The Skyrocket of the Stunt Woman
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because women still make up half the human race.
By Libby Coleman
Two bicyclists speed down the streets of Manhattan as part of a big action sequence in Premium Rush, the 2012 bike-messenger thriller. A stunt double for Joseph Gordon-Levitt weaves through traffic, sliding through narrow gaps between various stunt cars, closely pursued by another stuntman. Both bikes and cyclists come upon a semitruck blocking the entire street — the only way through is under. A few inches less clearance, and the doubles are toast.
Fortunately, stunt coordinator Jill Brown — a woman, take note — had figured out all the angles. Literally. As she explains later, she watched the action via an overhead view on a giant monitor, one hand on a radio set for hectoring drivers to speed up, slow down or change lanes — whatever would keep them just on the verge of sideswiping the cyclists without ever actually touching them. The process is like air traffic control, only at ground level, and all meticulously blocked out in advance. And while most stunt coordinators are still men, Brown and other female coordinators are managing more mayhem on set these days, crashing through walls and doing double flips in midair as they go.
Everyone knows Hollywood has a huge diversity problem, and where actual stunt work is concerned, things are still bad. Roughly 4 out of 5 stunt performers are male, according to the best data we have — self-identification reports collected by the SAG-AFTRA union. But when Dorenda Moore, the first woman to win an Emmy for stunt coordinating, came to Hollywood 20 years ago, she knew only one other female coordinator. Now their numbers are at a half-dozen and growing, Moore says. Yes, that’s anecdotal evidence; there isn’t much diversity data at this level of the Hollywood ecosystem. But any step forward is progress.
This sort of thing matters on several levels. Stunt performers can subject their bodies to staged fights, car crashes and high falls for only so long — at some point, the daily wear and tear starts to add up. As in so many demanding professions, moving to management not only helps keep experienced stuntwomen in the game, but also gives them hiring power and the ability to mentor younger performers. As researchers have long known, female managers tend to encourage the hiring of more female managers. “People are just now starting to grasp the concept” that women can manage stunts just as well as men, Moore says.
Stuntwomen are battling against a lot of history. According to Mollie Gregory, author of Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story, actors in early silent films did their own fistfights and tumbles off horses — not exactly Michael Bay-level stuff, but still dangerous. By the 1920s, actors had become valuable commodities, and stunt doubles entered the picture. Male stunt doubles, that is; stuntmen frequently donned wigs to double for leading ladies who might swoon over a balcony. From the 1930s to the 1970s, a few women doubled, but men controlled the hiring, and it was another 40 years or so until the first woman won an Emmy for stunt coordinating in 2014. The oldest professional stunt organization, tellingly named the Stuntmen’s Association of Motion Pictures, still excludes women. (Mark Donaldson, the SAMP’s president, says they’ve “always worked really closely” with the Stuntwomen’s Association, and points to a handful of women who have honorary SAMP membership.)
Despite all that, things are slowly getting better for women in the field. Jess Harbeck, who’s coordinating her first feature film, Swiss Army Man, and continues to do stunt work herself (most recently in Ant-Man), says that her colleagues think less about her gender and instead see her as “stunt Jess.” There’s some help from the outside too. Diamond in the RAW, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit, encourages young women to pursue stunt work and holds annual awards recognizing stuntwomen. The Louisiana Stuntwomen’s Initiative organized to help connect filmmakers working in the state (thanks to film-production tax credits, now scaled back) with local female performers.
Hollywood, of course, can be enormously resistant to change. Back in the 1960s, several studios and unions settled a federal employment-discrimination investigation by promising to make more minority referrals, to little lasting effect. And gains can be transient: Women directed 7.1 percent of the top 100 films in 2008; that fell to 1.9 percent in 2013 and 2014.
But Tinseltown is feeling the heat. Jill Soloway, creator of the Emmy-nominated show Transparent, recently complained that Hollywood is waging “a real all-out attack” on female filmmakers. And in May, the ACLU called for government sex-discrimination investigations of Hollywood studios and agencies, in hopes of taking on what Melissa Goodman, an ACLU project director in Southern California, calls Hollywood’s “law-free” attitude. The idea is that boosting diversity at the level of film and TV directors will have “trickle-down” effects. In stunts, Jill Brown is already putting that notion into action. Last year, she tapped Jess Harbeck to cover for her when jobs overlapped. “If a woman can bring up other women and they can boost their résumé, they’ll get jobs on their own,” Brown says.