Brian De Palma on how he depicts women in his films
Since the 1970s, Brian De Palma — along with his buddies Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and Francis Ford Coppola — has been associated with a florid, lurid style in American cinema. “De Mented, De Ranged, De Ceptive, De Palma,” screamed the poster for his 1992 horror film Raising Cain.
De Palma, the new documentary by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow (now out in limited release; expanding all summer), takes a maximalist approach to his career, as the director, 75, journeys through every single film on his résumé. That includes De Palma’s first hit Carrie, his invigorating thriller Blow Out, his indelible and bloody version of Scarface, his towering adaptation of The Untouchables (which won the only Oscar for a De Palma film, a supporting actor statuette for Sean Connery), and his biggest box office success, Mission: Impossible. (And yup, even his duds like The Bonfire of the Vanities and Mission to Mars.)
The documentary is most fascinating, though, when probing De Palma’s own obsessions, manifest in his overt Hitchcockian films like Dressed to Kill and Body Double. EW sat down with the legendary “master of the macabre” to chat further about these two pictures — and his long-commented upon treatment of women in his movies.
Body Double (1984)
This baroque blend of Rear Window and Vertigo (with a deliciously ’80s synth score by Pino Donaggio) stars Bill Maher doppelgänger Craig Wasson as a Hollywood actor who becomes embroiled in a murder case after witnessing a woman attacked in her home. Scenes like the one below, which is followed by a moment involving a power drill that still, 32 years later, boggles the eyeballs, have been cited as evidence of De Palma’s alleged exploitation of women.
He’s tired of the topic. “I’ve been dealing with this all my career,” De Palma tells EW. “Fortunately, now Quentin Tarantino has to deal with it, so I don’t have to deal with it anymore. Violence and women. He’s the director who has the biggest persona in that area. In fact, we had a conversation about that once, which was very funny.”
He continues, “I say the same thing over and over again. If I can create a sequence where you’re gazing at a woman or following a woman, it seems to me like a basic building block of cinema. I think it was Jean-Luc Godard who said, ‘The history of cinema is men photographing women.’ I mean, look at advertising. Every magazine cover is a women. It draws the gaze of the man and the gaze of the woman, who’s looking at what she’s wearing. We look at women all the time. Look at the red carpet in Cannes — all they do is take pictures of women, and it dominates the coverage. It’s so obvious to me. It’s not something I discovered.”
Dressed to Kill (1980)
De Palma, however, is somewhat more rueful when talking about Dressed to Kill. His rich, twisted riff on Psycho, stars Angie Dickinson as a doomed, bored housewife and Michael Caine as a transgender woman who turns out to be a mad killer.
“I don’t know what the transgender community would think [now],” he tells EW of the film’s twist ending. “Obviously I realize that it’s not good for their image to be transgender and also be a psychopathic murderer. But I think that [perception] passes with time. We’re in a different time.”
As for how Dressed to Kill has aged since its 1980 release, De Palma says he is proud the film has found many fans within the LGBT community. Last year, Out published a piece calling Dressed to Kill a “gay movie landmark.”
“I’m glad that the picture’s always seemed a favorite of the gay community,” he says. “Because of its flamboyance, basically.”