I have foolishly tried to dismiss Brian De Palma's career over the years. That was wrong. Over his nearly-50 years in the movies, I have nodded when I read critics describe De Palma's work a "derivative," "indifferent" or accuse him of being a "perverse misogynist." Just when I was ready to dismiss De Palma for directing such tripe as The Fury, Mission to Mars and The Bonfire of the Vanities, I reminded myself he's also the man responsible for Carrie, Dressed to Kill and The Untouchables.
I began to revisit that familiar tug-of-war while watching De Palma, a new documentary chronicling the director's path in film. Like De Palma's career, the documentary was equal parts frustrating and fascinating. It was frustrating because directors Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow were clearly too enamored with their subject, and the result was a film in desperate need of editing. They let their subject ramble too long on unimportant films, yet were apparently too shy to nudge De Palma to offer insight into some of his more provocative work. As a result, watching the film felt more like being at a college lecture than a movie theater.
Here's the good news: While De Palma can be a hand-wringing, self-flagellating bore, he's also the director who revolutionized the use of the steady-cam in 1981's Blow Out. He dared to kill off a lead character early on in 1980's Dressed to Kill (an homage to Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho). He reenergized Sean Connery's career, catapulting him to an Oscar for 1987's The Untouchables. He launched one of the most successful TV-to-film franchises with 1996's Mission Impossible. He directed the video for Bruce Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark," one of the most popular music videos at the height of the 1980s.
Again, this is the director who gave us Carrie, which still holds up as one of best horror films of all time. Then again, this is also the man who gave us Bonfire of the Vanities, the most awful film adaptation of a classic novel ever attempted.
"Everyone who read the book hated the movie," says De Palma in hushed tones as scenes of the flop flash behind him. "I was leveled by the response. It was a complete catastrophe."
It was. Several bestselling books and college courses have since pointed to De Palma's Bonfire as a prime example of excess, miscasting, fiscal mismanagement and overall hubris. To this day, Bonfire is considered by many to be De Palma's professional undoing. Once upon a time, De Palma was an integral part of Hollywood's new elite, standing alongside Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola. While those titans emerged as the men who changed the movies, De Palma was dismissed after back-to-back flops Casualties of War in 1989 and Bonfire in 1990. He directed box office success with Mission: Impossible in 2000 but, for the most part, his nine films since 1990 are readily forgotten.
The good news is that De Palma relives some of the director's glory days. There is good, bad and ugly in the mix, but with De Palma, we wouldn't have it any other way.