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The Ego Has Landed

Richard Rush is a legend in his own mind. An inventive filmmaker who cut his teeth helming biker flicks under a pseudonym in the 1960s, Rush won considerable notoriety in 1980 as the producer-director of The Stunt Man, a warped blend of satire, action and comedy about an edgy Vietnam vet who avoids incarceration by masquerading as a stunt performer on a movie shoot. Rush spent nearly a decade bringing the movie to the screen, then won accolades including an Oscar nomination as Best Director. More than 20 years later, the success of The Stunt Man is still Rush’s claim to fame—and the struggles behind the scenes of the picture are still his cross to bear.

On Anchor Bay Entertainment’s recently issued two-DVD set of The Stunt Man, Rush presents a two-hour documentary he wrote, produced and directed about the making of his classic film. Titled The Sinister Saga, the doc is a weird mixture of gossip, insight and self-congratulation. As the on-camera narrator, Rush characterizes himself as a wronged genius, takes credit for inventing a popular camera trick, and proudly quotes 20-year-old reviews praising him as a cinematic magician.

To Rush’s credit, The Stunt Man is a unique picture. In a spectacular performance, Peter O’Toole stars as Machiavellian film director Eli Cross, who hires the Vietnam vet to cover up the fact that a stunt man was killed doing a reckless stunt at Eli’s behest. Rush plays entertaining games by depicting Eli as either a god or a devil, and O’Toole spends much of the picture hovering over his set in a thronelike camera rig held in midair by a giant crane. Eli, named after Rush’s pseudonym from his exploitation-flick days, is especially vicious in his manipulation of a starlet (Barbara Hershey), at one point screening nude footage of the actress while her parents are watching. The suspense of the movie arises from the question of whether Eli is willing—or even determined—to kill his new stunt man in the name of realism.

The movie’s dialogue is often as arch as its storyline. At one point, a seasoned stunt man notes that the Vietnam vet is growing bolder by the day: “You’ve already grown those brass balls,” he says. “Jump up and down so I can hear ’em clink.”

The Stunt Man was rightly applauded upon its release for the energy and invention of Rush’s storytelling, which includes everything from over-the-top melodrama to subtle character scenes to broad slapstick. The finest accomplishment of the picture is how Rush puts viewers in the stunt man’s shoes, so we never know what’s going to happen next, or whether the danger we sense is real or imagined.

In The Sinister Saga, Rush details how Hollywood executives never knew what to make of his odd mishmash of a movie. In a lengthy running commentary that Rush delivers in various locations—in his house, in his plane, in a shopping mall, in movie theaters, even under a table in a restaurant—the director claims that vengeful executives tried to sabotage the movie at every possible opportunity. He also describes himself as a rebel with a cause, telling how at an early screening for money people, he pretended to shoot his editor to death after the editor claimed to have recut the picture without authorization. “It was a way of sending a message,” Rush crows. “Don’t fuck with the film.”

Rush’s egomania is strangely compelling, in no small part because of how it reflects the insanity of Eli’s approach to filmmaking. Yet Rush is not just a freak on display, because he makes salient points with caustic wit. The director claims that the subject matter of his movie was stolen for lesser projects such as the Burt Reynolds comedy Hooper during the time he was trying to raise money, then explains that the rip-off projects actually benefited The Stunt Man: “You could walk into a studio now and propose making a picture about a stunt man, and they’d be willing to listen because it was no longer original.”

Still, The Sinister Saga is in some ways as extreme a viewing experience as The Stunt Man. For while The Stunt Man is odd because of its dated politics and histrionics, The Sinister Saga is peculiar because it goes on and on, with Rush articulating every minute detail that crosses his mind and forever inflating his image as a heroic martyr. The synergy between this odd filmmaker and his two odd creations is captured by this bit of colorful bluster:

“Because The Stunt Man deals with such obscure themes,” Rush says, “you might not know how to react—whether to laugh or to cry. If that happens, just look at the person on your left. If you can’t see their face, it’s because they’re looking at the person on their left. That means they don’t get it either, and we’re all in trouble.”

—Peter Hanson


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