Posted by Susan Doll on March 11, 2013
Recently, I wrote about legendary stuntman Hal Needham on the occasion of his life-achievement Oscar. In researching Needham’s career, I began to fully appreciate the stunt profession and its unique contributions to the film industry. Stunts are rarely discussed by scholars or academics and only occasionally mentioned by popular critics and reviewers, and yet the profession has an interesting history that dovetails into the different eras and trends of Hollywood.
Needham’s prime, which was roughly the 1970s through the 1990s, represents a high point for the profession when stunt coordinators and their crews studied the dynamics of their craft, devised more elaborate gags, and introduced new safety measures. Needham and others enjoyed the spotlight in a way previous stuntmen never had, partly because of the admiration and friendship of actors like Steve McQueen and Burt Reynolds, who gave them their due. Jackie Chan also drew attention to the art and craft of stunt work because his star image was based on doing his own (“No Fear; No Stuntman; No Equal” was the tagline for Rumble in the Bronx). Stuntmen enjoyed such celebrity that in 1990 stunt coordinator Jack Gill began lobbying the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to create a category for stunts. Feature films, such as Hooper, and documentaries romanticized the stuntman as the last vestiges of American masculinity, while the action genre showcased such breathtaking chases and crashes that stunts became isolated moments detached from the narrative. The stuntmen’s higher profile at this time fit with a new era of enlightened movie-goers who knew more about the behind-the-scenes production of films than any previous generation. Accustomed to Monday-morning box office tallies, television series devoted to entertainment news, and making-of documentaries, the movie-goer of the 1980s-1990sbasked in the knowledge of the inner-workings of Hollywood.
This heyday for the stunt profession stands in stark contrast to the years that preceded it, when stuntmen remained anonymous less they risk their careers, and contemporary Hollywood, where CGI has significantly changed the playing field for stunt professionals.
In the Golden Age of Hollywood, studios required stuntmen to stay so far behind the scenes that they were essentially invisible. Their anonymity was revealed in a 1936 article in the Saturday Evening Post in which stunt double William Fleming French revealed that he was the “mystery man of the movies—the skeleton in the star’s closet.” He went on to explain, “I’m the one individual Hollywood can’t take as a joke, the one embarrassing relation it can’t laugh off; that unpopular stepbrother of the stars, the double.” Fleming elaborated on the differences between the double and the stuntman. Doubles performed many dangerous stunts, but they also stood in for the star for less-demanding activities such as swimming, riding, fencing, or just walking. Doubles were often called in to dance or to execute sport maneuvers if the star was not particularly good at it. French implied that the double assumed a bit of the demeanor and personality of the star so that their actions melded smoothly with those of the person they stood in for. In clarifying the purpose of a stuntman, French noted that these specialists performed feats “that had nothing whatever to do with the star’s part,” meaning the daring, perilous stunts did not define or enhance the character like the duties of a double did. I found that an interesting distinction.
Apparently, the behavior of doubles was heavily scrutinized by the studios, because producers and execs did not want to destroy the illusion that a star was performing everything that viewers saw on the big screen. When French began his career, he was told that he could not be seen in the proximity of the star he was doubling. He complained of one major star who threatened to walk off a film because French had been seen in the same costume as the star by visitors to the set. The star feared that word would get out that he did not do his own stunts and feats, which would chip away at his image. However, there were some stars who paid no attention to this unwritten code of behavior, including John Wayne and Tom Mix, who, according to French, “will line up beside me any day, and match me stunt for stunt.” Other stars mentioned who often performed treacherous feats or stunts included Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Bennett, and Joe E. Brown.
This secrecy regarding stars and their doubles during the Golden Age makes sense to me, because the star system was a crucial ingredient to the film industry at the time. Studios understood that audiences came to the movies to see stars. They carefully constructed their stars’ images, nurtured and tweaked them over the years, and protected them by creating the illusion that the stars were the same off-screen as they were onscreen. Viewers today are less enamored with movie stars and don’t expect them to behave in real life like they do on the big screen, but from the 1920s through the early 1950s, studios fostered this idea, and audiences followed along. The star system, which included the careful structuring of publicity and promotion, was designed to maintain the stars’ images and to promote films based on those images. Anything or anyone that threatened to tarnish those images was neutralized. French recalled a time when a producer not only fired him but threatened that he would never work again. Later, the casting office called to confirm his firing and explain his infraction. They accused French of driving down Sunset Boulevard in the same costume he had used in doubling a famous star in a just-completed film. Apparently, it was a recognizable costume associated with the star. In addition to appearing in the costume, French allegedly performed certain driving stunts for the onlookers. However, he proved that he was working on a different film on location 200 miles away when the episode occurred. Upon investigating, casting discovered that an ex-circus acrobat was hired to impersonate the star as an advertising gimmick. The circus performer didn’t realize he was committing “an unforgivable sin.” French noted, “To wear the clothes in public that you wore when doubling for a star is to escort yourself to the city limits.”
French also discussed the stunts that were dangerous, and those that were not. Knocking a villain off his horse was not as dangerous as it looked, nor was jumping onto a saddled horse from atop a roof. According to French, the trick to the latter stunt was “to fork your legs in such a manner that they wedge themselves over the saddle or bare back, and sort of ease yourself down.” He added, “If a stunt man jumped off a 20-foot roof and landed on his seat in the saddle, he’d spend his next couple of weeks on his stomach.” I’ll bet.
On the other hand, tipping a horse-drawn wagon or tripping a running horse was very dangerous, because of the possibility of being run over. Stuntman Chick Morrison was killed in the mid-1920s when an Arabian stallion fell on him. By far, the most difficult stunts were aerial tricks, which required specialists like Frank Clarke, Dick Grace, and Dick Kerwood. Sadly, Kerwood was killed in the silent era while performing a stunt for Franklyn Farnum in which he jumped from an airplane to a moving car. He worked his way down the rope ladder on the plane, but something went awry, and he fell 500 feet to his death.
Other stunt performers whom French mentioned because he admired them included western double Cliff Lyons and two female doubles, Ione Reed and Mary Wiggins. Reed was an expert in horse stunts, while Wiggins could drive automobiles at high speeds around corners, into trees, or off the road.
Just like stunt doubles and performers were at the mercy of the star system during the Golden Age, today’s stunt men are also being threatened by stars, but in an entirely different way. Digital imagery, or CGI (computer graphics imagery), now makes it possible for stars to take part in their own stunts. For example, the most famous of stars can now hang from dangerous heights or leap from tall buildings, which was something insurance companies would never have approved in the past. To make it safe, the actors are suspended or held in place by cables and wires, which are later digitally removed from the shot. Also, with digital compositing, stars can be made to drive off a cliff, jump amazing distances, rocket into space, or fly from building to building—feats that are impossible in life but par for the fantasy-style, comic-book films favored by youthful audiences. In the past, rear-screen projection of background imagery was used to create the illusion that a star was walking along a narrow cliff, speeding down a highway, or racing across the desert at full gallop. But, the results were limited and generally intercut with long shots of stuntmen actually performing daring deeds and fabulous feats.
In some of today’s blockbusters, stuntmen have been replaced by “sythespians,” which are digital recreations of humans. However, stunt professionals have not become totally obsolete—so far. They are frequently hired for fight scenes and small-scale, “meat and potatoes” gags, which are later computer enhanced. According to stuntman James Logan, “The new idea is to take stunts and enhance them with computer effects, or use human stunt people as just one of the many things we see in a larger special-effects canvas.” But, stunt professionals don’t have the opportunity to plan the spectacular stunts of the glory days, when Hal Needham, Dar Robinson, Terry Leonard, and Dean Smith habitually rolled cars, fell from helicopters, jumped cars across canyons, and set themselves on fire.
All of this matters little to young viewers addicted to video games, who are accustomed to the cartoon-like, two-dimensional look of digital imagery. And, the upside of the digital revolution is that CGI-stunts reduce the risk for stunt professionals, who can also take advantage of digitally removing wires in post-production. But, discerning viewers and some old-school directors point out the obvious: The thrill of a great stunt is that it is actually dangerous. Recognizing that Jackie Chan is actually hanging off a fast-moving truck with an umbrella or that Hal Needham really jumped a car onto a moving barge is in keeping with that exhilarating part of cinema that is true spectacle. As noted by director F. Gary Gray, who insisted on real car chases and crashes in The Italian Job, “You want to keep a sense of danger. If you don’t have that, there’s no point in doing it.” CGI can look very cartoonish; there’s simply no visual veracity. Any sense of thrill, tension, or jeopardy is lost, or replaced by an admiration for the superficial beauty or complexity of the effects.
As Needham lamented, “I’m glad my stunt years are behind me because, pretty soon, I think. . .I don’t know if that means five years, ten years, or what, but somewhere down the line, it’s going to get to the point to where they can do everything digitally. . .the big hairy-ape stuff that we used to do, they’re going to do it [digitally].”
Corliss, Richard. “Summer of Vroooom,” Time. June 16, 2003, p. 58.
French, William Fleming. “Double’s Troubles,” Saturday Evening Post, July 25, 1936.
Newman, Bruce. “Smash Hits,” Sports Illustrated. October 5, 1992, p. 76
Smith, Jacob. “Seeing Double: Stunt Performance and Masculinity,” Journal of Film and Video. Fall 2004, pp. 35-53.
Weinman, Jaime J. “Endangered Stuntmen,” Maclean’s. May 12, 2008, pp. 55-56.
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