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Review – Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story

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Michelle Rodriguez and stuntwoman Debbie Evans
Photo Credit Shout! Factory

It seems now that there are possibly more action movies than ever featuring women.  Traditional comic book fare has now made Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel a focus, but women are also front and centre in films like Mad Max: Fury Road, The Matrix and the Fast and the Furious franchise. Behind all of these action-packed films are some pretty amazing stuntwomen who not only have worked exceedingly hard to make every stunt count, but who have also worked exceedingly hard just to get there. They fight not just on screen, but for equality on set as well.  There’s an old quote (attributed to cartoonist Bob Thaves) that reads, “After all, Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels.” Never before has this difference been made more evident than in Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story.

This new documentary, directed by April Wright, based on the novel by Mollie Gregory, and narrated by Michelle Rodriguez, provides a window behind the scenes of some of Hollywood’s biggest movies. The film introduces a variety of stunt performers, from Jeannie Epper, Linda Carter’s Wonder Woman double, to Heidi Moneymaker, who doubles for Scarlet Johansson’s Black Widow. However, it even briefly travels to the silent film era, where many women were performing death defying acts regularly on-screen before Hollywood discovered an actor’s worth and brought in stuntmen to take over. And they were almost always men, wearing wigs to double for the women on screen, something that still happens as we discover.

The rise of feminism in the 1970s brought more opportunities for stuntwomen, but even so it is obvious through the various interviews shown that this didn’t mean things were easy. These women were, and in many ways still are, fighting against sexism and racism on the set, having to work harder and continuously prove themselves in comparison to their male counterparts. As one performer notes, if you make a mistake as a stuntwoman, it tends to follow you around instead of being brushed aside. This is a profession with regularly little room for error, but for these women, even less so.

As well as diving deep into the gender bias towards these performers, the film takes a close look at the preparation and skill required to execute stunts, big or small. Director April Wright uses a combination of interviews with a variety of stuntwomen, spliced together with their work as it appears on screen, to effectively demonstrate their expertise. These women are driving experts, gymnasts, martial arts experts, high fall specialists or even experts in fire stunts. It’s a fascinating deep dive into the world of filmmaking as well as the incredible grit and determination of stuntwomen, even in the face of significant injury or even death.

The film often places a younger stuntwomen interviewing an older performer, and while this occasionally leads to awkward interactions, it becomes endearing to watch different generations bond over their experiences. An overwhelming theme of the documentary is how much these stunt performers are part of a community and it is inspiring to watch these women nurture one another, train together, problem solve, and even mourn together when tragedy strikes.

Wright doesn’t employ Michelle Rodriguez’ narration often, but really doesn’t need to as the stories the stuntwomen tell could fill hours of screen time. These are women who can certainly speak for themselves. This may at times feel unorganized, but there is obvious flow and an overarching direction. Interviews with directors like Paul Feig, Anne Fletcher and Paul Verhoeven are utilized to highlight just how important the stuntwomen they have worked with have been to the successful completion of films like Ghostbusters (2016), Hot Pursuit, and Total Recall.

“Actresses play characters, but stuntwomen have to play actresses playing characters,” the narration notes. As such, when being a stunt double these artists also have to fit into the “ideal” body type Hollywood has perpetuated while being physically equipped to make their stunts bigger and better every shoot. Being a stunt performer is hard enough but coupled with the added pressure of double standards and discrimination it becomes clear that these stuntwomen have a unique and inspiring story to tell.

Any film buff is sure to enjoy the insight this documentary offers into some of their favourite movies, and may look differently at an action scene after hearing some of the overlooked details. For instance, that the wardrobe a woman often has to wear in film often doesn’t lend itself to protective padding like it does for men who can often hide gear under long sleeves or pants.  Just as Ginger Rogers’ skills were tested, doing stunts in a miniskirt and heels comes with its own set of challenges. This documentary is just a part of bringing much-needed focus to this overlooked group of artists, for the mountains these performers have had to climb (both physical and metaphorical) make these women a testament to their profession and an instrumental part of filmmaking.

 

Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story is available on digital platforms in September 22nd.

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