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Documentary lauds Hollywood stuntwomen, who do everything men do but in high heels

The film chronicles how women who pursue this unsung career cope with the extra challenges of sexism, pay disparity and, of course, uncomfortable costumes.
The types of outfits stuntwomen are put in often make the stunts harder to pull off than they are for men, and can also make them more dangerous.
The types of outfits stuntwomen are put in often make the stunts harder to pull off than they are for men, and can also make them more dangerous.Shout! Studios

This article originally appeared on NBC News THINK.

Just as Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, but backward and in high heels, so it is for the Hollywood stuntwoman. She needs to be just as daring and toned and agile as the stuntmen, but perform her death-defying feats in high heels — and evening gowns and miniskirts and hair extensions and other contraindicated accoutrements that rarely if ever encumber her male counterparts.

It’s just one of the many extra challenges that stuntwomen face in a male-dominated industry that itself is often relegated to the shadows of the bright Hollywood spotlight. A new documentary out Tuesday tries to set this record straight.

“Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story,” based on the book by Mollie Gregory of the same name, details the risky, arduous, adrenaline-filled life of the female stunt performer. But it also chronicles how the women who pursue this career have had to cope with the extra challenges of sexism, pay disparities and, of course, uncomfortable costumes.

For starters, they often have to compete with men to land the job of a stunt double, even when it’s for a female role. In the documentary, Alyma Dorsey remarks that if she sees a stuntman being wigged for a female role, “that means to me that I’m not working hard enough. I need to be training harder so that they don’t feel like they still need to do that.”

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“Stuntwomen” reveals that at the start of the 20th Century, many women held directorial and stuntperson positions in early Hollywood, but male consolidation of power led to women taking the backseat. Indeed, it was a long-held expectation that men would likely double for women, and as the documentary’s director, April Wright, said to me in an interview, men would get a bump in pay for more difficult stunts. “That historically was the practice. They would give the part with the most pay to the guys on their team.”

On the other hand, every now and then a woman fills in for a man, although it’s not common and usually occurs out of spontaneous necessity.

“I was in Mexico doing ‘Remington Steele,’” stuntwoman Debbie Evans told me, referring to the 1980s TV series. “They needed a guy to get punched by Pierce Brosnan and fall off of the balcony into a pool. He happened to be short and I was the only short one, so I got a bald cap and a fat suit.” Brosnan “hit” her across the jaw, she took the fall and saved the day.

After elbowing their way onto the cast list, of course, more challenges for stuntwomen await. The attitude of the stuntmen on set can be among them. Evans, a 43-year veteran stunt driver, once got lectured about motorcycle tire pressure from a huffy “CHiPs”crew member in the late ’70s.

“He told me, ‘You need to put 35 pounds of pressure in that tire,” recalled Evans. “I said: ‘Let me try it this way. And if it doesn't work, I'll come back and put 35 pounds of pressure in it.’ So I purposefully went back in the other direction and did a wheelie by him. I looked at him, smiled and continued on the wheelie out of sight. I heard the guy is still telling that story to this day.”

Because stuntwomen are generally filling in for specific actresses in a role, they need to not only learn their mannerisms and movements, but also try to look like them as much as possible. And that can pose a conflict between the strength and muscle needed to perform certain stunts and Hollywood’s emaciated ideal of beauty.

When Dorsey’s not working, she trains all day long. “When you're doing long fight scenes, you really have to be in shape.” But, she said to me, “If I'm doubling an actress, I might have to lose weight.”

And then, inevitably, there’s the wardrobe. “I'm always trying to manipulate my body to fit my outfit at the same time,” noted Dorsey, who recently worked on “Lovecraft Country” and “Matrix 4.”

“The actors might have the luxury of having several different outfits, but we don't,” she added. “Sometimes we might have one or two depending on if they need to put us in a harness [for wire work]. Or there's going to be a lot of blood on us if we keep doing a scene where we keep dying. Then we might have some extra layers of clothing.”

But when it comes to stilettos, forget it.

”We don't have too many heels,” Dorsey said. “If I'm fighting in heels, a lot of times we can't break them because they might not have a replacement shoe.”

That affects the way she has to think about how she’s moving through her scenes: “We have to be able to have air awareness, to know where our body is landing as much as we can.”

Body awareness is also also important. For the stunt in “Speed” where Donna Evans (Debbie Evans’ sister) and the double for Keanu Reeves went flying out from under a bus on a rolling dolly cart across pavement and dirt, she had to wear what Sandra Bullock’s character wore — a short skirt with a G-string bodysuit underneath. She taped up the skirt around her so that nothing would accidentally be revealed.

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Not only do these types of outfits make the stunts harder to pull off, they can also make them more dangerous.

“I actually was put into a fire sequence in a negligee,” Donna Keegan, whose credits include “Independence Day” and “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” told me. “Do you know how flammable negligees are? They just kept dousing flame retardant stuff all over it.”

“One time, I had to dive through a plate glass window with a spaghetti strap top on and in a miniskirt with Doc Marten boots,” Keegan recalled. “You're not getting candy glass for that kind of piece. No matter what they're going to do, there are shards. ... You come out a porcupine, bleeding everywhere.”

Their skin's exposed, and they often don’t have any padding. “Try doing stunts with no pads and no clothing. I have been thrown down marble stairs in a bra and underwear,” Keegan said, remarking that the first time she saw that set, “I looked at that and went, ‘You're kidding me, right?’”

Wright said that having a woman in charge of the production can help because they’re often more attuned to the special challenges women face and how unprotected they can be. “A lot of women have told me that when there is a female director or second unit director or stunt coordinator that they are more conscious of that.” And instead of waiting until the last moment to think about how the stuntwomen will do the scene, “they'll start really when wardrobe is being selected knowing that the stunt woman is going to take a hard fall or hard hit,” she said.

That doesn’t mean the men on set don’t take notice or have appreciation for what stuntwomen do — leading men included. On the set of “True Lies,” Keegan was involved in a fire scene where a terrorist she played got caught in the path of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s flame thrower. It turned into a bigger blaze than expected.

“That was me dancing around in the middle there,” said Keegan. “It was unbelievable. I got caught inside of an area that was overly doused with a lot of accelerants, but I found my way out [once it blew up] and I was OK. Arnold Schwarzenegger comes and picks me up: ‘You are amazing! You are amazing!’”

Women have made great strides in the stunt world over the decades, but as Wright pointed out to me, they can make many more if greater opportunities are offered.

“It's not only a matter of giving opportunities, but helping to build people's experience in résumés, so that when the bigger jobs come up, women and people of color are ready to step into those jobs,” said Wright. “That's where you got to go back a couple steps to make sure that you give those people enough opportunities to get as good as the other guy that you would usually give the job to.”

And those steps shouldn’t require high heels.