Brian De Palma is a visionary. Films like Carrie, Scarface and The Untouchables are cinematic masterpieces and generations of beloved movies wouldn’t even exist without their influence. Very few filmmakers have been as groundbreaking in their careers as De Palma. The man is a genius.
Art from adversity is a saying that many struggling creatives live by. If there was any director that embodies that expression perfectly, it would be Brian De Palma. His work spans decades of great successes and terrible failures, and the stories he tells in his documentary are excellent examples of just what the Hollywood industry can do to a rogue filmmaker. Here are just a few examples of what De Palma has had to deal with in his tumultuous and fascinating career, taking from the excellent new movie De Palma. The film is now available on home video.
Brian De Palma has always fought the ratings board. While Carrie contained extreme moments of violence and nudity, press and moviegoers created a firestorm against Dressed to Kill and Body Double. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho shocked audiences by killing off the film’s leading lady, but De Palma kicked things up a notch to levels of intensity never before seen. The biggest example of this came from the John Travolta and Nancy Allen vehicle Blow Out. As soon as studio execs saw the ending, jaws dropped and the movie was instantly doomed to be a disaster.
Phantom of the Paradise came out a year before The Rocky Horror Picture Show and still holds up as being one of his most fun and entertaining movies. 20th Century Fox bought the film for double what it cost to make, but no professional liability insurance was ever purchased to protect the production team. Immediately the lawsuits poured in from Universal Pictures over the similarity to The Phantom of the Opera, and even Led Zeppelin’s own Swan Song Records filed suit over use of the name. By the time all legal issues were resolved and the movie was significantly altered, Phantom played well in L.A., Canada, and France, but died in New York.
Scarface may arguably be Brian De Palma’s most popular film with today’s audiences, but getting the picture made was a major struggle. The difficulties he endured prepping the film resulted in him and his main writer quitting, and the project was soon turned over to Sidney Lumet and Oliver Stone. A year later Scarface became his film again, but the conflicts with the ratings board resulted in the movie getting an X. Mission: Impossible was another film that suffered from writer and studio issues, but the biggest dispute came when the director made Get to Know Your Rabbit in the early 70s. The movie didn’t work and De Palma was dismissed by Warner Bros. when he told them, “It’s my way, or the highway.”
Sacrificing integrity to please others can be a quick death sentence for any creative project. De Palma’s 1990 adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities is practically reviled by fans of the novel for misinterpreting the tone of the story. Making Tom Hanks’ main character Sherman McCoy sympathetic, was intentionally done to avoid making a film too tough for audiences. In De Palma, he cites Sweet Smell of Success and The Magnificent Ambersons as being career killers due to their gritty and edgy portrayals of characters devoid of empathy. Ultimately Bonfire went up in smoke and is now practically forgotten.
Mission to Mars was the final straw for De Palma. The movie took years to make and the amount of work going into the production was unlike anything the director had ever endured. In the documentary he discusses how filmmakers that came up with him in the “Warner Bros. Youth Group” days like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. Mars was eventually released in 2000 and was so detrimental to his career that he left the Hollywood establishment almost entirely. Despite decades of difficulty and catastrophe, Brian De Palma is still a fascinating filmmaker. His stories are kind of incredible.