The God complex
(a belated tribute to Peter O'Toole (1932 - 2013))
On the passing of Peter O'Toole last December 14, I had hoped to talk of one of his many memorable performances in many a memorable film, but couldn't bring myself to write about My Favorite Year (fan of his performance, not the film), or The Lion in Winter (fan of neither performance nor film), or perhaps his best-known role, in Lawrence of Arabia (fan of both performance and film, but but but).
So I picked The Stunt Man.
Richard Rush picked up Paul Brodeur's novel--about a fugitive who evades capture by posing as a stunt man during a film shoot--back in 1971; decided it was a fascinating metaphor for his own life as a filmmaker; took seven years independently raising the money and shooting the film; took another two years to find a studio willing to distribute this bizarre action / comedy / love story / movie about a movie / deft metaphysical dissertation on the nature of reality.
As for the finished picture: Rush basically picked out the theme of reality and fantasy gradually becoming indistinguishable from Brodeur's densely literate (and to be honest barely readable) novel, injected his own knowledge of both low-budget independent and studio-financed film production, and (taking his cue from a book he had attempted but failed to adapt early in the decade: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) redrew the characters, from cartoon grotesques capering in a bizarro world to fairly recognizable (if eccentric) human beings negotiating the phenomenologically slippery world of filmmaking.
Of course the appropriately surnamed Rush tells it all in his own unique headlong style--not so much the shaky-cam, chop-suey editing of today's action pictures (which leave us behind right at the starting gate, scratching our heads at the incomprehensibility), but with the disreputable urgency and speed of the biker flicks, racing pictures, acid-trip features, and cop movies he cut his teeth on early in his career.
Take an early scene on the bridge. Cameron (Steve Railsback, who Rush discovered playing Charles Manson in the TV movie Helter Skelter) boards an elegant old Duesenberg--and is immediately kicked out by the driver. Cut to a rear shot of the car taking off, door slamming shut just above stunned would-be hitchhiker's head; cut to a pan of the vehicle violently careening (quick inserted close-up the car's monstrous rear end screeching to a halt only inches from the viewer); cut to a repeat shot of Cameron on the bridge before the Duesenberg, only this time the car's roaring directly down at him--he reaches for a nearby steel bolt, hurls it at the windshield, rolls; the behemoth bellows, its roar reverberating into nothing; Cameron stands and (here you see Rush's unique touch) the Duesenberg has vanished from the bridge.
Rush would stage one action sequence after another thusly, as series of intricately linked stunts unreeling with little explanation or apology, topped with a generous dollop of impossible. Some critics complain that this is hardly how a film is shot, but 1) it is the way action (if properly done) is perceived by the audience, 2) and (I submit) how Hollywood might present the making of an action flick, the drawn-out reality being too humdrum to warrant attention. Rush wants you to feel the connectedness of the scenes, the intensity of the experience, wants to keep you aware of all the people furiously at work maintaining the wildly arbitrary blend of real filmmaking and a filmgoer's naive notions of what filmmaking is like. Rush in effect is asking you to take his hand and vault past the insane inconsistencies, the pretentious intellectual baggage, the freakish fusion of art film and genre flick--an admittedly terrifying leap of faith--to a state of conditional belief where, yes, maybe films do feel this way at (or near) the moment of creation, at least when the daily rushes have been roughly assembled in the screening room and not all the moments when the camera accidentally catches offscreen action have been edited out.
And in the end what does the filmmaker say? That the act of filmmaking and its effect on the psyche represents any number of things, from an inability to trust one's beloved to an inability to trust one's fellow man (to the point of global conflict) to an inability to trust reality itself. If anything Rush's own experiences prove the veracity of his theme: he suffered not one but two heart attacks due to the stress of attempting to finish and release this film (the whole not uninteresting story--in yet another metaphysical twist of plot--transformed into yet another film, the companion documentary The Sinister Saga of Making The Stunt Man).
Railsback's eponymous stunt worker is the ostensible protagonist, but no one's really fooled--the film's true center, around which everyone revolves like planets round their ruling star, is director Eli Cross, and as played by Peter O'Toole he's not just God Almighty on the film set but the Devil Incarnate to boot.
Cross' entrance is godlike enough--we don't see him at first, just hear his voice (in the chopper), see his hand chuck a bitten apple out the window; later we glimpse him from a distance (through the chopper window) and the camera cuts back to reveal a familiar behind him: a man with a movie camera. The entrance proper is a low-angle shot watching patiently as the chopper descends from the sky and Cross climbs out, looking massive, monumental; cut to a medium shot of him walking, his gait disconcertingly heavy--you sense a habitually graceful stride that today is somehow off-kilter, as he delivers the bad news of Burt's (the stunt man Cameron replaces) untimely death.
What's so intriguing about O'Toole's movements (based partly or so he says on the present film's director, partly on the most impressive filmmaker he has ever known, David Lean) is that they suggest not just power (as everything leading up to his entrance would imply) but power enveloped by an elegance, or an ennui--a laziness almost (once he climbs out of the chopper he almost immediately rests his head on crossed arms). He's forever lounging about, leaning against backrests and doorways and posts; if he raises an arm it's to gesture briefly then drop, like a freshly severed limb. Oh, he has many moments of wit and, on occasion, energy (near film's end while walking briskly towards his beloved chopper he does a sudden about-face that's a pleasure not just to watch but rewind), but for the most part he radiates not enthusiasm but exhaustion--specifically, exhaustion as consequence of an interminable struggle. He moves as if he were a strongman bearing a near-unsupportable burden and wearied of the load--is presently conserving strength for some unforeseen crisis, or for the long haul. Without having directed a feature in his life O'Toole manages to convey the toll on a filmmaker's strength; he manages to explain (without once explicitly doing so) the reason why filmmaking is considered one of the most stressful of occupations, having killed some early (Jean Vigo, Rainier Werner Fassbinder), driven others to obesity (Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles) and yet others to longtime retirement (Richard Lester, Stanley Donen).
The performance is in direct contradiction to the flow of the film itself, but O'Toole probably realized that the best way for a man to stand out is to point him against the general momentum. It's an interesting way of representing authority--you don't give a damn which way the narrative is headed; you have other worries.
This sense of reserve adds to the mystery, and one can't help but ask: is Cross a humanitarian? A megalomaniac? Some variation of either or combination of both? As Railsback's Cameron puts it (flashing his Charles Manson eyes): "can't take my eyes off the sonofabitch!"
Cross is no rounded character with a dramatic arc the way Cameron is, but that doesn't matter--he's the director. He shouldn't have to work so hard at establishing his presence, he doesn't work so hard, and still you can't take your eyes off the sonofabitch.
Perhaps the closest equivalent to the character--and yet another possible source for O'Toole's performance--is John Huston's Noah Cross in Roman Polanski's Chinatown (what's with all these powerful mystery men surnamed 'Cross?'). Like Eli, Noah is an authority figure; like Eli, Noah harbors secrets. Robert Towne's script for Chinatown skillfully pins its protagonist (private investigator Jake Gittes, played by Jack Nicholson) front and center, whereas Railsback's stunt man for all his intensity and physical eloquence tends to recede into the background, overshadowed by Cross' comic, metaphoric, visual incandescence.
Partly I'd say it's the narrative design--Cameron is meant to be in hiding, after all; partly it's because Railsback doesn't have the charm or likeability of either Nicholson or O'Toole (though he does have a poignant chemistry with his leading lady Nina, played with unguarded ardor by Barbara Hershey). Partly I suspect it was Rush's secret intent all along to transfix Cross as the film's true center--or at least its most fascinatingly diabolical, maybe transcendental, character (take your pick).
A final observation: film critic Pauline Kael in an otherwise admiring review took the film to task for pulling back on its dark vision of mistrust, revealing Cross as being essentially benign (he only wants to cheat Cameron of some three hundred and fifty dollars in stunt fees). Not sure I agree--the amateur excruciator will interrogate his client nonstop to exhaustion, sometimes death; a professional allows his client to recover, so they can begin again. I see Cross as a professional, is all, to the point that he keeps even his role in the proceedings ambiguous. Is he or isn't he? You'll never truly find out from him, and that uncertainty is itself excruciating.
(First published in Businessworld, 1.30.14)