De Palma and women, is it all bad?

6:51:00 AM


De Palma the documentary made by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow is in cinema's now. It is a strange combination: Noah Baumbach and Brian de Palma. One makes small movies, puts a microscope on subtle emotions, charms with off beat humor, and amazing roles for women (and what women: Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Naomi Watts and his muse Greta Gerwig.) The other is an honorary member of the enfants terribles of the seventies who revolutionized Hollywood. A filmmaker who thrives on the biggest scale and sometimes grotesk, bombastic filmmaking. Who's humor is always dripped with nastiness, and is as crazy about genre filmmaking as you could be.
You would expect Tarantino to interview de Palma, those two are very much aligned. 

And then there is the issue of women in de Palma's movies. As much as Baumbach is able to shine a light on the inside of a woman brain, and leaves Gerwig the free reign to write and act in his movies, de Palma has always been a voyeur, somebody who watches women from a comfortable distance (a common theme in his movies.)
You could make a lengthy compilation of stripteases, garner belts, perverse role-playing ( that definitely died when Hannah tried to seduce her way back to Adam with it, but that aside) and other cliches from his works.

De Palma has been called a "a perverse misogynist." and he himself responded rather clumsily by saying: I 'm always attacked for having an erotic, sexist approach-- chopping up women, putting women in peril. I'm making suspense movies! What else is going to happen to them?
Now this documentary came out and the subject came back. EW sat down to talk with the master about his treatment of women in his movies and the guy still sounds like he doesn't have much of a clue on the subject.  “I say the same thing over and over again. If I can create a sequence where you’re gazing at a woman or following a woman, it seems to me like a basic building block of cinema. I think it was Jean-Luc Godard who said, ‘The history of cinema is men photographing women.’ I mean, look at advertising. Every magazine cover is a women. It draws the gaze of the man and the gaze of the woman, who’s looking at what she’s wearing. We look at women all the time. Look at the red carpet in Cannes — all they do is take pictures of women, and it dominates the coverage. It’s so obvious to me. It’s not something I discovered.”

In all fairness when you look at other members of the Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, apart from Altman, you won't find much more enlightenment. 
But the funny thing is that even if the women in de Palma's movies fall into the category of eye candy, waiting to become victims, see explicitely movies as Body Double, Dressed to Kill and Blow Out,  his obsession with women works the same as it did with Hitchcock. Woman are at the center of his suspense movies (and one gal made an incredible mark on the gangster genre) and the very capable actresses ran away with the screen time given to them. And then off course is Carrie. Let's not forget that one!

So a small tribute to my favorite gals in the de Palma universe.


In the seventies there was no woman as kick-ass as Angie Dickinson Sgt. Leann "Pepper" Anderson. In 1980 Angie revived her career by appearing in de Palma's Dressed to kill, where she plays the victim of a crazy transvestite killer ( kind of a problematic storyline nowadays, but let's move on.) And as Janet Leigh did in Psycho, she leaves quite an impression, as the frustrated housewife who gets all hot and bothered in a museum of all places. Five minutes, no dialogue only Angie's face going through a range of emotions.





I mentioned Carrie and it is chock-full awesome women roles: Amy Irving, Nancy Allen, Betty Buckley. I adore Sissy Spacek, and Piper Laurie and their scenes in Carrie are amazing.

 Take off your dress, We'll burn it together and pray for forgiveness.





There are so many great confrontation in Carrie:





And of course this little scene, one of the great iconic moments in cinema:




For all the mob galls with dope problems that came and went in movies only one stands out, and became unforgettable, the great Michelle Pfeiffer as Elvira in Scarface:





There are more examples from his earlier movies, but it is hard to find something in his later work.  When you watch Femme Fatale or Carlito's way de Palma doesn't seem to have evolved much. Same old, same old.

You could make a whole study by comparing James Ellroy's treatment of women with de Palma's, the director that adapted Ellroy's masterpiece The Black Dahlia. Ellroy's autobiography My Dark Places is essentially the story how James traumatized by his mother's murder lashed out at her memory and came to project his fascination and distrust on the girls he met. The man became a peeping tom and all around pervert. But growing up, and putting his energy into trying to solve his mother's murder, he slowly started to see things from her perspective, and this knowledge and empathy extended to his relationship with all women. Now he is a feminist and  a very perceptive writer of female characters, Ellroy gives them grit, heart, faults, aspirations. 



The story of the Black Dahlia, Elizabeth Short, was an obsession for Ellroy because it had so many similarities with the story of his mother.
I don't like de Palma's adaptation. 
But it is weirdly ironic that this crap movie has one bright shining spot and that is Mia Kirshner portrait of the tragic Elizabeth Short.




I am very excited to see the documentary and extremely curious how the subject of women in de Palma's movies will be handled. I hope that de Palma has something more inspiring to say, then what he has been spouting in the past.

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