How do you feel about a man wearing a dress and a woman’s wig? No, I’m not here to discuss the transgender-bathroom question that’s currently roiling North Carolina. My topic today is stuntwomen. As Mollie Gregory points out in her illuminating Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story, throughout the history of motion pictures men have been ready and eager to step in, don the wig, and take on stunt assignments that should much more logically go to women. Gregory, a moviemaker and a delightful speaker, is known for her books about the female presence in Hollywood. (Her Women Who Run the Show chronicles the rise of women in the film industry’s executive ranks.) Now she has interviewed sixty-five stuntwomen and looked back to the earliest days of moviedom in order to bring us the first-ever history of the women who – often in skirts and high heels – risk their lives to bring us movie thrills and spills.
I was lucky enough to hear Mollie, along with a panel of current stuntwomen, speak at a recent luncheon event co-sponsored by Women in Film. Mollie marveled at “how tough and gallant women are.” Her subjects love what they do, and speak of the joy of “making a moment come alive visually by using your body and soul.” Still, they have suffered greatly from job discrimination and from sexual harassment. In order to work, they’ve had to battle paternalistic men who feel they’re protecting women, as well as mercenary males who want to fatten their own paychecks by denying stuntwomen the chance to ply their craft.
In the early days, silent movie performers did their own stunts, with little in the way of safety precautions to protect them. Some of those early actresses loved doing high dives and driving fast cars, firing guns and leaping from bridges. But once Hollywood had evolved into a hierarchical industry in the 1920s, men took over. For decades women were squeezed out as stunt performers, and certainly had little opportunity to move into the more executive position of stunt coordinator, the person responsible for designing stunts and ensuring the safety of those who perform them. One of the luncheon’s special guests was the son of William Wellman, who pointed out with pride that his father, on a 1951 film called Westward the Women, had been the first Hollywood director to hire a female stunt coordinator, Polly Burson. It made sense, on a movie with a heavily female cast, to put a woman in charge of stunt actors—but Wellman still had to fend off flak from studio brass for his decision.
Several of the women on Gregory’s panel have themselves made history as stunt coordinators. They spoke of dangers they’ve survived, of injuries they’ve overcome, and of how stuntwomen face special challenges because they’re expected to perform tricky maneuvers not in padded clothing but rather in skimpy tank tops and teeny skirts. Annie Ellis, a third-generation stunt performer, noted that it’s constantly necessary to remind filmmakers not to risk lives by “rushing the shot.” She remembers, on the movie Twister, the filming of a tricky stunt that involved a tanker truck plummeting to earth, followed by a huge explosion. The scene had been filmed successfully, but needed to be re-shot several weeks later because of camera problems. Because this was a re-do, the director didn’t see the need for a rehearsal. It’s in situations like these that stunt coordinators need to stick up for their team’s well-being.
What can you say to a director who asks you to do the impossible? “No—unless you want to show us first.”