Billed as “The definitive documentary about the history of Hollywood Stuntwomen,” Shout! Studios’s Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story takes what was captured in Mollie Gregory’s book of the same name and catapults it onto screens everywhere. The trailer for this documentary gets your blood pumping and excitement level up with scenes of some of your favorite action moments in movies fired off with a good beat and speedy pace. It gets your adrenaline pumping and makes you strap in for a seriously heavy and in-your-face look at stuntwomen. As good as the trailer is and as much as you want that energy in the documentary, the film takes on an entirely different tone.
Unless you are really into movies, you may be hard-pressed to name even one stuntman or stuntwoman, whether you’re familiar with their work or not. The people who plan, practice, and perform the stunts to give movies their WOW factors are unsung heroes who constantly put their bodies on the line for a great show and for even greater personal challenges. If you are familiar with some members of the stunt world, seeing names like Jeanie Epper (Linda Carter’s double for the Wonder Woman tv show), Peaches Jones (Pam Grier’s double for Foxy Brown), Donna Keegan (Jamie Lee Curtis’s double for True Lies), Heidi Moneymaker (Scarlett Johansson’s double in many Marvel movies), and Renae Moneymaker (Jennifer Lawrence’s double in The Hunger Games series) really grabs your interest. These are only a handful of the names that either appear in or are discussed in the film. Being familiar with some of their work, most audience members will be in awe and say “man, they can do some badass stuff!” What is typically forgotten is what these women go through to be able to even have the opportunity to take on those roles and to actually perform what they’ve trained so hard to do.
Instead of a fast-paced narrative that takes you from insane stunt to tension-filled how’d-we-do-it story, Stuntwomen takes a more somber approach. The majority of the film is segments from conversations between stuntwomen who are active today and their counterparts from the past who helped pave the way for today’s ever-growing field of female badasses. Using this format of younger conversing with older provides opportunities for contrasts and comparisons between the then and now to fold in seamlessly with the flow of the film without it needing to shift directions to make a point. For example, as stories of the difficulties of being cast or of being taken seriously on-set are shared from the earlier days, today’s stuntwomen quickly chime in how it is still very difficult, even if slightly easier than it was for their predecessors. For example, women were and still are constantly second-guessed about their approaches to and executions of stunts whereas men are simply given the green light to get them done. The battles to prove themselves to their male counterparts, by demand of those male counterparts, are still on-going on a daily basis on and off sets. These brief moments in conversation quickly frame and solidify how far the industry still has to go to create equality for everyone on-staff.
The discussions of inequality and the obstacles of sexism and racism on-set and in the casting process are going to be eye-opening for some but very familiar to many who experience similar biases day in and day out. Going for a job, it’s not enough for you to be able to take a hit or drive well at high speeds, you also need to be of similar build and weight as the actress you’re doubling for, so they may ask you to lose 10 lbs, even though you need that muscle to do the job they’re asking you to do. The muscle on stunt people don’t just serve for strength, but also for control. How well can you adjust yourself in the middle of an unexpected fall so that you land with the impact covering the most surface area as to reduce damage to any single area on your body? There’s still more emphasis on the woman fitting into the costume and wig than there is on their experience and skills as stunt people, even though the brass is more than willing to throw a male counterpart who doesn’t meet those aesthetics into the role. The kicker? Even when the weight is lost and the costumes and wigs fit perfectly, the directors and coordinators still are likely to have the stuntwoman perform with reduced or no padding as it may impact the look of the scene (how does going full speed down a runway laying on nothing but a piece of metal from a bus in nothing but a short summer dress with no padding since it would ruin the visual sound?) Hearing these stories, whether they’re familiar to you as someone who has similar experiences, or new to you as someone who is having their eyes opened to how others are treated, adds to the big picture that Stuntwomen is pulling together for audiences to truly appreciates what goes on in the stunt world.
There are many aspects that are only touched upon in Stuntwomen that grab your interest and entice a deeper dive. Jeanie Epper, for example, is one member of a large stunt family, and they’re not the only stunt family out there. Think about that — an entire family, generations, of stunt people! There are a lot of interesting stories and answers to questions audiences would love to see like how the original family member got started in stunts and how they felt getting their kids into the same industry! Stuntwomen forgoes these deeper dives in exchange for being able to spend time bringing awareness to the various types of stunt fields there are and the women are active in them. When most people think about stunt people, they think of someone taking a fall off a building into an air bag or someone behind a sports car and throwing up the e-brake to make a quick getaway. Stuntwomen cover a wide range of skills and specialties, from fighting to cars and bikes to fires to background work. However, one field that women are still struggling to break into is stunt coordination. There are very few stunt coordinators in Hollywood who are not white males. So what? Other than providing equal opportunities, having such a narrow representation of people in such a significant role in a film means many things are done the same way over and over again, are done at the expense of speed vs experience and caution, and are done to keep anyone else from achieving that leadership role. Now, before you roll your eyes and say “oh, another piece bashing white males, great,” let me stop you. Stuntwomen does explore the hardships of gender and racial discrimination, but it is done in a way to herald those doing the work and breaking through, not to bring down those who actively work against equality and the success of others.
And the film doesn’t come to say “all white men are the enemy.” Several, like Paul Verhoeven (producer, writer, director), Paul Feig (producer, actor, director), and Ben Mankiewicz (writer, producer, actor), appear in the film providing their own insight and experiences in training, hiring, and working with stuntwomen. The goal of the film, and one it achieves, is to bring attention to more details about the world of stunts, the variety of fields within that world, the amazing things women have done and are doing within those fields, and advocating for more opportunities for women and minorities now and in the future for the stuntworld to continue to open itself up to exciting new possibilities. In the early days of Pre-Code Hollywood, before filmmaking was seen as profitable, women were the ones doing the insane stunts, and they’d like to be back on equal opportunistic footing with the men so that the industry can continue to grow in creativity, innovate safety, and up the level of how’d-they-do-that without CGI?!
While Stuntwomen isn’t the high-adrenaline rush you expect from the trailer, it is worth the 84 minutes. Among the conversations, history lessons, and horror stories, you see clips of training, practice, execution, and direction of stunts. You become familiar with faces that you’ve seen hidden behind a flurry of hair in many movies and shows before, and you come to appreciate the artistry of stuntwork even more than you did before. As narrator Michelle Rodriguez (Fast and the Furious) quips while hanging around with a few members of the Evans stunt family, “I thought you do action movies and you get to have all the fun, and then I realized, no, Debbie (Evans) has all the fun.”
Available on digital September 22nd, 2020.
For more information on this and other Shout! Studios releases, head to the official Shout! website.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.