Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story (2020)

Posted in Reviews by - January 08, 2023
Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story (2020)

When talking about the specific subject of female stunt performers in Hollywood, the ‘untold’ story is one about pervasive, decades-long male dominance in the stunt industry, and an implied and often overt misogyny. It is evident in the way female stunt performers were prolific during the silent era – regularly filmed doing dangerous things like leaping from horses onto moving trains and driving cars through buildings – until Hollywood became fully industrialised and incorporated, run by businessmen who pushed women to the margins. It is evident in the way Debbie Evans – one of America’s best competitive motorcyclists – says she still feels she has to prove herself when working on a film set. It is evident in how a mistake made by a female stunt performer can plague her career, while mistakes made by men are generally seen as more accepted. It is evident in the process known as “wigging”, when male stunt performers are used to double female characters, instead of finding female stunt performers to carry out the same job. It is evident in how Julie Ann Johnson – the first woman to work as a stunt coordinator on episodic TV (Charlie’s Angels) and the founder of the Stuntwomen’s Association – claimed unfair dismissal when she dared to call-out the use of drugs on set, resulting in a protracted 13-year court case in which her professional competency was continually brought into question. (She won the case, although she is yet to receive a single cent from her $1.1m in damages. For more details on the case, refer to Mollie Gregory’s book on which this film is based.) And it is evident in the still incredibly low numbers of female stunt coordinators – something Melissa Stubbs is trying her best to address (the documentary includes great behind-the-scenes footage of Stubbs filming a car stunt). The documentary doesn’t venture too heavily into other minority groups in Hollywood – like the lack of racial diversity in stunts – although it does reference the creation of the Black Stuntman’s Association, who allowed women to join because of their mutual understanding of prejudice within the industry. April Wright’s film is gripping throughout, with a vast amount of contributors – including high-profile male filmmakers like Paul Feig, Paul Verhoeven, and producer Albert Ruddy – but the real magic happens when the younger stunt performers (including Amy Johnston and Alyma Dorsey) interview the ‘unsung’, retired stuntwomen who helped to pave the way for greater representation. Like when Amy consoles a tearful Jeannie Epper – the legendary, fearless double for Linda Carter on Wonder Woman – and when Jadie David becomes emotional when recounting the time she witnessed the death of a colleague on set. These heartbreaking stories are, of course, not unique to women, but they do explain just how high the stakes are in an industry in which people take incredible risks just to entertain the audience. The overriding message is that, thankfully, a new, energetic, versatile and talented generation of female stunt performers (people like Johnston, Dorsey, the Moneymaker sisters, Jessie Graff, Angela Meryll, and many more) are now working in a far safer, egalitarian world than the women who went before them. It’s still not perfect, of course, and there is still work that needs to be done to guarantee that anybody, from any walk of life, can survive and thrive in the film world.

This post was written by
Editor and creator of Kung Fu Movie Guide and the host of the Kung Fu Movie Guide Podcast. I live behind a laptop in London, UK.

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