Do you know the name Yakima Canutt? If you do you're one of the most elite film fans, because while many people know Canutt's work, very few know his name. Canutt was one of Hollywood's early great stuntmen, and his work in John Ford's Stagecoach is among the greatest stunts ever committed to film. Later Canutt became John Wayne's stunt double and a second unit director and stunt coordinator in his own right. But Canutt was never honored with an in-competition Oscar because there is no category for stunt performers. In 1966 he received an honorary Oscar, making him the first stunt man to receive on. The second honorary Oscar to a stunt performer went to Hal Needham... in 2012.
Why does the Academy refuse to acknowledge the men and women who literally put their lives in danger in order to give us the thrilling action set pieces that have always defined American popular cinema? Scott Waugh, the director of Need For Speed, comes from a stunt family, and as such is working hard to make his film as practical as possible (read my November piece about why Waugh is so intent on making the car stunts practical). His dad, Fred Waugh, was one of the great stuntmen of his time, and he was best friends with Hal Needham, so Scott grew up deep in the stunt world. I figured he was a good guy to ask why exactly the Academy refuses to honor stunt performers.
“I was president of Stunts Unlimited, and all the organizations have been fighting that fight for a long time,” he said. “And my dad always told me it will never happen because the people in the Academy don’t want to wreck the mystique behind the movie. They quietly recognize what we do, but for the general public they don’t want to ruin the mystique of the actor. I believe him."
And since the acting branch is the largest branch of the Academy, they probably won't bend. As long as Tom Cruise gets to say he does his own stunts, we'll never see a Best Stunts trophy handed out on Oscar night. But for Waugh it's all part of the job.
"It’s a shame, but it’s like that phrase in the SEAL team, the quiet professional. That’s us.”