My Roger Ebert website questionnaire asked for a movie I loved but everyone else hated. I chose Wise Guys, a movie that even hardcore Brian De Palma fans won’t endorse. Released in 1986, the Danny DeVito-Joe Piscopo movie marked its director’s return to comedy after years of fighting with the ratings board over violent thrillers like Dressed to Kill and Scarface. I felt vindicated by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s documentary, De Palma. In it, Brian De Palma says Wise Guys “was a fun film and I enjoyed making it.” That shiny feeling wore off a few minutes later when De Palma called The Bonfire of the Vanities a good movie.
Such is the twisty road of opinion one travels when looking at a director’s body of work. De Palma is a tour of that work delivered by the master himself. For 107 minutes, Baumbach and Paltrow alternate between wisely chosen film clips and De Palma’s commentary. De Palma is the only person onscreen, and he’s an engaging navigator, a likable mix of grumpy old man, teacher, student, defense attorney, carnival barker, brutally honest self-critic, gossip and comedian. Like most New Jersey-born folks, he talks with his hands. He punctuates that which excites him with exclamations of “Holy mackerel!” Most importantly, he provides context, explaining the choices he made and the era in which he made them. Those who study the cinema, and those who love it passionately, will find much to absorb, ruminate on, and argue about here.
Active since the early 1960s, De Palma is one of a slowly dwindling batch of directors who came to prominence during the 1970s. He speaks fondly of the clique of directors he befriended and brainstormed with during that period—Spielberg, Coppola, Lucas, Scorsese—and accurately mentions that such a super-group of auteurs “will never happen again.” We learn how the auditions of Lucas’ Star Wars and De Palma’s Carrie overlapped, and how Spielberg contributed camera placements and shot ideas for the climactic gun battle in Scarface. De Palma also reminds us that, before his classic run of films with Scorsese, Robert De Niro was De Palma’s lead actor in his early films like Hi, Mom and The Wedding Party. It also points out that De Palma’s stock company of actors: Nancy Allen, John Travolta, De Niro, Jennifer Salt and so on.
Because they are also directors, Baumbach and Paltrow do a very good job of crafting their one-man show. Their chronological presentation gives the viewer the chance to observe both the changing times and the changing opinions of De Palma’s work. Currently revered movies like Blow Out flopped during their initial release, for example, and Scarface, which did OK box-office-wise initially, has now achieved mythical status by becoming entrenched in hip-hop culture. De Palma seems truly stunned about the latter, recalling his response of “Hell no!” when approached years later by Universal with the idea to re-score his gangster epic with hip-hop music.
De Palma also addresses the controversies that swirled around his movies, from his numerous battles with the MPAA (he defiantly mentions that he put all the X-rated material back in Scarface before it went out with an R) to the claims of misogyny in his work. Those claims may find some footing in De Palma: Many of the clips presented are of violence perpetrated against the female form (though the memorably brutal demises of John Cassavetes and Lisle Wilson are also included). De Palma points out that, like Hitchcock before him, he believed the audience responds better to a woman in peril than a man. De Palma leaves you to formulate your own opinion about the issue.
As a fan of De Palma’s work—which doesn’t mean I’ve liked all his movies—I found De Palma riveting. Your mileage may vary, but if you’ve liked some of the films he has directed, you’ll enjoy the many tales De Palma has to tell about them.