In Hollywood’s earliest days there were just as many stuntwomen as stuntmen risking their lives while leaping from galloping horses onto trains or balancing on top of airplanes far above the ground.
But once motion pictures became big business in the 1920s, the women were pushed aside and mostly replaced by burly men in drag falling down stairs or having catfights for the next 40 years.
It’s one of the fascinating insights into the secret stars who keep the high-risk thrills happening that’s explored in action-packed documentary Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story.
Narrated by actress Michelle Rodriguez, the documentary chronicles one of the most dangerous roles in Hollywood, from the early days of black and white films to today’s blockbusters including Black Panther and The Fast & The Furious.
After those challenges in the 1920s–1950s, the rise of the feminist movement in the 1960s and 1970s saw more females working in Hollywood. The success of action-based TV series like The Bionic Woman and movies such as blaxploitation classic Foxy Brown, with women in lead roles, meant more opportunities for stuntwomen, too.
The doco talks to pioneers such as Jeannie Epper – whose credits include doubling for Lynda Carter in 1970s TV series Wonder Woman – and Julie Ann Johnson, who did stunts and was also stunt coordinator on TV’s Charlie’s Angels.
They and their colleagues had to deal with rampant sexism, bad pay and the threat of blacklisting if they complained too much. Not to mention the risk of severe injury or even death, while dealing with little body padding because of the clothes they were required to wear during these dangerous stunts.
That particular problem still exists today.
“When women are doubling actresses, there’s a huge possibility they’re in giant heels and the most uncomfortable sexy outfit,” says noted director Anne Fletcher in the doco. “And then they have to fight or roll around in a car or jump from a building.”
Another issue that hasn’t gone away is that of stuntmen donning a wig and skirt to double for an actress.
Deven MacNair – who’s worked on such films as Green Lantern and Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes – recalls the day she was the only stuntwoman on set, but was still replaced by her male stunt coordinator wearing female clothing, because he considered the stunt too dangerous for her.
“It was the third time I’d witnessed this,” she says, “and every time I’d be like, ‘Did I just see a man get wigged for a woman?’”
Of course, Stuntwomen would be a dry affair if it just relied on talking heads to tell the story. Thankfully, there’s plenty of exciting footage of stuntwomen in action dating back to cinema’s silent era, plus scenes of the current crop of athletic women displaying their skills.
We see drift-car racing, people training to fall safely from nosebleed-inducing heights and the gruelling daily training stuntwomen go through to stay in top-notch condition.
One particularly adrenaline-pumping moment involves industry veteran Debbie Evans, best known as actress Michelle Rodriguez’s double on several Fast & Furious films. Evans takes Rodriguez on a hair-raising high-speed drive through quiet suburban streets while her passenger shrieks with delight.
“I thought you do action movies and you get to have all the fun,” Rodriguez laughs, “then I realised, ‘No! Debbie has all the fun!’”
Stuntwomen often fill in where special skills are needed. Take Cassidy Hice, who doubled for Natalie Portman in many of the actress’s horse-riding scenes in 2016’s Jane Got A Gun (streaming now at SBS On Demand).
Hice, a fourth-generation stuntwoman, has collected an impressive list of onscreen credits during her 23-year career including True Grit, The Hateful Eight and TV’s Westworld.
“I’ve been on horses and rodeoing since I was a kid,” she’s told American Cowboy. “It definitely gave me experience that makes me stand out.”
Portman (or sometimes, Hice) plays Jane Hammond, a tough-as-nails frontierswoman with a small child married to former outlaw Bill “Ham” Hammond (Noah Emmerich). The family is living in the harsh New Mexico wilderness after years of running from his former gang, the Bishop Boys, led by the odious John Bishop (Ewan McGregor).
Ham is ambushed one day and badly wounded by his former compadres, but escapes and returns to his home. Knowing that the Bishop Boys are closing in on them, Jane seeks assistance from Civil War veteran and former fiancé Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton) to protect her family. At first hostile to her request, he reluctantly agrees to help his former lover.
Through a series of flashbacks we learn the pasts of our three protagonists and how they wound up in their present precarious situation.
Stuntwomen’s fight for respect in Hollywood is ongoing but, after watching both films, viewers may be wondering why they risk their lives doing what they do. There are a lot of different answers to that in Stuntwomen, but for some, it’s a huge sense of achievement.
Epper says, “I think the best thing about it is to pull off and do things that the normal average human being can’t even think about doing.”
Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story is now streaming at SBS On Demand:
Jane Got A Gun is now streaming at SBS On Demand.
We're back with a companion to 'Muhammad Ali', an epic 4-part documentary biography of one of the best-known men of the 20th century. Fiona is joined by Sarah Burns and David McMahon, co-directors, co-producers, and writers of the epic series which screens across SBS this month, and will stream at SBS On Demand. It's a fascinating conversation about how they and co-director Ken Burns approached the task of telling the definitive story of the three-time heavyweight boxing champion who, at the height of his fame, took American life — the racism, the religious biases, the role of celebrities, the role of sports in society — and refashioned it in his own image.