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Heartland: Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story

by on October 9, 2020
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One of the most severely overlooked and underappreciated jobs in the film industry is that of the stuntperson. People risk life and limb and beat themselves bloody for their craft to entertain us and to keep less trained talent safe. Many suffer lasting or permanent injury from their work, and they generally make pennies for the high-risk, high-demand work they’re asked to do. There is painfully little high-profile awards recognition for stunts like there are for actors, writers, directors, and even the people who don’t do anything besides sign the checks.

It would stand to reason, then, that stuntwomen would make particularly measly money and are even more underappreciated, even among the stunt performing community and broader film industry. Culturally, we’re a long way off from professional and civil equity across genders, and stunt performing follows suit.

New documentary Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story, from director April Wright, aims to pay some long overdue respect to these badass, woefully neglected women by giving them voices to talk about their work, their place in the industry, and their storied history. Even if it’s sometimes a little rough on presentation and occasionally meandering, it’s a more than welcome addition to the slowly growing catalog of mainstream media designed to educate us about the unsung heroes in various areas of our society.

Guiding us through eye-opening conversations with stunt performers, stunt coordinators, producers, and directors are 4 “hosts,” of a sort: renowned stuntwomen Amy Johnston and Alyma Dorsey, actress Michelle Rodriguez, and film historian Ben Mankiewicz. They talk with countless greats of the community, including Jeannie Epper (known for doubling Lynda Carter in Wonder Woman) and Jadie David (longtime double for Pam Grier).

Plenty of impressive, shocking, and tragic insights and anecdotes are shared, and I’d imagine it impossible to walk away from Stuntwomen without a greater appreciation for these people. It’s undeniably interesting and important stuff, and I ate it all up. Unfortunately, patchy editing and needlessly interwoven narratives can make it a bit hard to follow along. There were multiple points that required me to back up five or ten minutes to see if I missed some context–no, the film just started in on a new story with no sign of transition from the last one. It can sometimes lessen the impact of critical moments in the film’s narrative, and dampen the triumph of these women as a result.

Another issue is how Stuntwomen chooses to prioritize its speakers. Naming the four aforementioned hosts was surprisingly difficult, as only Mankiewicz (a man, and not a stuntperson) and Rodriguez (also not a stuntperson) are named early on in the film. I had to abandon my re-watch of the film nearly 20 minutes in because Johnston and Dorsey had yet to be identified–I opted to manually scour the film’s IMDb crew listing and match off of faces to the film. In fact, the opening few minutes consist of Rodriguez and Mankiewicz essentially man-/actor-splaining the importance and history of stuntwomen to actual, working stuntwomen. You can practically see, “Uh, yeah, I’m aware,” on some of the ladies’ faces at various points in the film. We also hear from producer Al Ruddy, director Paul Feig, and stuntman Ross Sharphorn before Johnston or Dorsey ever speak. It’s just a strange way to introduce your key speakers.

Fortunately, the longer the film goes, the more we’re able to get uninterrupted insights directly from the source, although the discombobulated narrative still sometimes gets in the way. But regardless, this Untold Hollywood Story needed to be told, and this film certainly has told it with appropriate detail and passion. I would encourage anyone to watch it, purely to shed some ignorance about the achievements of one of the critical cogs of the film industry, and to continue to expose inequality in all of its forms.

To boot, it’s one of many very deserving selections featured in Indianapolis’ own Heartland International Film Festival, which is going on right now virtually. You can, and should, check out Stuntwomen: The Untold Story online or on Friday, October 16 at 7:15pm, at Tibbs’ Drive-In.

This year’s Heartland Film Festival will be a combination of drive-in and virtual screenings. For a complete schedule and to buy tickets, click here.

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