When she was nine years old, Jeannie Epper’s father asked her if she’d be willing to ride her horse down a cliff. After verifying she’d get paid for it, she agreed and went on to become one of Hollywood’s most famous stuntwomen, doubling for Linda Carter in the hit 1970s TV show, “Wonder Woman.”
Epper and the women who followed in her footsteps are the subject of a new documentary, “STUNTWOMEN: The Untold Hollywood Story,” screening at this weekend’s Artemis Women in Action Film Festival.
Based on the book by Mollie Gregory, the film is narrated by Michelle Rodriguez, whose admiration for the profession developed during her work on “The Fast and the Furious.” Director April Wright artfully portrays both the painstaking technique and sheer guts that go into the craft. Like Rodriguez, who naively thought she might have some fun performing a few action sequences, the viewer quickly understands not to try any of this at home. Even WWE competitor Ronda Rousey uses a stunt double.
If Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire could, but backwards and in heels, the same is true of these fearless femmes, who swing from helicopters, get thrown out of windows and jump from speeding vehicles in skimpy outfits while their male co-stars enjoy the padding of jeans and leather jackets.
Young or old, each has her own war stories and predilections.
“The thing I really like doing is fire work,” says Kelly Rosin (“Venom,” Ant-Man”).
“Someone told me, ‘Tammy, stop telling people you love car hits,’” says Tammy Baird (“Sons of Anarchy,” “American Horror Story”). “But I do.”
As in every area of Hollywood, these women had to battle sexism just to be able to do their jobs. Whereas men could make mistakes and acknowledge they were in pain, stuntwomen had to nail the first take with a smile or get replaced by a man in a wig. In addition to being top-notch athletes and professional daredevils, female stunt performers have to be thin and sexy enough to pass for the actresses they double.
Nearly all have endured mansplaining from their male counterparts, who failed to understand that women have a different center of gravity and are arguably more meticulous planners, but this a small indignity compared to what went on in the action- and cocaine-fueled 1980s, when frequent drug use on movie sets put their very lives at risk. Those brave enough to complain, we learn, were blackballed for years.
Not surprisingly though, this is not a group of whiners. Their biggest complaint is that they age out of the profession too quickly.
“It all went by so fast,” says Epper, now in her late 70s. “I miss it terribly.”
She breaks down, then gets annoyed at her reaction. To stop her tears from flowing, she smacks herself on the head.
“STUNTWOMEN – The Untold Hollywood Story” will be screened tonight, Friday, April 26 at 9 p.m. and on Sunday at 12:05 p.m. at the Monica Film Center. A panel discussion with the All-Stars of Stunts follows at 2 p.m.
by Tatiana Blackington James