Richard Rush, the director of “The Stunt Man,” died April 8 at the age of 91, and if you look up his credits he has only 14 of them (and one was an episode of “The Mod Squad”). In a career that spanned 35 years, he made just a dozen features. Yet to an unusual degree, he meant every one of them. Maybe to a fault: As he noted in “The Sinister Saga of Making ‘The Stunt Man,'” his documentary look back at the fabled cult film about filmmaking, Rush gave away the rights to “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and turned down “Jaws.” He was very choosy. Yet when you watch his movies, you always see them peering around corners and glancing ahead, anticipating the world that was coming.
In the most famous sequence in “The Stunt Man,” Steve Railsback, as a fugitive hired to be a Hollywood stunt man (though he’s really pretending to be the stunt man who was killed in an on-set accident), scurries around the catwalks and red layer-cake rooftops of the Hotel Del Coronado, dodging bullets fired by German soldiers, who keep plummeting to their deaths. If you know anything about how a film is made, you may think for a moment, “How could they be shooting this sequence all at once?” But those thoughts fly out of your head as you’re drawn into the Rube Goldberg propulsion of it — the sense that there’s always another death trap ahead. By the time Railsback crashes through a roof and onto the house of prostitution below, you’re caught up in the fantasy that this is actually happening, that it’s “real” — until we see the camera crew and hear cut! and realize that we’re watching a scene that just became more real than life.
“The Stunt Man,” which came out in 1980, is a playful whirligig of a comedy/mystery/gizmo that’s all about kinetic action, reality and illusion, and the mind games presided over by Eli Cross (Peter O’Toole), a film director of singular flamboyant manipulation. (It’s also a deadly thriller, with a hero who’s just paranoid enough to think he’s going to be next.) Rush spent close to a decade trying to get the film made and ultimately had to finance it independently. He said, “They couldn’t figure out if it was a comedy, a drama, if it was a social satire, if it was an action adventure…and, of course, the answer was, ‘Yes, it’s all those things.’ But that isn’t a satisfactory answer to a studio executive.”
“The Stunt Man” looks forward to a film like David Fincher’s “The Game” — which sprung, in part, out of the multi-leveled reality of video games. And now we find ourselves living in a world where fake reality is gaining a bigger and bigger grip on real reality. “The Stunt Man,” in its analog trap-door way, with WWI combat scenes pitched somewhere between Robert Aldrich and Monty Python, anticipates all this, and that’s why it’s an antic magic trick of a movie, one that still speaks to us. It never got a full-scale release, yet it managed to pull in three Oscar nominations (for Rush, O’Toole and adapted screenplay). And it has earned a place in film history as one of the few essential movies about moviemaking.
Of course, it’s also a portrait of the film director as Machiavellian grand illusionist, and O’Toole’s performance has a dark joy that’s timeless. The movie may remind you, in a lighter way, of what Orson Welles was trying to bring off in “The Other Side of the Wind”: a vision of Hollywood as a sinister hall of mirrors. According to the principals, the character of Eli Cross contains elements of David Lean and of Rush himself, but in a way he’s any director who is soaring above the people he’s working with — as Eli does literally, swooping down on his crane — because he’ll stop at nothing to get them to make the movie he wants. He’s a killer for art.
I don’t know if Rush was, too, but working within the Hollywood system, he took chances and pushed the envelope. His first film, “Too Soon to Love” (1960), is a tale of unmarried teenagers confronting an unplanned pregnancy, which was quite risqué for a studio picture of the era. Jack Nicholson has a supporting role in it, and Nicholson loomed large during the first phase of Rush’s career, to the extent that I’d say it was Rush who elevated him to stardom.
Nicholson had the co-lead in “Hells Angels on Wheels” (1967), playing a biker named Poet who joins the Angels and becomes the rival of Adam Roarke’s leader. Thanks to Rush’s direction, it’s easily the most dynamic and artful of the rowdy exploitation biker flicks that many associate with Roger Corman (though he had nothing to do with this one). Rush captures the on-the-road psychology of biker culture: where it intersected with the free-love ’60s, and with bully-boy fascism. A year later, he made the terrific “Psych-Out” (1968), a sex-and-acid soap opera set in the hippie culture — but the now-startling thing about it is that Nicholson, as a ponytailed dude named Stony, mouths the peace-generation rhetoric, but he’s clearly cut from a different cloth. He’s more dangerous, more smoldering in his hostility — and, in fact, he’s more Nicholson than the grinning yokel he played in “Easy Rider.” That was the movie that made him famous, but it was Rush who tapped the quality that made Nicholson a star.
With his counterculture cred established, Rush, in 1970, made a seminal New Hollywood film — “Getting Straight,” starring Elliott Gould as a former radical who goes to grad school to join the establishment. The film sprawls in a lot of directions, which is what its fans (like Quentin Tarantino) love about it, and what the critics of the time often didn’t. But seen now, “Getting Straight” anticipates the tension in our own era between the pull of idealism and the practicalities of middle-class survival. The film was a box-office success, but Rush, to say the least, did not strike while the New Hollywood iron was hot. Instead, he waited four years to make “Freebie and the Bean,” which at the time looked like a crass commercial comedy — though what it was, in fact, was the creation of the buddy movie as we now know it.
Sure, it was “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” that started it all. But it was “Freebie and the Bean” that invented the DNA of sticking two mouthy cops together and having them played by a mismatched pair of firecracker showboats like James Caan and Alan Arkin. It was a big hit and became one of the most influential films of its time. That’s because Rush directed it with a rush, a flourish of high disreputability.
He didn’t make another film until “The Stunt Man,” and he didn’t make another movie after that until his final film, “Color of Night” (1994), a forgettable Bruce Willis thriller that had the distinction of featuring one of the least convincing psychologist heroes in movie history. Rush, it was clear, was done. He’d made his grand statement with “The Stunt Man,” and maybe — this is a guess — he felt like he had nothing more to say. In “The Stunt Man,” filmmaking is a ginormous game, in which the director and his actors keep playing each other. It could be that Rush was exhausted by it. Or maybe he just thought he’d won.