Brian De Palma’s career has been a veritable roller coaster of highs and lows. Carrie was a blockbuster, Bonfire of the Vanities was a bomb. Mission: Impossible kickstarted a long-running franchise, Life on Mars crashed and burned. More curious perhaps is how some of De Palma’s less successful films are now warmly embraced many years later, with some even ascending to cult status, Blow Out, Scarface, and Body Double to name a few.
Fellow filmmakers and De Palma acolytes, Noah Baumbach (Squid and the Whale and Frances Ha) and Jake Paltrow (Gwyneth’s bro) have crafted a fond rewind of the storied director’s life with their documentary De Palma. In the doc, Baumbach and Paltrow go through each of the director’s films in chronological order and get the suspense-thriller auteur’s perspective on the politics of makings of those movies and the fine line between a masterpiece and disaster.
If you’ve never been a fan of De Palma and his blood-covered output, you’ll at least walk away with respect for the director who, in the documentary, comes across as an amiable raconteur with a huge heart for the filmmaking process as he warmly takes you behind the scenes to show you the tricks of the trade and the taxing challenges of working with mega egos.
Although De Palma’s 1976 adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie turned him into a superstar director, it was his 1973 chiller Sisters about separated Siamese twins, one with homicidal predilections, that rightfully gets flagged as his big turning point. That film not only marked the first time De Palma borrowed from Hitchcock — he would do so liberally over the years — it was the first time he employed his signature split-screen technique.
Throughout the documentary, De Palma offers up amusing anecdotes — one about the celebrated motion picture composer Bernard Herrmann is rather entertaining — but he’s never afraid to criticize. De Palma derides Cliff Robertson for being too tan — Trump orange, if you will — and the actor’s back-bitting efforts to sabotage Geneviève Bujold on the set of Obsession. And while De Palma continues to have massive amounts of respect for De Niro, the director admits he was a bit exasperated when his one-time collaborator wouldn’t lower his salary for 1987’s The Untouchables, in which De Niro’s Al Capone delivers perhaps the most shocking mafia beat down in cinematic history. De Palma also discusses the knock-down fights between Sean Penn and Michael J. Fox, the stars of his 1989 Vietnam drama Casualties of War; Sean Connery’s unhappiness with being riddled with bullets in The Untouchables; kicking Oliver Stone off the set; and the strange second life of Scarface, which has been embraced by the hip-hop community and gamers.
Throughout the intimate, chatty format, De Palma’s also quite forthcoming about his failures, namely Mission to Mars (2000) and Bonfire of the Vanities (1990), though, in all the earnest candor, you can’t help but feel a sense of collusion between the filmmakers and their subject. Baumbach and Paltrow fail to probe into certain wounds (Passion or Snake Eyes) or examine why the director’s efforts since the first Mission: Impossible film in 1996 have been relatively subpar. De Palma briskly blames his age for some of his more recent cinematic failures, but that seems like half a cop out. Based on his alluring, clear-eyed stories, you understand that the job of a director requires a certain level of energy, talent, and moxie just to get a film in the can, let alone something view-worthy.
By the end of the documentary, what most registers is something more than just a trek through a successful director’s filmography: it’s a portrait of a man in full, his wisdom, his trials, and his triumphs. When De Palma comes to an end, your affection for the director has become so deep and endearing, it makes you wish that the constant perpetrator of all things Hitchcockian had another Body Double or Dressed to Kill left in his bag.