With monotonous regularity these days, the remnants of Hollywood's ancien regime can be heard lamenting that, since the demise of the studio system, the movie business isn't what it used to be. In some ways, no one better embodies the transformation than Brian De Palma.
The directorial Wunderkind of the '60s remained a cult figure until 1976, with the spectacular success of "Carrie." And now, at 39, the thickish man whose occasional wraparound smile is always out of sync with his spooky eyes, has released two new films. Each reflects a different side of his career, but both share what Pauline Kael once describes as "the wickedest baroque sensibility at large in American movies."
The first is "Home Movies" with Kirk Douglas and De Palma's wife, Nancy Allen, a low-budget satire of self-improvement movements in the manner of his earliest features, "Greetings" (1968) and "Hi, Mom" (1970). "Home Movies," which played in Washington for only a few days, has had trouble finding an audience. It also had trouble finding a distributor, perhaps because people now associate De Palma with the gore and high terror of "Carrie" and "The Fury" (1978) forgetting that his first works were mordantly witty commentaries on the pop-and counter-cultures.
The second is "Dressed to Kill." The erotic suspense mystery starring Michael Caine, Angie Dickinson and Allen opened Friday on more than 600 screens nationwide. De Palma wrote the 90-page scenario that Caine, an expert at finding script flaws, considers a marvel of tight narrative. And De Palma encountered no problems attracting either $7 million in financing or a distributor. Filmways is putting over $5 million into promoting the movie, and the company regards De Palma as part of its effort to produce "high A-class level" films which will be "commensurate with Warner Brothers, Fox or anybody else," according to Filmways publicist Charles Glenn.
Both the new films contain some autobiographic elements: "Home-Movies" deals in "star therapy," featuring a teen-age boy "who has not yet learned to star in his own life." "Dressed to Kill" has the same young actor (Keith Gordon) burying himself in computer lore, as the adolescent De Palma once did. Both films were shot in the East, where De Palma prefers to live and where, despite occasional technical problems, he seems more comfortable working.
For the actors, there is less comfort: A De Palma shoot is guaranteed not to be fun. On the set, he becomes a remote, mute figure with the dead gaze of a statue. Much of the time, he looks faintly as if he were in pain, and he is. By the time De Palma begins making a movie, it has already unreeled in typescript, in little shorthand drawings he sketches for each scene and incesstantly in his head. Setting up his often complicated sequences seems to take forever, fueling De Palma's anxieties over whether time and money will be left for other complicated scenes.
One of his signatures is 360-degree pan, the kind of long, technically difficult sweep favored by De Palma's early idol, Hitchcock. De Palma usually shoots one for each of his pictures, although he does not always use it in the finished work. This winter, when the circular shot was filmed for "Dressed to Kill," in a cramped interior on a cramped soundstage in downtown Manhattan, the preparations took the better part of the day.
They were stil tinkering with it shortly past noon when Michael Caine emerged from his van, an expensive-looking cigar in one hand and a Styrofoam coffee cup in the other, remarkably cheerful about the morning's wait. "I could name you 400 directors who would have had this in the can by a quarter-to-9," he said. "Brian is a perfectionist -- he will not settle."
It was his last day of shooting, and Caine was without complaint -- although, he mused, a less experienced performer might have been less contented. "If you were a youngster and needed all the help you could get, he would be a bit cold. The highest praise you get from Brian is 'print.'" One day, said Caine, who plays a psychiatrist in the movie, he had finished a particularly difficult emotional scene and looked up to find De Palma silently standing at his side holding out his cigar and matches. Caine figured he must have been wonderful.
De Palma has no sympathy with actors who bring their emotinal insecurities to work, he conceded some weeks later. By then, shooting on "Dressed to Kill" had ended, editing was under way and De Palma, a few millimeters more relaxed than he had appeared on the set, sat down at 9 a.m. one day to talk. He is a morning person who, when not shooting, comes to his office at 6:30 a.m. to write or plan or think or, as he moves close to filming, to rehearse his cast.
The office on lower Fifth Avenue was his bachelor apartment. He was married for the first time in 1979 to the young actress who played the villainous student in "Carrie," and the couple lives in a co-op apartment a few blocks from his office. De Palma says that the most significant change in his routine is that Nancy Allen got him hooked on watching basketball and football on television. He watches little else, though his TV references in his films are famously astute. Movies draw him less than they used to. "Either I'm getting older or they're getting worse or I've seen too much. Mainly I'm disappointed."
The office has immemorable furniture and posters of De Palma movies and with its blinds drawn against the daylight, feels like a cocoon. Sitting at a bare desk, De Palma smoked steadily and drank coffee steadily. He had slimmed down a little since the filming. When he is shooting, according to a friend, De Palma baloons up, tranquilizing himself on nuts raisins and large quantities of milk.
With faint interest, De Palma listened to an account of Caine's observations and said drily, "When things are going well, I say nothing, which, of course, throws everybody off. When they're not gong well, I can be very strong in my criticism. Working on "The Fury,' with the vast experience of Kirk Douglas, I would come back from rushes and I wouldn't say anything, and it would make him very uneasy. He would say, 'How was it? Was it good?' and I would say it was fine.
"I think actors are so used to hearing so much bull -- I treat people the way I treat myself -- which is that we're accomplished professionals, we know what we're doing and we're working to do the best thing possible.
"I love working with somebody like Michael Caine who is really a consummate professional. He knows exactly what he's doing. He'll try anything I ask him to and he treats it like a job. He comes to work and he acts. I can be very hard on people who are not working up to what I consider their potential, including myself. If something doesn't work, I just drive myself crazy. I can't sleep at night. And when I hire somebody who's not working to the extent of their abilities, then it's of course my fault, too, because I hired them."
Miserly though he may be with praise, De Palma is capable of uncommon generosity in other ways, and "Home Movies" reflects this importantly. Written and produced with a group of undergraduate film majors at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y., it was intended as De Palma's expression of gratitude to a place that nutured his talent. In 1964, when he was a graduate student there on fellowship, he had, with faculty and student partnership, directed his first full-length film, "The Wedding Party," a comedy which was not released until 1969. It had a cast of unknowns, among them Robert DeNiro and Jill Clayburgh.
"Home Movies" was to have been done in a few months and, with one thing or another, lurched across two years. It was to have cost $50,000 and required $350,000. It was to have shown a dozen students what goes into the making of a low-budget picture and there it succeeded brilliantly: When it was over, one of them had switched his major to philosophy. For De Palma, working with the students was rewarding. For Greg Horowitz, the philosophy major, working with De Palma was a jarring introduction to the world of commercial filmmaking. Yet, Horowitz says, De Palma remains one of the important moviemakers of the '70s, who speaks directly to the young: "There's an undercurrent of violence in my generation, an intense frustration, and Brian's got a real tap on that," Horowitz explains. "When you see a film like 'Carrie,' there it is, up on the screen in a very powerful way."
Serious students of De Palma also tend to see "Carrie" as a reflection of a Catholic experience. But Catholicism, to which he was only indirectly exposed, offers the possibility of absolution. De Palma does not. Everyone in "Carrie" is damned; everyone who has transgressed is punished. "People in my movies," he says, "don't get off the hook. The nightmare lives on. I don't know why that is -- it seems right to me."
De Palma's parents moved to Philadelphia from Newark, N.J., when he was 6, leaving behind a city that was becoming a black ghetto, as well as a large traditional Italian-Catholic family, including one set of grandparents who could barely speak English. "I think," De Palma says sardonically, "it was an attempt to move into the mainstream of America."
Resettlement meant country club life, religious education for three boys at the Presbyterian Church nearby and schooling with the Quakers across the street. De Palma's father was an orthopedic surgeon whose children were allowed to watch him work. At the very least, the exposure left one son with a more casual attitude toward blood then most non-medical men have. Although De Palma says his childhood memories are happy, he also thinks of the child he was as eternally "the outsider." The youngest of three, he was forever courting the attention of the rest of the family and usually failed to hold it. The situation is reproduced, for laughs, in "Home Movies."
The young De Palma was a science wiz, a computer junkie who holed up in his room making smarter and smarter machines. He went off to Columbia University as a science major and there found film -- Hitchcock, Godard, the influential experimental works shown in the weekly Cinema 16 subscription series. The last was a direct inspiration: "I knew a lot about photography and I thought, 'Gee, I can do that.'"
Having regularly won science fair competitions, he saw no good reasons why he could not do as well with film. His third effort, made while he was still an undergraduate, won the Rosenthal Foundation Award. De Palma's movie, a 30-minute Dadaist tale entitled "Woton's Wake," offered the adventures of a sculptor who awakes one night to find a fine abstract work of his has changed into a woman. He spends most of the film pursuing her, "trying to melt her down, back to steel." He fails, of course.
De Palma went on to grad school in dramatic writing at Sarah Lawrence. A few years after receiving his master's degree, he made some institutional shorts and then his first feature, "Greetings," his homage of Vietnam War evaders. It cost $43,000 and brought in $1 million, not to mention a cult following. Hollywood called in 1970; he went. "Get to Know Your Rabbit" was supposed to make Tom Smothers a star and De Palma a member of the movie establishment. It was a disaster: De Palma does not work happily in situations he does not fully control. He was bounced from the picture.
Some friends believe the experience left him permanently soured on Hollywood. De Palma doesn't agree. Although he needs to live in New York to think, he says he can work anywhere. What does make him uncomfortable about Hollywood, he says quietly, is that "I don't like to be surrounded by the business I'm in. Your status is always being examined and asked about, and that drives me crazy. It's like nothing else exists except What's-Your-Picture, Where-Are-You-Shooting, Who's-In-It, When-Was-Your-Last-Deal-Closed?"
But according to Jay Cocks, critic, friend and sometime collaborator, anyone who wants to know how De Palma really felt about the Smothers project need only consult "Phantom of the Paradise," which he considers "one of Brian's most personal movies." The rock-horror opera, which sank here so fast it didn't leave an oil slick, has played continuously in Paris since the day it opened in 1975. It is a portrait of the wounded artist -- a musical genius who is mutilated, exploited and tormented by a satanic rock producer. "He treated the character and the situation with such empathy, such uncharacteristic sweetness," Cocks says, "that the movie is very poignant in an unexpected way."
De Palma remembers. "When a movie dies like that," he says, lighting a new cigarette, "its shattering. You never quite recover because you went out on a large limb and it was sawed off. And no matter how many years later you hear about what a neglected masterpiece it is and how it's still playing in Paris, it doesn't affect the time you walked up to the theater and saw two people outside buying tickets on an opening Friday and 15 people inside. You never get over that."
But if you are obsessed by movies, you go right on planning, writing, making them. He has a sackful of unrealized projects including a comedy he wrote with Cocks a few years ago in which a character resembling Truman Capote wipes out a Carsonoid talk show host in order to produce the ultimate nonfiction novel.
Serious subjects absorb him. He's interested in contemporary politics, in the uses and abuses of power; he was among the most fervent students of the Watergate scandals. And his next feature, which will be distributed by Filmways, is a political mystery thriller with the working title of "Personal Effects."
He's never made one of those block-busters that cost a zillion dollars and use up half of your creative life. He toys with the idea but the casting gives him pause. "If I were going to spend that kind of money I'd have to have God in my picture." But then, his goals are somewhat different.
"I'm interested in form," he says, "and I don't think contemporary critics really understand form until about two or three decades after the films are made. They're much too interested in context and things like that. So, after finishing a movie you say, 'Jesus, look at what I did there,' and nobody really sees what you did."