Helen Gibson, a rodeo star in the early days of the 20th century, moved to Hollywood to become a “cowboy extra” and ended up becoming one of the very first paid stunt women/actresses in the history of the movies when she was hired to perform stunts and emote in the lead role of The Hazards of Helen (1914). She eventually opened her own production company in 1921 and continued in stunt work until the age of 69, when she performed in her last movie, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).Similarly, Polly Burson grew up on an Oregon ranch in the 1920’s and, like Gibson, was a rodeo performer until 1945, where she began stunt-doubling stars like Betty Hutton (The Perils of Pauline), Lucille Ball (Fancy Pants), Julie Adams (The Creature from the Black Lagoon) and Kim Novak (Vertigo). She was also the first female to be hired as the stunt coordinator overseeing an entire film, Westward the Women (1951), and performed her last stunt work on a movie at the age of 73, for 1992’s Hero.
And in addition to stunt-doubling actresses like Vivien Leigh (Gone with the Wind), Donna Reed (It’s a Wonderful Life) and Paulette Goddard (Unconquered), Lila Finn was the founding president of the Stunt Women's Association. She performed her last movie stunts on the set of Folks! (1992) at the age of 85.
Each of these names may ring only the vaguest of bells in the memory of most film buffs, if they are remembered at all, but each was a groundbreaker in the world of women performing stunts on film. They embody the spirit of history and tribute of a new and upcoming film festival, The Artemis Women In Action Film Festival, which aims not only to shed light on the history of the pioneering female spirit of this branch of the industry, celebrating lesser-known names like Gibson, Burson and Finn alongside more visible cinema icons like Pam Grier, Raquel Welch, Angelina Jolie, Zoe Bell and Michelle Yeoh, but also to help spotlight on-the-rise filmmakers looking to make their mark in the field of female-driven action cinema.
Melanie Wise, an actress, athlete, aspiring filmmaker and one of the founding members of Artemis Motion Pictures, the group behind the festival, remembers her days auditioning for countless roles in TV and movies that amounted essentially to helpless women in peril. But being six feet tall herself, often towering over the people making the casting decisions, she often found herself losing out on jobs because she was taller than her lead actors. On one audition for the Nash Bridges TV series, she found herself in an imaginative quandary which led to an epiphany of sorts. “I can’t sell this,” she said about pretending to be in quaking fear of the bad guy, and set out upon focusing on methods, including making her own films, to impress upon disbelieving producers that women in strong action roles would be something audiences would flock to see.She says she and her partners, fellow filmmakers Sean Newcombe and Zack Baldwin, hit upon the idea of a female-oriented action film festival as a way to make just such an impression, and to give actresses who have been essential in making credible inroads into what has typically been seen a male-centric endeavor their due spotlight. “These are women who have skipped way past the confines of the roles we typically see them in,” Wise says, recognizing that for many females, actresses as well as viewers, broadening that scope can be an eye-opening experience. “Women can have a very narrow view of themselves and the possibilities they see open for themselves,” noting that when seeing women in roles traditionally assumed suitable only for men, they may see new dimensions and lifestyles they’ll find appealing. “Their whole worldview can change,” Wise notes, not without a glint of hope in her voice.
Thusly, the Artemis Women In Action Film Festival hopes to introduce to an audience already familiar with the great leading ladies of physical filmmaking to some of the long and fascinating history behind their favorite stars, but also to get that audience a peek into what might be just ahead in terms of the international talent that will be cresting the next wave of female action films. Wise and her team have already fielded submissions from all over the world, including Iran, South America and the United Kingdom, including one unlikely specimen of women in action produced by Stephen Fry and Derek Jacobi (“It has their customary dry wit, but asses are also kicked,” Wise assures), and movies about skateboarders, big mountain skiers and female movie stunt pilots are among the documentary submissions already in the hands of the Artemis team. (The festival is named after Artemis, the Greek goddess of the hunt, perhaps the first true female action star.)
But due reverence is also scheduled to be doled out to the likes of pioneering blaxploitation action star Pam Grier (Foxy Brown, Coffy, Sheba Baby); stuntwoman Jeannie Epper, seen below, whose earliest jobs included work on a string of ‘70s disaster epics like The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake and The Towering Inferno, as well as stints on Grier’s Foxy Brown and Coffy and doubling for Linda Carter as Wonder Woman; Angelina Jolie (Salt, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider); Raquel Welch (Fathom, Kansas City Bomber); Zoe Bell (Xena: Warrior Princess, Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2, Death Proof); Scarlet Johannson (Lucy, Under the Skin, The Avengers); and Michelle Yeoh (Supercop, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Wing Chun, Tai Chi Master), who Wise believes best epitomizes the ideal behind the peak achievements of female actor/stunt performers the festival hopes to suitably honor.
Wise emphasizes that submissions to the festival in the feature, documentary and shorts categories are currently open and will be through March 6, 2015, and can be made directly to the festival through the Artemis Women In Action Film Festival Web site as well as through the Without A Box, Film Freeway and Film Festival Life sites. The panels of judges will be announced shortly as well, to be followed by the full slate of programming that will comprise the festival, which runs April 24-26, 2015.
Additionally, you can directly contribute financially to the festival by accessing the Women Kick Ass project which is currently accepting donations to ensure the first year of the festival will kick off with the sort of excitement and range of viewing selections that should accompany the honoring of these great and talented performers. “The whole festival will be worth it just for the opportunity to get these women and their work on a stage or on a screen and say, ‘Applaud this! They deserve it!’” says Wise, who will undoubtedly be in the front row, leading the cheers. One can imagine Gibson, Burson, Finn, and the countless other women in the movie and TV stunt field who led relatively uncelebrated careers, cheering right alongside her. Artemis herself might even fire an arrow to the stars in approval.
(For more information, visit the Web sites linked above as well as the Web site for Artemis Motion Pictures. You can also visit the Facebook page for the Artemis Film Festival for the most current updated information.)