Richard Rush’s The Stunt Man was released in 1980, the same year as Heaven’s Gate, the famed Michael Cimino debacle that nearly destroyed United Artists and marked an unofficial end to a libertine decade when directors were kings. Yet in Peter O’Toole’s performance as the half-mad egomaniac behind The Stunt Man’s movie-within-a-movie (within-a-movie-within-a-movie), Rush— adapting Paul Brodeur’s novel—offers a sly commentary on the state of the ’70s auteur. It’s just as pointed as the lessons of Cimino’s excesses, and in this case, it’s intentional. O’Toole’s efforts to orchestrate a tale of World War I derring-do on an outrageous scale, with vintage biplanes, helicopter shots, and a giant crane that swoops him around the set, uncannily recall Francis Ford Coppola’s yearlong misadventures in the Philippines for Apocalypse Now. He’s simultaneously a crazed visionary and comically indulgent, striving for spectacular, original images even if it means torturing his cast and crew, or treating his screenwriter like a dog.
It’s a testament to the prismatic brilliance of The Stunt Man that this piece of meta-commentary represents just a fraction of the whole film, which is more concerned with exposing the medium’s illusory magic. Part madcap comedy, part rousing adventure, and part exercise in commercial surrealism, The Stunt Man stars Steve Railsback as a paranoid veteran on the run from the police. While fleeing the authorities, Railsback stumbles onto the set of O’Toole’s World War I movie, and his physical abilities so impress O’Toole that the two enter a tentative arrangement: If Railsback will become a stunt man—replacing another who mysteriously disappeared—O’Toole will give him cover. But from the beginning, O’Toole makes for a slippery partner: His only goal is to get the scene he wants, and he has no qualms about manipulating his actors to get it, including playing constantly on Railsback’s paranoia. When leading lady Barbara Hershey comes between them, Railsback begins to wonder if O’Toole is trying to kill him.
The Stunt Man has a relationship to its audience that mirrors O’Toole’s relationship to Railsback: Every time it fools us into thinking we’re on solid ground, out goes the rug. As such, it takes time—or perhaps multiple viewings—to get situated in the chaos Rush deliberately swoops up; it’s so dense with cinematic trickery and allusions that it feels alternately inventive and totally unhinged. Yet a spirit of fun carries the film across, thanks largely to O’Toole’s Oscar-nominated work as a boorish, profane, wildly charismatic force of nature. It’s a lighthearted jolt of insanity to cap a decade where the inmates ran the asylum.
Key features: A couple of the special features have been imported from the Anchor Bay DVD, including a cast-and-crew commentary and a two-hour making-of documentary from 2000 that has Rush playing to the camera like Orson Welles. But there are some fine original features as well, including interviews with O’Toole, Hershey, and Railsback, and a great 30-minute retrospective interview with Rush about his turbulent career.