Resurrecting The Stunt Man (1980)


The theme of this semester’s campus film series that I co-direct with my fellow faculty member and partner-in-crime is “Movies About the Movies.” So, I was excited to discover that The Stunt Man (1980) is currently streaming on FilmStruck. Directed by maverick filmmaker Richard Rush, The Stunt Man stars Steve Railsback as a Vietnam vet on the drift who runs afoul of the law. When he stumbles onto the set of a movie shooting on location, the director takes him on as a stunt man to hide him from the police. A raging egomaniac, the director is played by Peter O’Toole, who brings charm, charisma and a dark streak to the roguish Eli Cross.

I first saw The Stunt Man in Chicago in the fall of 1980 in a preview screening arranged by Twentieth Century Fox. Rush was there to introduce the film and to answer questions afterward. He had spent several months that year previewing the film on his own to prove to potential distributors that it would draw audiences. He had been to Seattle, Phoenix and Columbus, and he also arranged for test runs in Seattle and Los Angeles. Finally, Fox negotiated a deal after the L.A. run drew good reviews and packed theaters.


Flipper Meets the Creature from the Black Lagoon


I enjoy reading and writing about the cinematic history of my adopted home state of Florida . From the silent era when Jacksonville almost became the center of the industry until now, Florida has served as an attractive location for film production.


Easy to Love: A Trip in Time to Cypress Gardens

blogpoolGet out those goggles and fins and join Esther Williams as she swims her way onto our TV screens today as part of TCM’s Summer Under the Stars. Williams has a special connection to my new home state of Florida because her aqua-musical Easy to Love, which airs at 12:30, was shot on location at Cypress Gardens, located near Winter Haven.

For over 30 years, Cypress Gardens rivaled Silver Springs as the premier Florida tourist attraction. Dick Pope opened Cypress Gardens in 1936, and he was quickly hailed as the Father of Florida Tourism for turning acres of swampland into a garden paradise. The Gardens featured over 8,000 exotic plants on carefully landscaped grounds that could be seen and photographed from small boats that floated on a network of waterways. But, the main attraction at the Gardens became the waterskiing shows. According to Florida tourist lore, the show began by accident during World War II when a group of visiting servicemen asked about the waterskiing. Apparently, they had read a newspaper article about the park, which included a photo of a skier, and they assumed there was a water show. Pope’s children and their friends threw together an impromptu waterskiing demonstration, and a new twist on aquatic entertainment was born. The show developed into a variety of aqua-batic tricks that included ramp jumps at 35 mph, precision skiing by the Aqua Maids, and daredevil skiers in four-tier human pyramids. The Cypress Gardens Water Ski Team broke over 50 world records, and the park became known as the Water Ski Capital of the World.


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.


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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