He never had a string of blockbuster successes like Steven Spielberg. He never amassed the intergalactic riches of George Lucas or New York street cred of Martin Scorsese. And he never made an etched-in-history American masterpiece like Francis Coppola. But the difference between Brian De Palma and his New Hollywood peers is that he was, is, and seems hellbent on continuing to be…a stubbornly unshakeable survivor. He’s been up and he’s been down, in demand and out of fashion, but De Palma has always stuck to his guns. And while his filmmaking pals have all at one time or another been household names, De Palma’s never quite gotten the close-up he’s deserved. Until now.
De Palma’s always been regarded as a sort of demigod to a certain strain of cineastes, including the late film critic Pauline Kael. His heir-to-Hitchcock style and bravura, breathless suspense sequences allow him to be dismissed as derivative to some. But I’d argue that not only has he created some of the greatest thrillers of the last 40 years, he’s the rare auteur whose box-office failures as just as interesting as his hits. Maybe that’s why he’s always been a director’s director. And maybe that’s why it also took a pair of filmmakers to make a documentary about his singular career.
Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s De Palma is a loving retrospective of the man behind Carrie, Blow Out, Scarface, and The Untouchables. There are no critics or film historians on hand in the film to testify or tear down De Palma’s movies. None of his stars, screenwriters, or spouses are interviewed on camera to pay tribute or tell an out-of-school tale. De Palma, the person and the film, is a one-man show. It’s nothing more or less than a sit-down with a 75-year-old as he runs through his often controversial resume, eloquently unspooling war stories (his favorite phrase is “Holy Mackerel!”) between well-curated clips from his cinematic offspring. If you’re not a De Palma believer, Baumbach and Paltrow’s film may smack of self-mythology. But if you are, it’s 107 minutes of celluloid heaven. To clue you in as to which side I’m on, my chief complaint with the film is that it isn’t longer.
The documentary races a little too breezily through the earliest years of De Palma’s movie obsession (seeing Hitchcock’s Vertigo for the first time, his clandestine surveillance of his cheating father, his chance friendship with another wannabe named Robert De Niro), but there are a lot of movies to get to and the clock is ticking. Not surprisingly, De Palma (like De Palma) is strongest in the ’70s and ’80s, when he fell afoul of the major studios (1972’s Get to Know Your Rabbit), regained his footing as an independent (1973’s Sisters), and created his first cult hit (1974’s Phantom of the Paradise). While Spielberg, Lucas, and Scorsese’s careers were hitting stratospheric heights, he was flying more discretely under-the-radar, honing his voluptuous, noose-tightening style in films like Obsession, Carrie, and Dressed to Kill.
De Palma seems to have an innate sense for the perfect anecdote to symbolize each of his films. For Obsession, he grouses about star Cliff Robertson’s ego and sabotaging lack of generosity. For Carrie, he breaks down the Byzantine pig-blood-at-the-prom climax like a watchmaker explaining how all of the tiny gears work inside of a timepiece. For Dressed to Kill, he talks about the tempest over the film’s violence toward women (something that would come up over and over again in his career – and a criticism he more or less dodges). He’s a great talker.
My personal favorite of his movies, 1981’s Blow Out, gets an eye-opening breakdown, especially when he talks about some of the its more tricky technical challenges and how what was conceived as a low-budget homage to Antonioni’s Blow Up and the Zapruder film, became something much bigger once John Travolta signed on as its star. And he’s especially eloquent about 1983’s Scarface (and its meddling screenwriter Oliver Stone) and the underrated 1984 erotic thriller Body Double (which again had the critics calling for his “misogynistic” head).
If you’re the kind of person who drools over learning about backstage drama, De Palma caters a feast of it. One of De Palma’s biggest successes came with 1987’s The Untouchables, and here he’s got a lot to say about Ennio Morricone’s score, his gamble on the relatively untested Kevin Costner, and his old pal De Niro essentially refusing his lines and making De Palma wait til the last minute to sign on to the role of Al Capone. De Palma had Bob Hoskins lined up in wait in case De Niro didn’t come through. But Baumbach and Paltrow leave out the best part of the story: When De Niro finally said yes, De Palma gave Hoskins a check for $300,000 for not doing the movie and being such a good sport.
Meanwhile, Sean Penn comes off as a cross between a Method genius and kind of a pain in the ass during 1989’s Casualties of War—a film, along with 1990’s Bonfire of the Vanities, that De Palma seems to think of more highly than history does. The ’90s, for the most part, was a decade when De Palma’s sensibilities seemed to become less and less in synch with Hollywood’s. And while he’d still turn out some interesting work (Carlito’s Way, the first Mission: Impossible), the final stretch of the documentary carries a wistful subtext about an artist who has a hard time playing the game as it’s now played. The result is our loss: too few films from a master who’s still got a fighter’s spirit and a frisky glint in his eyes. As De Palma shows us, whether he’s got two more films left in him or two dozen—Holy Mackerel—what a career! A-