Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s unpretentious documentary De Palma (2015) reveals a clear-sighted and fascinating director, who often seems as bemused by the vagaries and inconsistencies in his own career as everyone else. Brian De Palma was initially seen as the most talented of the Young Turks who came to prominence in the seventies. Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg all deferred to him and his fierce intelligence. However, De Palma was to be left struggling in their wake as they all went on to accrue massive commercial and critical success while his own career, despite the occasional peak, suffered from troughs of ever-deeper despond.
The directors eschews the conventional prologue to such ‘Extended Features’ fare that would involve a chorus of praise from De Palma’s peers, perhaps to forestall those obvious comparisons. It’s consistent with his no-frills approach, which has De Palma sitting down for presumably a day-long conversation about his career, interspersed with a little archive footage and clips from his films. De Palma talks about his financially comfortable if emotionally-stunted childhood. He was the son of a famous surgeon who had little time for his children and cheated on his wife. The latter caused the young De Palma to spy on his father and the attraction and guilt of voyeurism seems to have been imprinted.
Starting out as an independent filmmaker, De Palma discovered the young Robert De Niro and together they would make a series of films including Greetings (1968) and Hi Mom! (1970). The footage of a baby-faced De Niro (credited in his debut as ‘Denero’) is one of the many treats, but De Palma’s realisation that his former teacher is not as good a director as he is shows the confidence and savvy of a man who knows where and how to point a camera. Inspired by Alfred Hitchcock and installed in a new talent project at Universal, De Palma went on to make some duff studio products, directing his hero Orson Welles in Get to Know Your Rabbit (1972) (the great man refused to learn his lines and the 30-year-old protégé coached and cajoled him through the role). His first real break came with Sisters (1973), in which he utilised his split screen technique for an extended sequence. Based on the Stephen King novel, Carrie (1976) would move De Palma into the big time as he began to learn the importance of compromise – or at least lying. Arguments about the budget finally saw him agree to $1.6 million budget though he knew it needed $1.8 million. “In the end it cost $1.8 million,” he says with a twinkle of mischief. From here, the rollercoaster really begins from the successes of Scarface (1983), The Untouchables (1987) and Mission: Impossible (1994) to the critical lambasting or commercial flops of Body Double (1984), Casualties of War (1989), Bonfire of the Vanities (1990) and Mission to Mars (2000).
In between all this there are some great anecdotes, such as Sean Penn succeeding in getting Michael J. Fox to react angrily to him by whispering “television actor” during a key scene. De Palma also admits to mistakes while dismissing charges against him of misogyny. “People say I treat women unkindly,” he says bewildered, though we see a clip of women getting their faces slashed with straight-edged razors or murdered with thick bore masonry drills. There are no interrogations and no counter voices from collaborators – Oliver Stone was kicked off the set of Scarface when he was caught talking to the actors – or from critics, though Pauline Kael is repeatedly cited as a champion. De Palma views the state of the industry with withering contempt and in his glancing view of the remakes of Carrie, he gleefully points out the mistakes he avoided. Exiled to Euro-soup production such as Passion (2012), which was mauled upon its Venice 2012 premiere, De Palma is a timely reminder of one of cinema’s most infuriating yet entertaining characters.
The 72nd Venice Film Festival takes place from 2-12 September 2015. For more coverage, follow this link.