The inspiring untold story about the unsung professionals, their struggles on screen to perform at the highest level, and their fight off-screen to be treated fairly and equally.
Julie Ann Johnson’s entry into the stunt world in the 1960s in some ways sums up the assumptions faced by stuntwomen in one tiny anecdote: a casting director told her about an audition across the street where they were looking for a woman to jump over an ironing board.
I’ve interviewed a few stuntwomen and they’ve made their way into the industry from different starting points. Still, as this documentary shows, once there they face many of the same misconceptions and barriers.
It’s been a long struggle for them to find the opportunities that match their abilities. April Wright’s comprehensive, entertaining and emotional documentary shows that it’s still sometimes two steps forward and one step back.
Narrated by Fast & Furious actor Michelle Rodriguez, Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story goes behind the scenes to find out what it means to be a stuntwoman in Hollywood, today and in the past.
Trailblazing stuntwomen and stunt co-ordinators discuss the ups and downs of their careers with young stuntwomen currently making their mark in a film and TV world. They come across as a family: optimistic, funny, but also searingly honest about the emotional and physical toll from encountering sexism, racism and misplaced paternalism.
Car hits, high wires, full burns, and high falls (backwards): stuntwomen have to be the toughest of the tough. Not only do they perform the same stunts their male counterparts do, they’re often doing them in high heels, and tiny outfits with fewer places to hide protective padding. They have to be strong and expertly trained in different disciplines, confident enough to call out problems on set, and often as thin as the A-listers they’re doubling for.
Their opportunities for work are fewer than for stuntmen; the sexism and male focus of Hollywood filters down. Fewer speaking roles for women means less work for their doubles, and utility stunts (background stunts in movies, such as explosions or crashes) often involve mostly men.
In the past (and sometimes still today) women were often doubled by male stunt performers, with Black stuntwomen losing out on work because of “painting down” (where white performers’ skin was darkened so they could double for Black performers).
Even their successes can be precarious; Johnson speaks of being blacklisted in the 1970s for speaking out against safety infringements on-set.
That they even maintain their drive in the face off this is impressive. But charge forward (or backwards, in high heels) they do, in part because of what stuntwoman Alyma Dorsey (Ghostbusters / Deception / Baywatch) sees as a debt owed to the pioneers of previous generations.
They were fighting the battles so other women could come after them, even if some of the obstacles they dislodged were replaced for women coming along the same path later. Jeannie Epper comes from a famous stunt family, and doubled for Lynda Carter on the Wonder Woman TV series in the 1970s. LaFaye Baker was the first African American stuntwoman to coordinate a big budget TV project, with Halle Berry starrer Introducing Dorothy Dandridge. Jadie David fought both sexism and racism in a long career that included doubling for Pam Grier in Foxy Brown. Julie Ann Johnson worked her way up to becoming the first female stunt coordinator on a TV show (Charlie’s Angels).
It wasn’t always unequal. The beginnings of the Hollywood film industry had plenty of women performing stunts. “Back when there were no safety measures, they let women do all the stunts they wanted,” deadpans Rodriguez, before we see a silent movie clip where a woman jumps from a moving motorcycle onto a moving train. According to film historian Ben Mankiewicz, in the 1910s there were actually more women directors and production company owners than in the 1980s.
Wright’s documentary sets out in engrossing detail what the pioneers had to go through, and what life is like for the current cohort of stuntwomen – still fighting some of the same battles but also becoming better known in their own right.
Those pictures on Instagram of stuntwomen next to the A-list actresses they’re doubling for, dressed in identical clothes, are visually arresting but also mean their names are becoming more recognised. (Digging down into IMDB cast lists after I watched the documentary, it was telling how on older productions stuntwomen were listed as “uncredited” in the Stunts section even if they doubled for the star. While that still does happen, nowadays they seem, to me, to be more likely to be listed as the star’s double.)
The stunt montages are phenomenal, death-defying action sequences all in one place; while the interviews with older stuntwomen are set up as conversations with young stunt performers. Watching their training is exhausting, hearing of some of the unsafe situations they’ve been faced with sends a shiver down the spine.
The film is trying to do a lot in its 84 minute running time. It’s a very crowded documentary with many interviewees. While this is welcome it also means it loses focus at times, and it’s easy to lose track of who is speaking, particularly as names and shows they’re known for are often only shown once. Titles for the silent movie clips would also have been useful.
Linking it all is Rodriguez, an involved, informed and passionate narrator. She understands the partnerships stars have with their stunt doubles and is clearly determined to do what she can to ensure they get the credit they deserve.
There are small scale, personal details, including sister stuntwomen Heidi (Fast and the Furious, Black Widow, John Wick: Parabellum) and Renae Moneymaker (Avengers: Infinity War, John Wick, Avengers: Endgame). And yes they have fought each other on screen.
There are even some men! Directors Paul Feig and Paul Verhoeven appear (Feig’s Ghostbusters meant work for large numbers of stuntwomen), but this is a film where women hit the heights, hold the floor and hopefully finally get their due.
Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story is available on digital and VOD in the US and Canada on AppleTV, Amazon, VUDU, GooglePlay, hoopla, Fandango Now, Comcast Xfinity, Spectrum, Cox and Charter.
Read my interview with director April Wright.
Watch the trailer now: