Brian De Palma was one of the most gifted visual stylists among his generation of filmmakers. Despite his talent and skill as a film director, however, De Palma failed for decades receive widespread critical acclaim or significant commercial success. Nor did he ever break into the ranks of America's most respected filmmakers. After over four decades as a film director, often with considerable studio support and funding, De Palma has been nominated for an Academy Award or even a Golden Globe Award. De Palma has been ridiculed by the general consensus of film critics for many of his films, and he has even received five nominations for the dishonorable "Razzie Awards." De Palma has received nominations as "Worst Director" for Mission to Mars (2000); The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990); Body Double (1984); Scarface (1983); and Dressed to Kill (1980).
On the other hand, De Palma has received some notable awards for his films. De Palma's rarely seen X-rated films Dionysus (1970) and Greetings (1968) both received Golden Bear nominations at the Berlin Film Festival. A few of his older films have received awards or nominations from less prominent film festivals, and he was nominated for a Writers Guild of America award for his screenplay for Phantom of the Paradise (1974).
For the first two decades of De Palma's career as a filmmaker he focused almost entirely on making films filled with gratuitous pornography, sexual perversion, and violence. De Palma's films during this time were nearly always violent thrillers and were predominantly juvenile in their overall content. De Palma's films during the first two decades of his career (as well as most of his films since then) completely lacked the type of serious subject matter and exploration of weightier, more relevant themes which have been hallmarks of the world's most respected filmmakers. It is not entirely clear whether De Palma, with his obsession for voyeuristic topics, thought he was actually tackling complex, worthwhile topics, or whether he was simply so focused on visual mastery and innovative camera movements that he simply neglected the areas of theme, story, realistic characterization and subject matter.
In the later part of De Palma's career, he directed a handful of movies which received significant critical acclaim, received eventual cult status, or which were popular hits and performed well at the box office. De Palma's biggest hits, either commercial or critical are: Mission: Impossible (1996); The Untouchables (1987); Scarface (1983); Carlito's Way (1993); and Carrie (1976). De Palma's most successful films happened only after he moved away from the considerably more violent and pornographic content of his earlier films.
Given the fact that De Palma's technical and visual skills match (and in many cases exceed) the level exhibited be America's most acclaimed filmmakers, it seems likely that it has been his choice of subject matter which has limited his stature among critics, film fans, academians, and the general public.
Description of the book Afterimage: The Indelible Catholic Imagination of Six American Filmmakers, written by Richard Aloysius Blake (http://www.hollywoodjesus.com/store_god_film.htm; viewed 14 July 2005):
Brian DePalma went to Presbyterian and Quaker schools in affluent sections of Philadelphia and identifies himself as having grown up a Presbyterian.From: Laurent Bouzereau, The De Palma Cut, Dembner Books: New York City (1988), page 17:
Brian De Palma was born on September 11, 1940, in Newark, New Jersey. When he was five, he moved with his family to Philadelphia. Though his parents were of Italian descent and were Catholic, he went to a Presbyterian school and was not exposed to Italian-American culture (as was his contemporary Martin Scorsese, who was raised in Manhattan's Little Italy). Brian De Palma was the youngest of a family of three boys. De Palma always felt dominated by his older brothrs, Bruce and Barton, and his inferiority complex was encouraged by his mother, who only had eyes for them.Bouzereau, page 16:
When asked about his childhood, Brian De Palma answers: "See Home Movies; it's all in there." And indeed, Brian De Palma's personality is revealed through his films. In Home Movies (1979) and Dressed to Kill (1980), De Palma describes himself, through the characters played by Keith Gordon, as an introverted, misunderstood, lonely but intelligent teenager.From: Les Keyser, Martin Scorsese, Twayne Publishers: New York (1992), page 44:
Though his first passion was for math, technology and electronics, De Palma gradually moved away from science; he had owed his interest to his father, a successful orthopedic surgeon, who wouldhave loved to see his son take after him. But De Palma discovered that his future was in film rather than in the scientific field, and a gap grew between father and son. In consequence, young Brian felt rejected by his father, who did not approve of his choice to become a director.
As a result, De Palma's early films reveal sharpy critical views of science and the medical profession. [Examples are given, from films such as Sisters (1973) and Dressed to Kill (1980).]
In a scintillating analysis of Scorsese's religious dimension, "The Sacraments of Genre: Coppola, De Palma, and Scorsese," Leo Braudy demonstrates how the gap between Catholic visions of salvation and capitalism's images of success defines these Italian American directors' content and technique.Bouzereau, page 14:
In addition to being criticized for a lack of originality, Brian De Palma has been persistently attacked for being a misogynist. It is true that in many of De Palma's films, femal characters are the victims of violence and perversity... Brian De Palma explains that, first of all, women are victims in his films for a logical reason: a woman's vulnerability is scarier to an audience than a man's. De Palma is merely following a perception established by society itself...Bouzereau, page 48:
Beyond this, De Palma's treatment of women is complex. His films focus on two particular groups of women: on one side, professional women who have decided tohave a career and find themselves alone at the age of forty, and on the other side, bored housewives who inevitably feel inferior to their successful husbands. In both cases, the women begin to doubt their sexual potential. According to De Palma, their search for reassurance is dangerous and sometimes linked to death. The violence that befalls these women is perceived by De Palma's detractors as unfair and sexist punishment. The director's cold dissection of the American aristocracy (the victims in his films are most often rich, well-educated women) has earned him a bad reputation particularly among feminists.
To many, The Fury was also too gory and too graphic. The U.S. Catholic Conference condemned the film as "an affront to human dignity"--the citation meant that the Conference regarded the picture as morally objectionalbe for American Roman Catholics. The Conference was particularly upset about the use of "an aging crouple trapped in a crime-ridden environment and obliged to care for a disabled mother as comic relief." In a review in the April 1978 issue of Film and Broadcasting, The Fury was rapped for "violence, its unremitting depiction of bloodshed and its affront to human dignity." The controversy didn't work in De Palma's favor this time, and The Fury quickly disappeared from the screens.Bouzereau, page 61:
[De Palma's film] Dressed to Kill was very unpopular with feminists, who assailed De Palma as being a misogynist, and found the violence against women in his this film intolerable and sexist... In addition to being called a misogynist, De Palma was accused of imitating Hitchcock. Despite the negative response Dressed to Kill received from many critics (Andrew Sarris wrote in the Village Voice that the film contained "the same ingredients found in a MacDonald's hamburger"), it also got some fine reviews...Bouzereau, page 69:
The perfection De Palma achieved with Dressed to Kill has so far been unparalleled by any of his other films. Dressed to Kill was one of those rare movies that captured the audience's attention and involvement from the first frame, and continued manipulating them with clever and unexpected twists until the end credits. Ralph Bode's photography was superb, and reminiscent of the old-fashioned technicolor Hollywood films. With Dressed to Kill, De Palma combined unbearable suspence, eroticism, and sharp violence with a black sense of humor, revealing the director's critical but perceptive view of American society.
Dressed to Kill was a major commercial hit, acknowledging that De Palma had his own distinctive touch, and that he was one of America's leading film directors.
De Palma was angry about the way Dressed to Kill and Scarface had been forced back to the cutting room by the MPAA. [De Palma had made cuts to both films in order to obtain an R rating instead an X rating.] With Body Double, he wanted to show how far more suggestive he could get. De Palma declared: "I have a project called Body Double and I'm going to make it an X movie," he declared. "You wanna see violence? You wanna see sex? I think it's about time to blow the top off the ratings!"Bouzereau, page 71:
Originally, De Palma had wanted to produce Body Double, and had hired Ken Wiederhorn to direct it. But Scarface was not a hit, and Fire had gone up in smoke, so De Palma needed to get a project going. He decided to take back Body Double and direct the film himself, leaving behind a quite angry Ken Wiederhorn...
Body Double was not successful, and De Palma recalled felling "shell shocked. I just sat in my room and stared at the wall." The reviews went from one extreme to another. "Body Double is just twice as terrible," wrote Rex Reed in the New York Post. Newsday titled its review: "De Palma Overdose." The film also found supporters like Jack Kroll, who wrote in Newsweek, "De Palma has never been more brilliant!"Bouzereau, pages 121-122:
Although Body Double was a well-craftedfilm it was far from being a success. De Palma was angry at the board of censorship and the critics when he made it, and his excessive, unmotivated use of violence and explicity sexuality almost seemed a defiant act against his detractors and this emotional involvement on the director's part impaired his judgement. Regardless of the reasons, his failure with Body Double kept him away from thrillers for a while.
A few years ago in Minneapolis, a woman set herself on fire to protest pornography. With such extreme feminist reactions to perceived violence against women, it was inevitable that Brian De Palma's vision of sexuality in his films would create an everlasting controversy.Author Laurent Bouzereau seems to idolize Brian De Palma in his book-length treatment of the director and his work. The author ultimately justifies the apparent misogyny in De Palma's films by claiming that these attitudes simply reflect society's attitude toward women. Bouzereau fails to consider whether or not De Palma is simply a technically talented but ethically immature filmmaker who uses his status as a film director to entertain his own voyeuristic impulses. The author also fails to consider the extent to which a filmmaker such as De Palma, who has made so many films featuring beautifully-filmed pornography and violence against women, is himself responsible for promulgating misogynistic attitudes that fuel violence and unethical behavior against women. From Bouzereau, page 130:
Although [De Palma thinks that] his films are not pornographic... the themes of prostitution and the dangerous complacency of rich housewives have given De Palma a bad reputation. Perversely, the more De Palma was assailed, the more he tried to shock those who were trying to censor him.
It is true that De Palma's films contain an overwhelming abundance of sexuality. Of course, one could argue that the director chooses sex as an easy way to hold his audiences' attention and sell his movies... In fact, De Palma's cinematic visions of the dark side of sexuality subliminally address our own secret fears. De Palma's exploration of the theme--as it interacts with danger, murder, incest, and the supernatural--speak to the trauma sex is causing in our society (trauma whic, tragically, has reached new heights with the current health crisis [AIDS, which is spread primarily through sexual promiscuity]).
Sexuality in De Palma's films often fills the audience with feelings of discomfort, terror, and disturbing self-consciousness. De Palma treats sex like voyeurism. It, too, can be extremely dangerous and can dramatically alter people's lives.
It is true that the sexual perspective in De Palma's films is cynical, even outrageous at times, and can be viewed as offensive toward women. But De Palma is not attacking women; he is attacking puritanism. He mocks the hypocrisy of a society that has repressed and intellectualized sexuality. By reversing the roles, so that the educated woman becomes the victim and the prostitute the heroine, De Palma challenges our stereotypes.
De Palma's treatment of sexuality is often subtle and complex. In Obsession, he explores the legendary and Freudian myth that claims some ambiguous sexual feelings inevitably exist between father and daughter. Though De Palma avoids giving too many details about the relationship that evolves between Genevieve bujold and Cliff Robertson (it's never clear whether they sleep together), Obsession is a story obout incest... Sexuality in Obsession is not as overt as it is in most of De Palma's later films; here he uses it first as a weapon, then as the catalyst that resolves the conflict between Robertson and Bujold.
Is the violence and the sexual harrassment committed against women in De Palma's films a misogynistic, unrealistic, and outrageous vision? ...incidents [of violence against women] are reminiscent of the plot of Dressed to Kill [and so many other De Palma movies]. Physical harrassment of women is, unfortunately, a syndrome in our society. What De Palma's detractors misjudge as misogyny is in fact a reflection of the social attitude toward women.Bouzereau spends an entire chapter (chapter 7, pages 131-140) discussing the repeated theme of guilt in De Palma's movies. The concluding pargraphs of this chapter are below, from: Bouzereau, page 139-140:
Guilt: 1. The fact or state of having offended. 2. Criminality and consequent liability to punishment. De Palma explores both definitions of guilt in his films. He reveals which of his characters are, ultimately, guilty, and then makes himself the judge of his guilty characters' fates--deciding whether they should live bearing the consequences of their actions, be forgiven, or be eliminated.The author of The De Palma Cut reveals that he himself is obsessed with De Palma's films, from: Bouzereau, pages 150-151:
Guilt, as depicted in De Palma's films, is often the product of voyeurism and repressed or perverted sexuality. It relates to one of the oldest themes in the world--judged guilty by God, Adam and Eve were cast out of Paradise.
De Palma's heroes are very seldom innocent, but they are often liberated from their feelings of guilt in performing redemptive acts, and by accepting the fact that they're only human and can make mistakes. De Palma also shows that guilt can, sometimes, be a healthy emotion--without it, one can kill and destroy others without remorse.
Yet guilt, rather than motivating heroic action, can instead feed upon itself and engender something even more extreme: the split personality. In the cast of Margot Kidder in Sisters, for example, her feeling of guilt for the death of her Siamese twin is so great that it reincarnates her sister's personality. Guilt is one aspect that nurtures the death-ridden syndrome of the double. [The 8th chapter in Bouzereau's book focuses on the common theme of "the double" in De Palma's films.]
This book is the result of my obsession with Brian De Palma's work. The first time I saw Dressed to Kill, during the opening shower scene, I watched Angie Dickinson give herself pleasure and then suffer rape, and I thought, well, we're hardly five minutes into this film and I'm already overwhelmed with sensuality, suspence, and violence... De Palma's visual concepts, the way the camera revealed the feelings of the characters while at the same time controlled mine, so impressed me, that the memory of discovering Dressed to Kill can hardly be translated into words.
...I sincerely hope I've proved that Brian De Palma deserved more notice than he's received so far. I will feel that this bok is an accomplishment if whoever reads it wants to see De Palma's films for the first time, or reconsider and view them again...
As De Palma declared, the ultimate judge over his films will hardly be the audience or even the critics, but time. With The De Palma Cut, I hope to have anticipated the answer. However, if some think I am wrong, I'll simply say what De Palma would say, "The critics are wrong, the public is wrong, and I am right!"