From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Richard Rush (born April 15, 1929) is an American movie director, best known for the Oscar-nominated The Stunt Man. His other works, however, have been unremarkable at best. The next best-known of his movies is Color of Night, also nominated, but in this case for the Golden Raspberry Award. He also directed Freebie and The Bean, an over-the-top police buddy comedy/drama starring Alan Arkin and James Caan. He co-wrote the screenplay for the movie Air America.
As one of Hollywood’s most cutting edge directors of the 1960s-1980s, Richard Rush subversively probed American society through texts constructed as roller coaster rides for the masses. While scholastic criticism of his work is limited to the study of his most appreciated film, The Stunt Man (1980), Rush’s other films also contributed to cinema on both thematic and technical levels. His three AIP films of the late 1960s explored counter-cultures of the period and also introduced the rack focus, a technique Rush claims to have discovered and named. Rush's first studio effort Getting Straight (1970) developed “critical focus”, a strategy that elevated rack focus from an aesthetic technique into a storytelling device. Ingmar Bergman called Getting Straight the “best American film of the decade” and Stanley Kubrick named Rush’s critically panned follow-up Freebie and the Bean (1974) “the best movie of the year.” This satire of post-war American aggression disguised as an action-comedy became the first entry in the “buddy cop” genre as well as the inspiration for the Lethal Weapon and Rush Hour franchises.
In 1981, François Truffaut was asked “Who is your favorite American director?” He answered, “I don’t know his name, but I saw his film last night and it was called The Stunt Man.” The Stunt Man reveals Rush’s career-long desire to provide his audience with a visceral experience that runs the gamut of emotions. It is a slapstick comedy, a thriller, a romance, an action-adventure, and a commentary on America’s dismissal of veterans, as well as a deconstruction of Hollywood Cinema. The film also contains Rush’s most common protagonist, an emotionally traumatized male who has escaped the traditional frameworks of society only to find his new world (biker gangs in Hell’s Angels on Wheels, hippies in Psych-Out) corrupted by the same influences.
A determination to only direct features he is passionate about and an inability to navigate the studio system resulted in a fourteen-year absence from the director’s chair following The Stunt Man. As Kenneth Turan of The Los Angeles Times wrote, Rush’s career seems to be “followed by the kind of miserable luck that never seems to afflict the untalented.” Rush further decreased his presence as one of America’s most distinctive auteurs by failing to take writing credit on many projects, despite co-writing virtually every film he has directed. Born in New York City in 1930, Richard Rush spent his childhood equally fascinated by Marcel Proust and Batman comics. This early development of his tastes (ranging from low to high culture) would later be expressed in films that provide a deep introspection of society masked by exploitative thrills. This dichotomy also placed Rush in an advantageous position in the 1960s as a filmmaker whose style was inherently skewed towards the marriage of high and low culture, in line with Andy Warhol’s “pop-art” revolution during the same period.
As one of the first students of UCLA’s film program, his curriculum included a heavy emphasis on theater and literature. After graduation, Rush worked to create television programs for the United States military showcasing the nation’s involvement in the Korean War. While he agreed with the military’s involvement in the region, Rush’s participation in this largely symbolic conflict can be seen as a defining event for the director who explains "There’s a recurring theme that I keep getting attracted to in film…Being unable to accept truth, we have a tendency to accept systems, and to believe in a series of learned homilies and arbitrary rituals of good and evil, right and wrong. Magic, king, country, mother, God, all those burning truths we got from our early bathroom training from bumper stickers and from crocheted pillow cases. When it’s right to kill. When it’s not right to kill. Under what circumstances. Arbitrary rules invented for the occasion. And we really dedicate ourselves to them ferociously. And they tend to obscure any real human feeling or any real morality that might emerge to substitute for it."
While traces of this philosophy can be found in the alienated protagonists of Rush’s earlier works, the Vietnam War pushed an exploration of these views to the forefront of Getting Straight, Freebie and the Bean, and The Stunt Man. Each of these films engages the viewer examining the hypocrisies of American culture and society that led to involvement in the conflict as well as the desensitizing effect of living through a televised war.
After his propaganda work, Rush opened a production company to produce commercials and industrial films. At the age of thirty, Rush sold this business to finance his first feature Too Soon To Love (1959), inspired by the neo-realism of François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, which he produced on a shoestring budget of $50,000 and sold to Universal Pictures for distribution. Too Soon to Love marks the second film appearance of Jack Nicholson (who stars in two later Rush films) and is also noteworthy as it reveals Rush’s ability and desire to identify with generations younger than his own. At the age of thirty-eight, Rush would probe the scene of Haight-Ashbury through the eyes of a seventeen-year old girl and at forty would present a campus revolution from the point of view of a graduate student. He was nearing fifty during the production of The Stunt Man (featuring a 30-ish Vietnam veteran) and at the age of sixty-three his Color of Night focuses on the midlife crisis of a psychiatrist, the only protagonist in Rush’s filmography to have a professional occupation.