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Stuntwomen say work’s tough, finding next job even tougher

The stunts in two of this summer’s most terrifying opening scenes were done by women.

In TriStar’s “Cliffhanger” Michelle Joyner hangs by a glove held by Sylvester Stallone, dangling from a wire over a 1,000-foot deep chasm. The glove slips, and on location on the peaks of the Italian Alps Gia Phipps took the fall…on a 3/16-inch descender cable.

“We dropped her 540 feet, then stopped her, and she was still 400 feet off the ground. Then we wheeled her back up,” explains stunt coordinator Joel Kramer. “It was an intense picture.”

It was also Phipps first movie work, but she was an expert lead climber who had been recommended by the movie’s mountain climbing coordinator as a perfect double for the movie’s co-star, Janine Turner, and the short-lived Joyner.

In Paramount’s “Sliver” Annie Ellis takes a similar but more urban high fall from a 20-story balcony, struggling all the way down as the camera plunges with her recording her cinematic demise.

“Opportunities for women are increasing, but at such a slow rate it’s despicable,” notes Donna Keegan, a stunt woman on the Screen Actors Guild’s board of directors.

Linda Fetters-Howard, VP of the Stuntwomen’s Assn., maintains that the buddy system among male stunt coordinators still squeezes women out of the nondescript job.

“It’s just business. They hire the men who hire them. There’s not one female fire fighter in ‘Backdraft.’ In ‘Lethal Weapon’ there were 32 cars on the 101 freeway and not one driven by a woman. What’s that about? Until there are more female stunt coordinators out there, it’s not going to change.”

“We don’t get the respect for our years and our knowledge of the business,” expands Keegan.

“You’ll find a younger guy with less knowledge running a show, because he’s a guy. It’s very hard for woman out there trying to get a stunt coordinating job. Competition is stiff. But we tend to get less of the opportunities that are available.”

Laura Dash is one notable exception. She is a stunt double for males, specifically boys. At 33 years old, she stands 4’6″ and weighs 65 pounds.

In “Jurassic Park,” Dash doubled Joey Mazzello as he got electrically zapped off the fence

“I have more opportunities than most women because I double the boys. Eighty percent of my work is doubling boys, and the other 20% is girls.”

Unfortunately the kids eventually outgrow her. “I doubled Danielle Harris on four pictures — the last was ‘The Last Boy Scout’ — but she’s getting a little too tall for me now.

If a kid is doing real well, I’ll get to double them for about three or four pictures.”

One woman no one seems to be outgrowing is Lila Finn, who doubled Dorothy Lamour in “The Hurricane” in 1937. Now 82, she worked in “Robo Cop 2” and “The Rocketeer.”

But how do stunt guys feel about working for a woman stunt coordinator? “It’s kind of like dating,” explains Keegan, who has coordinated the ABC series “Stat” and ABC Circle Films’ “Space Camp.””If a guy is secure with himself, he doesn’t mind if you go and talk with other guys. But if he’s insecure, then he has an attitude problem about it, and they try to be suppressive.”

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