September 18, 2020 Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story (Documentary Review)
Someone has to take the hard knocks on camera, and not every leading star can be Jackie Chan. So, when a shot calls for a high jump, a connected punch, or being set on fire, that is when the stuntmen are called in. They have their own share of tales to tell, like the men who got flung from a double-decker bus to the hard road in 1985’s Police Story, or the man who got flung down steps multiple times for 1999’s Fight Club, only for his first take to be the one used on-screen.
But they are not the only ones taking the bumps. Stuntwomen across the years have taken the same bumps and bashes, with a few more obstacles on top in the form of sexism, harassment and worse. Which is where the new documentary Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story comes in.
Based on the 2015 book by Mollie Gregory (Privileged Lies, Jove 1993), the documentary chronicles the contributions of stuntwomen from Hollywood’s earliest days to now. Directed by April Wright (The Graveyard Shift 2010, Going Attractions 2019) and narrator Michelle Rodriguez (The Fast & The Furious 2001, Avatar 2009) talk to the rising stars and pioneers in stuntwork, alongside Directors Paul Verhoeven (Robocop 1987, Total Recall 1990), Anne Fletcher (AJ and the Queen series, Love Victor series), and film historian Ben Mankiewicz for the ins and outs behind the camera. Available on digital platforms as of September 22nd via Shout Studios, the subject sounds interesting, but does the documentary do it justice? Or should viewers stick to the book?
The narration, written by Nell Scovell (Charmed series, NCIS series) can be a little flowery, though it gets the job done. It can make for a funny contrast between voiceover Rodriguez and on-screen Rodriguez. The former gets all fancy in describing the work stuntwomen do, while the latter is more down-to-earth in summing them up: “badass.”
That said, the documentary largely has the stuntwomen themselves describing their experiences, training, what their work involves, etc. Sometimes they are the standard talking heads, like Donna Keegan describing her death-defying off-road helicopter rescue scene from 1994’s True Lies. Other times, they are interviewing each other- Alyma Dorsey (Captain Marvel 2019) talking to Jadie David (Foxy Brown 1974) about the past and present struggles stuntwomen have. Then there will be a group discussion, where 3 or more figures turn up to talk about one topic or another.
The interviewees come off quite frank about their experiences too- taking pride in blowing past others’ limited expectations, while putting up with hypocrisy on the other, with little to no embellishment. That is, the stuntwomen just describe what happened, with accompanying footage of their classic stunts, what it took to make them, etc. It is fascinating stuff, while proving the old adage that women have to be twice as good as their male competitors to be seen as equal.
Not that the film’s tone is particularly dour. If anything, it is more matter of fact in showing what goes on behind the scenes. Sometimes it can be light-hearted, with Rodriguez joining acclaimed stunt driver Debbie Evans (The Matrix Reloaded 2003) for a race. Other times, it can be grim, going through the risks involved- accidents, blacklisting, death and more. It just does not pull punches on either. Racing around the track can look fun, but the documentary also says it can be “a sexist and racist business.”
Overall, Stuntwomen is a rather sober but welcoming documentary with few frills attached to it. The stuntwomen themselves get to talk at length about their business, which may open a few eyes onto the trouble behind the scenes. That is not to mention the extra effort involved in pulling off the stunts and getting the proper credit for it. The film works at giving a general overview of what stuntwomen have dealt with and (at least in some cases) continue to deal with today. It should make for intriguing viewing for film buffs and newbies alike. For these reasons, Cryptic Rock gives this film 4 out of 5 stars.