The challenge of making a movie about making a movie is peeling away the daily minutiae of filmmaking and allowing the audience to be a fly on the wall observing the process.
As early as 1952, Hollywood exposed the ugly side of casting, by powerful producers, in “The Bad and the Beautiful” with Kirk Douglas and Lana Turner. And as recently as 2019, director Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” dissected film industry practices from the 1960s. There are a host of films providing an insider’s view on how movies are made, including: “Get Shorty” (1995), “Ed Wood” (1994), “Hitchcock” (2012), the Coen brothers’ “Hail, Caesar” (2016) and Francois Truffaut’s “Day for Night” (1973).
Reading about director Richard Rush is nearly as confounding as his greatest work: there’s no happy ending, the twists are cartoonish, and you get the sense that maybe you’re being duped by a fraud. Rush rose through the 1960s with a number of cheap exploitation films that failed to leave a mark and disappeared in the humiliation of a 1994 erotic thriller with Bruce Willis and Jane March called “Color of Night.”
But in the late 1970s, he had a moment of triumph with acting legend Peter O’Toole in a film called “The Stunt Man.” Although the movie wasn’t released until 1980, for two years 20th Century Fox executives huddled together, sitting on the completed movie, perplexed at how to market the film.
Is it a comedy? A drama? A romance? A thriller? Rush himself said, “Yes, it’s all those things.” But how do you sell a film that is, as some would say, “everything, everywhere, all at once?”
Rush’s “The Stunt Man,” with its camera movements that zoom across sets with a schizophrenic eye, is just as chaotic as life is in 2022. Like Michelle Yeoh in “Everything Everywhere All at Once” (2022), the film features a herculean performance by a veteran actor who was “past his peak.” O’Toole, channeling an excellent impression of David Lean directing a younger Peter O’Toole in “Lawrence of Arabia”(1962) plays an autocratic film director named Eli Cross (the name informs the character) who beleaguers, berates and abuses his cast and crew for the sake of his “art.”
This may or may not lead to a non-fictionalized body count of crew members. Barely stumbling through this gauntlet, as the stunt man, is an escaped felon named Cameron, played by an underappreciated Steve Railsback. Cameron wanders onto Cross’s movie set unintentionally and is caught up in the unfair manipulations by the director which soon feel hyper-intentional and sadistic. Barbara Hershey, at the height of her career, matches the intensity of the two protagonists, but nothing can stop the violence (real or imagined) that will ensue.
When the movie was finally released, it was a commercial flop, despite being nominated for three Oscars (including Best Actor for O’Toole, Best Director for Rush and Best Screenplay). Its revival has often been detoured during the past two decades, but it remains a unique and wondrous oddity from an era that was full of challenging films.
Francois Truffaut was once asked who his favorite American director was. He responded, “I don’t remember his name, but I saw his movie last night and it was called ‘The Stunt Man.’”
The polar opposite to a studio director was independent filmmaker Robert Altman. The director and creator of such film masterpieces as “M*A*S*H” (1970), “McCabe & Mrs Miller” (1971) and “Nashville” (1975) was unconventional in style and subject matter. His use of actors, talking over each other, with multiple lines of dialogue and the use of several storylines to advance the film’s plot can be confusing and unsettling. Altman forces his audience to pay attention to what’s up on the screen and listen to what his characters are saying. But the journey is worth the final destination.
Altman’s “The Player” (1992) is simply a crime story set in a movie studio populated by self-absorbed Hollywood executives trying to outmaneuver their co-workers and those employed by rival studios.
Tim Robbins is Griffin Mill, the film’s title character who kills an aspiring writer in a fit of madness (or revenge) and then beds the victim’s girlfriend (Greta Scacchi). What will the studio powers do to protect their golden goose? Or the investigating detectives portrayed by Whoopi Goldberg and Lyle Lovett?
The fun in this black comedy is identifying the over 60 cameo appearances throughout the film by Hollywood royalty playing themselves. Look for Jack Lemmon, Cher, Bruce Willis, Angelica Huston, John Cusack, Julia Roberts, Nick Nolte, Teri Garr, Susan Sarandon and many, many more. The final denouement will leave you, in Griffin Mill’s own words, wanting “to talk about something other than Hollywood for a change.”
(This column is written jointly by a baby boomer, Denny Parish, and a millennial, Carson Parish, who also happen to be father and son.)