Women stunt performers are speaking out about racism and sexism in Hollywood

By Nina Metz, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Entertainment News

There's a curious assertion on the IMDb trivia page for the 1994 movie "True Lies" that seemingly takes the action comedy's title to heart: "Jamie Lee Curtis performed the helicopter rescue scene herself," it reads. "At her insistence, director James Cameron agreed to let her perform this scary spectacle."

That might come as news to longtime stuntwoman Donna Keegan, who executed the stunt in question.

Keegan talks about that scene in the new documentary "Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story" and it's absolutely riveting to hear her describe her thought process as a clip from the movie plays. Curtis' character reaches up from the sunroof of a moving limousine to grab the hand of Arnold Schwarzenegger's character (a stuntman as well) who is hanging out of a helicopter.

Just before the car is about to careen off a bridge into the water, she's pulled out and we see her dangling by one hand as the helicopter soars up, up, up and off into the distance, with no land in sight. Keegan talks about it being an out-of-body experience.

That this incredible stunt is attributed to someone else on IMDb's trivia page is infuriating. Keegan and her fellow stuntwomen do extensive training — and put themselves at considerable bodily risk — to make TV and film. They are just as important to the process as the stars themselves.

Directed by Chicago native April Wright, "Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story" (which is available to stream on Amazon, GooglePlay and other PVOD platforms) captures not only the high-adrenaline side of the job, but also the behind-the-scenes logistics of pursuing this kind of career, as well as the biases that are still ongoing. The industry is "to this day, incredibly sexist and incredibly racist," at least one white guy admits in the film.


"The history is that women were doing stunts a hundred years ago at the beginning of cinema," said Wright. "And then when the studio system formed, a lot of men took over — not just stunts but also the key writing, directing and producing positions, many of which were held by women in the early days of cinema — so stunts become a heavily male-dominated industry and stayed that way for a while."

The sexist workaround is called "getting wigged," which is jargon for male stunt performers doubling for female stars, which has stymied women's careers.

"If a guy jumps in to do that more difficult stunt — difficult being a completely arbitrarily defined thing — then they get more credits on their resume and they also get that experience," Wright said. "So the next time a job comes around, even if it is to double a woman or a person of color, a coordinator will say, 'Who can pull off this stunt?' Well, the guy has more credits so he gets it, and he ends up racking up more credits and work experience, so when the next bigger stunt comes along, oh let's hire this guy because he has the experience."

Though Chicago has been home to a number of TV series in recent years, they don't necessarily provide enough regular work for stunt performers — especially Black stunt performers. April Sutton grew up in Chicago, originally in Calumet City and then Joliet. And until recently, she was locally based. She has a number of stunt credits on "Chicago P.D." (one of which required her to be tied up in a small crawl space) but she moved to Atlanta a few weeks ago, she said, "because there are just more opportunities for people of color and hopefully I'll get more work during the pandemic."


swipe to next page
(c)2020 Chicago Tribune, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.