I’m not sure how much more proof the world needs that women can be total badasses, and yet, based on the sort of continued bias and sexism being discovered and exposed in nearly every crevice of our society, it would seem more. Much, much more. Thank the Amazon goddesses for director April Wright’s new documentary Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story, which offers what should be all the proof the world will ever need that women can have as much or more inner strength, invention, determination, and grit than their male counterparts. In the case of stuntwomen, they do it, perhaps not ‘backwards and in high heels’, but in high heels, often scantily-clad, and with little to no padding as a result.
Based on Mollie Gregory’s 2015 book, the film is full of interviews of the best in the business. It’s way past time for these amazing, gutsy women to be in the spotlight. They work a dangerous profession, love every minute of it, and excel, even while they have had and still have roadblocks all along the way.
Until very recently for example, it was common for men to get “wigged up” and double female stars for the most difficult stunts, because producers and directors thought it was too dangerous for stuntwomen. Coincidentally, the more difficult the stunt, the more money the stunt person makes.
Stuntmen can nearly always ‘pad up’, since the pads will be under a costume of jeans or something that covers most of the body, Unlike them, stuntwomen are often doubling female leads and co-leads, which, by the nature of how women are still being cast, especially in action projects, means they will at least have exposed, unprotected arms and legs, and sometimes even backs and torsos.
One of the lovely aspects of Stuntwomen is the sincere, passionate way the interviewees speak about their careers. This is largely due to the style of the interviews. Wright has the stuntwomen mostly talking to each other, not the camera. Sometimes, in the case of Amy Johnston (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Suicide Squad) and Julie Ann Johnson and Jeannie Epper, it is a younger, rising star in the trade talking to a legend. Julie Ann Johnson shares a story of going from stunt double to coordinator on the 70s Charlie’s Angels, and speaks about her experience of being unfairly blacklisted. These will whet the audience’s appetite for an upcoming limited series about her life called The Stuntwoman, currently in the works. Epper (as just one of her over 150 credits) was Lynda Carter’s body double on the Wonder Woman tv series, and is profiled in the 2004 doc Double Dare, which folks who love Stuntwomen will also want to check out. Double Dare also profiles Zoë Bell at the beginning of her career.
That sort of generational chat is also in evidence with Jadie David (who doubled Pam Grier, among many other impressive credits) and younger Black stuntwoman Alyma Dorsey. They talk about what it was and is like to be a Black stuntwoman. David relates her experience of being the first Black women to make a living as a stunt performer, and being the co-founder of the Coalition of Black Stuntmen and Women. In fact, we learn from her that the Black Stuntmen’s Association accepted black women from the day it was formed in 1967. Most other stuntmen groups don’t allow women in to this day.
Amy Johnston, and sisters Debby and Donna Evans, talk to each other while sitting in the sun on their motorcycles. Debbie Evans, who has almost 400 stunt credits, and is considered one of the best stunt car drivers ever, says she still has to prove herself over and over, especially on a new set, not so for stuntmen.
Wright explains why she chose to set the film with younger talent talking to the greats. “I knew as the audience got to know our primary stuntwomen, Amy Johnston and Alyma Dorsey, we’d become personally invested in their journey as they learn the history of their profession and meet the women who came before them. Many of the stuntwomen pioneers from the 1960s and 70s are still alive, so we wanted to hear the stories directly from these women who lived it. With this approach, we were able to turn the book into living history and make it come alive.”
Indeed, Wright and her subjects make sure you’ll learn from Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story. Because of the personal anecdotes and perspectives from stuntwomen of multiple generations, demonstrations of how some stunts were and are done, and the show of authentic passion, expertise and enthusiasm these women have for their craft, the film is always entertaining and fascinating. It’s a beautiful thing to see these powerhouses getting some recognition. They deserve it.
4 out of 5 stars.