Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Reconsidering The New Hollywood, Part II

The Stunt Man

      . . . if only László Kovács had shot The Stunt Man, which is bathed in that butterscotch lighting redolent of prestige (i.e. Emmy contender) TV movies of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.  (1980’s Those Lips, Those Eyes had the same awful lighting).  

     The Stunt Man has a script by Richard Rush and Lawrence B. Marcus from Paul Brodeur’s novel that probably reads beautifully.  It’s a variation on
Pirandello (what is real? what is illusion?) that’s set against the backdrop of post-traumatic stress disorder post-Vietnam War America on what turns out to be a movie set.  The viewer doesn’t know that during the two extraordinarily staged and edited sequences around a bridge and on a beach that start the movie.  Technically, these sequences are as joyfully crafted as the openings of Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958) or Altman’s traffic jam sequence in Nashville (1975).   

Peter O'Toole as Eli Cross
     Yes, you can’t have a good movie without a strong script, but you also cannot realize that script without the right actors and that is the Achilles heel in this case.  Peter O’Toole is magnificent and indelible as Eli Cross, the megalomaniacal director.  No other star in that period could have given such a baroque yet somehow naturalistic performance.  Willing to do almost anything, including a number of mind games, Cross can be trusted to finish the movie on schedule, regardless of the human toll.  Steve Railsback as Cameron the Vietnam vet trying to lay low as a conscripted stunt man, believes that Cross may be trying to kill him.  It could look that way, but then your individual, subjective point of view becomes your seemingly objective truth.  That is one major Pirandellian theme, and another is creating your persona to fit that truth.  

Railsback and Hershey
     Persona works on a metaphysical level in Shampoo; in The Stunt Man it tantalizes at first, and then becomes bluntly literal. However, Railsback comes across as feral, desperate, and vaguely psychotic (he couldn’t shake having played Charles Manson), while Barbara Hershey is lovely and sincere, completely missing the quicksilver timing and mercurial nature of her actress character.  Oh, if only John Savage, fresh from The Deer Hunter (1978), could have played the lead.  He could seem frightened, desperate, intelligent, and a leading man.  Oh, if only Brooke Adams could have been in this instead of the misfire Cuba (1979).  She could play levels of acting ‘reality’ simultaneously.

     The Stunt Man might have been an art house hit five years earlier or an indie sensation fifteen years later.  The timing was against it, which is a shame because that script resonates thematically and it clips along like a Rube Goldberg device.

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