from Anchor Bay’s limited edition DVD have been brought over (missing is an extensive gallery of stills, production and advertising art plus a DVD-ROM feature with the screenplay and director’s notes). However, you do get the audio commentary (featuring Rush, O’Toole, Railsback, Hershey, Alex Rocco, Sharon Farrell and Chuck Bail), deleted scenes, theatrical trailers and most importantly, Rush’s own feature-length documentary The Sinister Saga of the Making of The Stunt Man (in standard-def since it was originally shot on standard video). The documentary is worth watching for its wealth of information but with a few caveats. There’s a reason most filmmakers don’t make documentaries about the making of their own films. Rush is simply too close to the material and the documentary has a tendency to wallow in self-indulgence. Even so, fans of the movie will definitely want to watch it once.
Severin further sweetens the deal with several brand-new featurettes. The Maverick Career of Richard Rush interviews the director on his life and work from 1960’s Too Soon to Love to 1994’s Bruce Willis misfire Color of Night. This is particularly valuable since most of Rush’s other films on DVD have virtually no extras, so it’s a treat to hear him discuss such films as Freebie and the Bean and Psych-Out. Peter O’Toole Recounts The Stunt Man is self-explanatory with O’Toole’s still rich and commanding voice spilling fond memories of the film he regards as one of his favorites. Devil’s Squadron interviews Railsback and co-star Alex Rocco, best friends who first met on the set of The Stunt Man. Barbara Hershey also provides a new interview featurette and she, Railsback and Rush reunite for a post-show Q&A at L.A.’s New Beverly Cinema (a bonus exclusive to the Blu-ray). So even if you decide to hang on to the Anchor Bay disc for the screenplay and few other missing extras, the new material and technical improvements more than make this an essential upgrade.
The Stunt Man has long been a particular favorite of mine. I consider it to be one of the best movies about movies ever made. With this film, Peter O’Toole essentially kicked off the second act of his career with a role I believe is as iconic in its own way as the one that started it all for him in a little picture called Lawrence of Arabia. As for Richard Rush, while he’s certainly responsible for other good movies, The Stunt Man is clearly his life’s work. Not a bad legacy to leave behind. Severin has done right by this underrated gem. It’s another high quality release for a company that’s quickly turning into one of the best saviors of cult cinema around.
- Dr. Adam Jahnke