Last Tuesday night, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences named cinematographer John Bailey (Ordinary People, The Big Chill, Groundhog Day) its new president. The very next day—less than 24 hours later actually—Reebok president Matt O’Toole sent an open letter to Bailey petitioning for a change in the Oscars for next year. O’Toole argues that trainers, the people who help actors get into (sometimes literal) fighting shape for their roles, should have their own honor.
“We want to celebrate [their] work with a new Academy award category, Best Fitness Trainer,” writes O’Toole. “We believe we must honor the bodies we’ve been given. And I’m asking you to honor those who help propel our favorite artists to fame and fortune along the way.”
O’Toole goes on to add that it’s all about giving trainers their due. “While their performances are lauded, their practice is not.”
The petition raises some interesting questions, to be sure. While we agree that awards like the Oscars are essential for inspiring creative industries no matter what their focus, and that each win sets a bar for others to attempt to top, we do have to pause a minute to question whether O’Toole’s efforts.
Rather than focus on trainers, who have seen their impact increase in the last few years thanks to the dominance of superhero movies and the need for every actor to mirror the spandex-staining bulk of their comic book counterparts, isn’t it long overdue for the Academy to recognize stuntpeople? Like trainers, their performance is lauded, but their practice is not. And you can argue that what they do serves the purpose of storytelling in a much more direct way.
We spoke with Danielle Burgio, a professional stuntwoman, actress, and author whose credits include The Matrix trilogy, Daredevil, and the TV series Scandal, to weigh in on Reebok and the state of the Oscars.
Her first response to the Reebok petition was a weary chuckle and a “good luck.” Burgio and others in the stunt community, including veteran stuntman Jack Gill, have been lobbying for the Academy to recognize their work for decades.
“Jack Gill is beloved in this industry, and he’s been petitioning for close to 25 years,” says Burgio. “And they’ve never given an honest answer. It’s an old school mentality.”
Burgio is quick to add that this isn’t an “us vs. them” scenario. “I feel like everybody should be recognized, it really takes all hands to make a movie,” she says, before adding that trainers and stunt people often work closely. Still, she admits that it’s frustrating to see an industry that thrives on her work and the work of her colleagues stubbornly refusing to acknowledge them when what they do is, arguably, a vital part of cinematic storytelling apart from just physical preparation.
“We’re not even fighting to have individual stunt people recognized, just stunt coordinators,” says Burgio. “Stunt coordinators are there from day one, creating and designing and, in a lot of cases, pulling their stunt teams together to pre-visualize sequences before the movie is even shot. And a lot of times directors use those exact same sequences.”
Adds Burgio: “The stunt coordinator is the only head of a major film department that isn’t recognized by the Academy.”
Industry recognition is an important way to raise the creative bar and give individuals a chance to grow and thrive in their chosen field, which makes the Motion Picture Academy’s silence all the more frustrating. “We’ve been demonstrating, marching outside the Academy, and they won’t even come down to see us,” says Burgio. “Stunt coordinators design all of the action – movies like Mad Max: Fury Road and Hacksaw Ridge…there’s so many huge, Oscar-winning films that are built on action. They’d clearly be nothing without the action.”
Perhaps it’ll take someone from the outside, someone like O’Toole, to push the Academy into considering where it stands and maybe even opening up a conversation. It’s something that Burgio would certainly like to see as a by-product of Reebok’s call to action.
“Many have risked their lives and several have even given their lives for these films,” says Burgio. “I’m only a stunt performer, and from my POV the bond between director and stunt coordinator has only grown. The stunt coordinators have become more and more critical to the end product. It’s a huge part of taking the script and bringing it to life…in the most cinematic way and the safest way and the most impactful way. It is storytelling.”