Friday, February 26, 2016

God or Devil? Peter O'Toole's Manic Director in The Stunt Man

This is my entry in the Oscars Snubs Blogathon being run by yours truly and the ladies at Silver Scenes, which is being run on Oscars® Weekend.

Peter O'Toole was forever the "also ran" in the Academy Awards.  He holds the record, at 8 nominations, for being the most nominated individual to have never won a statuette.  He had some stiff competition in most of those contests: Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird, Marlon Brando in The Godfather, John Wayne in True Grit.  A couple of those losses stand out in my opinion:  Rex Harrison for My Fair Lady???  I would have picked ANY of the other four nominees before Rex Harrison.

I admit I have never been enamored of Robert DeNiro's performance in Raging Bull.  And while I thoroughly enjoyed John Hurt in The Elephant Man, (not the least because I, too, suffer from the same disease, albeit not as drastically), I think the best nominee of the bunch was O'Toole's turn as an unhinged movie director Eli Cross in The Stunt Man.

The Stunt Man must surely be the least recognizable title of  an Oscar nominated movie.  Many people I've mentioned the movie to have responded with "The What???"  I am sure most movie reviewers have heard of it, especially those around at the time of it's release, since it has an 89% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  (That's up-to-date as of 2 minutes ago.)  But it didn't really get widespread release, because I'd never seen it on the marquees around the town where I lived and I was a young avid movie-goer at the time. Peter O'Toole, jokingly I think, on the DVD commentary, says it was released in about 11 theaters.  "This movie wasn't released, it escaped" he says.

I saw this movie once, and only once, when it made it to cable on HBO or Showtime (I don't remember which).  This was in 1982.  But the film made such a profound impression on me that I could relate some details of it even 30 some-odd years later.  Then one day last year I was browsing the used DVD stacks at a local resale shop and saw it in the stacks.  I pounced on it like a fox on a skittish rabbit, and raced home to watch it for only the second time.

Sure enough, it was just as good as I remembered it.  And O'Toole blew me away again in what should be included when mentioning his iconic roles.  There are several other familiar faces in the movie:  Steve Railsback, who surely freaked out millions in his portrayal of Charles Manson in Helter Skelter.  Barbara Hershey, who has either been nominated or even in some cases won every other award besides the Oscar over the years.  Familiar character actors, faces who are immediately recognizable, such as Alex Rocco, Allen Garfield (Goorwitz) and Adam Roarke round out the cast.

The Stunt Man (1980)

A brief synopsis before continuing on the examination of Peter O'Toole's performance.

The movie begins with a ragged looking man, Cameron (Steve Railsback) being arrested.  Cameron escapes capture and, while on the run, encounters a Dusenberg which he thinks has pulled over to give him a ride.  Instead the driver tries to run him down and he causes the car to go off a bridge.  A helicopter comes in and we see Eli Cross (Peter O'Toole) looking at him.  It turns out that the driver was a stunt man in a movie and Cross is the director.

When the cops show up on the set (different cops, these are only investigating the previously unplanned ditching of the Dusenberg),  Cross convinces Jake (Alex Rocco) that Cameron is the stunt driver who drove the Dusenberg.  This is aided by the fact that the original stunt driver's body cannot be found.  So for the rest of the movie Cameron becomes "Bert" the titular "stunt man."  There is a thriving love interest in the story between Cameron and the leading lady of the movie within the movie, Nina Franklin (Barbara Hershey), and Cameron eventually becomes convinced that Cross is trying to kill him in the stunts.  A fantastic movie on its own merits, but you came to see a demonstration of why Peter O'Toole deserved the golden statuette.  So...

For a reference, I'd like you to scan back up and see the two movie posters I used.  One shows O'Toole as a puppeteer, or god if you will, directing the actions of one man, the stunt man.  The other shows a devil behind a camera.  Both of these images are wonderful encapsulations of the character of Eli Cross.  Our first image of Cross, outside of the view of him in the helicopter, is when he descends from the helicopter on land.  The angle is from about knee height looking up, which really pounds home a God impression.

A query of Cross about what happened on the bridge reveals that the stunt man could not be found.  O'Toole gives the impression that he's more upset about the delay the accident will cause rather than the loss of one stunt man.  After Cameron "rescues" Nina from the river, and Cross invites him to be a stuntman He asks "What about your people?"  O'Toole responds somewhat callously "Don't worry about my people, they'll call you anything I want them to."  The God complex rears it's head once again.

O'Toole manages to convey more in some scenes with just a pensive look.  Perhaps it has something to do with his eyes.  Plus the fact that I think O'Toole was probably on the same drugs that Dick Clark took to keep looking so young.  He was about 50 when this movie was made, yet for most of the picture, he could pass for 30.  That manages to push the devil side more prominently.

O'Toole's character is even callous towards his leading lady.  During one scene in which her parent's are visiting the set, they are invited to see the dailies, (that's movie slang for film that was shot that day).  He slips in a scene of her making love to the leading man, then later feigns innocence and shock when telling her about the "faux pas".

The ego of Cross is best depicted in one scene.  O'Toole is trying to convince his new stunt man that movie magic can accomplish anything "Do you not know that King Kong the first was just three foot six inches tall?  He only came up to Fay Wray's  belly button!  If God could do the tricks we can do he'd be a happy man!"

The fact that O'Toole could pull off both sides equally well within the same role, and yet convince you that he is just a sweet innocent soul on the side makes this movie even more entertaining.  Is he really trying to kill Cameron, or is he just so fanatically focused on his movie getting made that he doesn't realize the dangers he is putting his crew through?  Or maybe all of this is just a put on to keep the crew on it's toes.

Side by side, compared to some of O'Toole's other great portrayals, I honestly would rank this at least in the top 5.  He managed to make the character come to life and be memorable and isn't that what the Best Actor award is all about?

That's it for this week, folks.  Hope you enjoyed it, and least are intrigued enough to dig around and find this gem of a movie.



  1. This is one I need to see dad took me to see it in the theater when I was thirteen or 14. It is indeed a commanding and often chilling performance by Mr. O'Toole--moviemaking is indeed a scary business.

    As you note, O'Toole is as handsome as ever in this one--he was so dreamy in Lawrence of Arabia (which he should have won the damn Oscar for too!!)

    I just recorded O'Toole in My Favorite Year from TCM this week, so looks like I will be seeing a lot more of Peter in the coming days. The Stunt Man is now on my must-see list, thanks to your persuasive post.
    Cheers and happy Blogathon, Quiggy!

    1. As big a war film fan as I am, I still haven't gotten around to Lawrence of Arabia... Thanks for the comments , Chris.

  2. Couldn't agree more! One of the most underrated movies of all time, and there's no doubt Mr. O'Toole was robbed! Glad that all least he got justice from you here!

    1. Thanks, I find that this crowd (movie fanatics like myself) are more likely to have heard of it before the average Joe. Of course, I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of them haven't heard of Lawrence of Arabia either... feh. Thanks for the comments.

  3. I must admit, I'm one of those who said "What film?" when you first mentioned this title to me. It sounds like a real gem and judging from O'Toole's past performances, I can just imagine him being obsessed with the part. I'll be sure to dig up the film somewhere. Isn't it amazing how little known gems seen years ago make such an impact on us?

    1. It is fascinating movie. And if the music doesn't get you, then I don't know what to say. It's pretty catchy. Thanks

  4. I'm another one who said "The WHAT?" when I started reading your post. I've never even heard of this film. (Released in 11 theatres? Seriously?)

    It sounds like a fascinating film. And what was it with the Academy and Peter O'Toole?! I don't get it. I read your analysis of his acting and he sounds like an Oscar shoe-in. The fact that you saw it once, several years ago, shows what an impact his performance had.

    Thanks for introducing us (me) to this film!

    1. As I said, I think O'Toole was joking when he said it was released in only 11 theaters, but it would explain why I didn't remember seeing it listed in the Dallas papers (the nearest big city to where I grew up). Most websites say it came into its own after it was released on video. But I don't think it was available on VHS for very long. I never saw it at the rental places either. I cherish this DVD that I got all that much more. See if Netflix carries it and get it next time. (I can't look it up because I don't have Netflix myself. Yet...) Thanks for the good words.

  5. I agree 100%. Is there anything more than 100%? I love the actor and love him in this role. He was robbed so many times, but by The Stunt Man it was getting ridiculous. Great post and great choice Thanks for co-hosting!

    1. The two early 80's movies were what introduced be to O'Toole. (This and My Favorite Year, which he was also snubbed. But how he could have beaten Ben Kingsley is beyond my ability to conjecture.)

      "Dying is easy. Comedy is hard." (so, apparently, is getting a well deserved statuette...)

  6. I love Peter O'Toole but hate how he never won as Oscar! I haven't seen The Stunt Man, but I want to lay my eyes on everything Peter did. One of my favorite films starring him is The Man of La Mancha.
    Thanks for co-hosting this great blogathon!

    1. thanks for playing. This is one you should see if you want a complete oeuvre of O'Toole.

  7. I am a huge long-time fan of Peter O'Toole and I think he deserved every Oscar he was nominated for! Though the biggest robbery, I think, was for "Becket'. I've only seen The Stunt Man once but loved him in it (of course), and these photos remind me how gorgeous he was!


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