By John H. Foote
Eli Cross, as portrayed by the astonishing Peter O’Toole, never seems to touch the earth. The first time we encounter him he is shooting a scene for his film in a helicopter, his intense blue eyes locked on the escaped convict who has just ruined his shot. Even when walking or striding on the ground he seems to be near floating like a dark angel not quite of this world. One of the actor’s greatest creations, arguably his finest performance, you simply cannot take your eyes off him. Ever.
Having taken over a small coastal town for what appears to be an out of control movie, Cross plays by his rules because his way is all that matters when making his film. It is an ambitious World War One epic about the madness of war, but what Director Richard Rush serves up is a dazzling behind the scenes look at how movies are made, the illusions we take for realism, the magic of the movies.
“How tall was King Kong” Cross asks Lucky (Steve Railsback) the wayward convict who becomes a stunt man because Cross takes a liking to him and needs a new stunt man after his number one is killed in an accident. Falling in among the film company helps Lucky stay clear of the police who are clearly looking for him. But he can never quite figure out why Eli keeps him around, finally deciding the mad genius director has plans to kill him in the big shot. He has witnessed just how far Eli will go for his film, threatening to snap his assistant director’s spine for calling cut before the camera is out of film, telling the actors and writer that if the studio touches his film he will kill them and eat them. Yet he also is capable of great kindness, discussing movies with his new stunt man, easing him towards the actress he loves and sending him on a journey that will help him break free of his own paranoia.
And, oh what a journey.
From watching an elderly woman peel off her face to be young and beautiful, through to seeing the corpses on the beach after an air attack come to life with smiles, Lucky never ever knows what is coming next.
O’Toole is both regal and utterly mad as Cross, sort of a kooky Don Quixote madman chasing not windmills but that great movie masterpiece. The sequence where he comes up with a sequence where Lucky will dance a Charleston as his plane goes down is inspired, a genius at work. But then we see his dangerous side, quite ready to kill his assistant for making a common mistake. He is a marvellous character beautifully portrayed by the great actor. Is he mad? A little. Brilliant? Likely. Trustworthy? Depends who you are. More likely it depends on what he needs from you. The director often shoots him looking up at him, so he appears larger than life, near God-like, which a movie director often is.
So good in so many films beginning with Lawrence of Arabia (1962), O’Toole gave brilliant performances in Becket (1964), The Lion in Winter (1968), The Ruling Class (1972), My Favourite Year (1982) and Venus (2007). Oscars should have come for The Lion in Winter and potentially this film, had Robert De Niro not scalded the screen in Raging Bull (1980). Among the most nominated actors in Academy history, he never won, but was awarded an Honorary Academy Award in 2005.
Steve Railsback is solid as Lucky, often bewildered by what is happening around him, not used to actor who are always on, never knowing when they are not. Previously he had found fame on television as Charles Manson in Helter Skelter (1976).
The single weakness in the film is Barbara Hershey as the love interest for Lucky. Meant to personify the beauty of the classic movie stars, she lacks the dramatic heft to pull it off. She simply is not a strong enough actress to be this character. When Lucky saves her, the old lady peels off, and he sees Znina, she swoons to him, “I am the movies” and she is clearly … not.
Richard Rush never made another great film, in fact this is his finest work. Academy Award nominations came to O’Toole, Rush and the screenplay but oddly not for Best Picture. Rush brought a real sense of chaotic madness, sleight of hand to the film, dazzling us with a wildly brash narrative. What he does best is remind us of how magical the movies can be and how thrilling a character like Eli Cross can be.
One of Canada’s best-known film critics, he spent 10 years on TV as co-host of Reel to Real, and another 10 in education (still writing as a critic) as Director of the Toronto Film School, where he created the curriculum for three programs and taught film history. Film has always been his passion. He has written for magazines such as Toronto Life, Fashion and Hollywood North, been quoted in the Los Angeles and New York Times, as well as the major Toronto dailies. Online he has written for such sites as The Wrap, In Contention, Awards Circuit and The Cinemaholic. His first book Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker, was published in 2010. His second Steven Spielberg: American Film Visionary, a massive volume, has just found a publisher and he’s working on American Film Renaissance – 1967-2018 with Nick Maylor. As a critic, he has had the good fortune to interview directors and stars such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Robert Duvall, Emma Stone, Jane Fonda, and countless others. As he quips, “Everyone but Jack Nicholson!”