I’ve gone through car windshields, rolled vans into ditches, fallen from heights, crashed motorcycles, survived head-on collisions with other heads, but I’ve never been good with horses. Lotsa women are good with horses. Some of them have gone through windshields, rolled cars, made death-defying leaps and smashed up their own motorcycles. About ten years ago I was working a rodeo and talking with one of the rodeo clowns about a belligerent fighting bull that was stomping, snorting and butting the walls of its pen. The clown, in full hick costume, smiled and said, “Shiiit, that bull ain’t nothin’! All he’s doing is putting on a show. The noisy ones ain’t nothin’ ta worry ’bout. It’s the quiet ones ya gotta watch yourself around. They’re studyin’ you. Sizin’ you up. Lookin’ for your weakness and waitin’ for you to let your guard down. They ain’t dumb animals.”
“Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story” points out how the early American film business began with a healthy number of females doing writing, production, direction, and acting in swashbucklin’ and gunfightin’ roles and doin’ their own stunts. Women, along with men, were routinely savin’ the day and blushin’ “Aw, shucks. ‘Tweren’t nuthin’.” In the days of Nickelodeons and one-reelers, this was essential. Cinema’s audience consisted largely of women whose husbands were working, leaving them (and their restless children) looking for snappy afternoon entertainment. Upon this dynamic, movies became the fifth largest industry in the US. Then the big-monied studio system pushed women to the back of the bus. It also pushed small-statured men into dresses and wigs to do the stunts that “girls don’t have the strength or stamina for!” Oh, yeah?
“Stuntwomen…” is a great, informative read and author Mollie Gregory has done her research. It doesn’t just cover the struggles of women in a competitive, exclusionary field, it also considers the practice of “painting down” that robbed many minority stunt performers of jobs. And when cutthroat budgets compromised safety values causing critical injuries and deaths (a la John Landis’ “Twilight Zone”), stuntwomen and stuntmen finally broke the code of silence. As May Boss said: “I always love it when the guys brag, ‘I’ve never been hurt.’ If you’ve never been hurt, you haven’t done much.” Chrissy Weathersby concurred: “You can’t practice a car hit. You just do it.” And as the rodeo clown told me: “It’s not a matter of if you’ll be hurt, it’s a matter of when.”
For those who haven’t noticed, smart, talented, stout-hearted women have been claiming more and more territory within the visual mediums. Forget the figureheads and grandstanders; it’s the quiet, diligent ones who are making the difference—like the invisible stunt performers and editors. Guts is not gender-specific, guys, and protecting your balls often takes more than steel cups in a strap. Balls has never been a requirement to jumping off a 4-story building or flipping a Plymouth into a river. The important thing is who will land on her or his feet and go back to wait for the director’s call of “Action!” and do it again.