Stuntmen Revisited: The Derring-Do of Daring Doubles

stuntstagecoachRecently, 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.

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The Stunt Man

needoscarThis year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presented honorary Oscars to AFI founder George Stevens, Jr., verite documentarian D.A. Pennebaker, and stuntman Hal Needham. While it is terrific that three worthy recipients were honored for their contributions, the only recognition they will receive at the actual awards ceremony on February 24 will be a brief announcement and a chance to wave at the camera from their seats. For the past four years, the Board of Governors has chosen to hand out the honorary Oscars at the Governors Awards dinner. Apparently highlights of the honorees’ long careers are shown to industry guests at this non-televised function instead of airing clips on the awards show.

I miss the clips that used to be such a major part of the Academy Awards show, and this year, the omission makes for a particularly bad idea, because who wouldn’t want to see the career highlights of stuntman extraordinaire Hal Needham. From falls to crashes, from galloping horses to soaring planes, Needham’s clip reel is bound to be more exciting than listening to a performance of another bland best-song nominee or more lame shtick from a badly chosen guest host.

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