A stuntwoman’s job is to jump out of a helicopter, drive a speeding motorcycle on winding roads, leap from one train car to another, and punch the bad guys in the face. She doubles actors in movies and on TV, quietly taking on the riskiest moves, saving the leading lady from potential injury. She’s behind the scenes, but the key to an impressive action sequence.
Stuntwomen traces the history of women doing stunts from the early silent serial films of the 1910’s and 1920’s through to the blockbusters of the early 2000’s. Stuntwomen had early successes, but then found as the movie business became big business that they were constantly having to fight for their place in the industry. “Wigging” stuntmen was commonplace, with the men doubling for actresses instead of using a stuntwoman. While reading this, I recalled an obvious sequence in the 70’s film Kansas City Bomber, in which Raquel Welch plays an up-and-coming roller derby star, where the stunt person was clearly a man with a wig obscuring his face. But, women were told, it was too dangerous for them to do many of the stunts and so often the roles were given to men, especially ones who had the right connections.
Gregory’s book traces nearly a century of stunts and work behind the scenes to give stuntwomen their equal place. It details the dangers–and occasionally the deaths–stuntwomen (and all stunt people) have faced. I had no idea how often the cars provided for movie stunts were barely functioning and even lacked seat belts. I learned that stunts can often be more dangerous for women because actresses are often wearing such tight and revealing clothing that they can’t conceal protective padding underneath. And I read about how doing stunts is so much more than just the physical risk: the stunt people also have to get the body language of the actor they’re doubling down perfectly so that they’re indistinguishable from the actor themselves.
I loved getting a glimpse behind the scenes of how a movie is built. This book motivated me to go check out the film Destry Rides Again from my local library. It’s still debated today whether a group tavern fight scene with Marlene Dietrich actually has the actress doing her own stunts or her stunt double (there were takes of each). I’ve definitely been watching movies and TV shows a little differently since reading this book, watching the stunts for glimpses of the stunt people, and admiring what it takes to pull off a convincing stunt.
If you’re like me and you love to learn more about how things are made, I highly recommend this. It’s a fascinating and well-researched book that shares lots of history and Hollywood stories.