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The Failures of… Brian De Palma

By December 29, 2016Cinema History

And by failures, we’re talking FAILURES in plural. No director in the history of movies has fallen hard as many times as De Palma. Is it a coincidence that his birthday is 9/11? Back in the day, De Palma’s best friends were Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Francis Coppola and Martin Scorsese. He was in danger of being the only pal in this group who’d have to get a real job… since directing movies is not a real job, as you may know. And then of course, he’d be in danger of no longer being friends with them, because who wants a loser (or a guy with a real job) in your group?

After about five experimental films that were hardly known (and still are), around the time Coppola did “THE GODFATHER”, De Palma got his shot with a comedy called “GET TO KNOW YOUR RABBIT.” This production was such a mess, De Palma was fired and replaced. The movie, featuring Orson Welles, is almost unwatchable, and worse of all, De Palma remains the credited director. He was facing real tough decisions. He hadn’t directed a movie anyone cared about (he had made half a dozen by now, most mimicking his hero, Jean Luc Godard). He was fired from the big job. Could he do something else with his life? When he was a teenager, he built computers from scratch. But was Brian De Palma even a creative type?

BDP decided to change directing style (from Godardian to Hitchcockian) and make “SISTERS” which was a damn good movie… and put him in position to eventually direct “CARRIE,” one of the greatest horror films ever made… this finally put BDP on the level of his pals, Coppola, Scorsese, and so on. He could go to dinner with these guys and finally pick up the check. He had proved he was as good as his pals and could hang out with them for good.

But De Palma managed to fail again a few years later with an experimental film called “HOME MOVIES.” This literally was a home movie, wherein the maestro decided that he would make a film with a crew of film students, from concept to screen. The film costs 1 million in 1979 money, which is like 20 million today. No one ever saw a dime from this production. Even the YouTube hits on “HOME MOVIES” today is pitiful. A huge De Palma fan, I tried to watch this myself and never could get through the first 20 minutes. Was his career over? Not by a long shot. He had many more failures in him.

De Palma pulled himself together again with the masterpiece, “DRESSED TO KILL,” a thriller that influenced cinema forever. But BDP almost demolished his own career with “BLOW OUT.” Today, considered by many, his best film, at the time it came out, audiences stayed far away. The box office gross was a pittance of the its astronomical budget. Considering that John Travolta was a huge star at this time, this was quite an achievement (this film almost ended Travolta’s career, but he’s a Scientologist recovered too). Refusing to make a film where the guy gets the girl at the end, BDP had made a bona-fide career suicide movie. His own wife played a call girl for the second movie in a row and gets strangled to death at the end, leaving the audience sick… this sadly ended BDP’s real life marriage to starlet Nancy Allen (his ex-wife). Imagine making a very expensive movie nobody wants to watch, wherein your wife plays a whore?

But somehow, BDP came back with “SCARFACE” which was not a hit at the time, but respectable and the now Al Pacino classic reinvented De Palma as a gangster movie maker. This effort led to his most successful film, “THE UNTOUCHABLES,” a work for hire that catapulted BDP into top 5 director status.

Amazingly, De Palma celebrated his success with not one, but two titanic disasters. Being given the ability to make any movie he wanted, BDP chose “CASUALTIES OF WAR” starring Michael J.Fox an Sean Penn, the true story of US soldiers who rape a Vietnamese girl. This summer release failed to attract almost anyone on Earth. It’s not a bad film, but again, BDP’s refusal to satisfy audience in the traditional way like his pal, Steven Spielberg, would hurt him. The guy no only does not get the girl in this movie. The guy watches the girl get raped and killed an then the movie ends.

BDP’s second consecutive failure was “THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES”, a $40 million train-wreck starring not just one megastar, but two, Bruce Willis and Tom Hanks. This experimental comedy with odd camera angles should have ended BDP for good. The fact that this entire production was documented in the book “The Devil’s Candy” did not help. De Palma was like a cancer now. Was his career finished? No director had ever made two disasters in a row and lived to talk about it.

Like a phoenix, BDP once more rose from the ashes, with the gangster film, “CARLITO’S WAY.” Not a great box office hit, but not a failure, the Al Pacino vehicle contained such breathtaking demonstration of movie directing, Hollywood once again saw him as a man who can direct one hell of a movie.

Was BDP untouchable from failure? But it was not over. One more titanic failure, “MISSION TO MARS” which features some of the most laughable extra terrestrials in history could not end BDP’s career, even though the forgettable sci-fi adventure was equal to paper shredding $100 million (yes, it cost and lost about that much).

Somehow, someway, BDP made the greatest box office hit of career in Tom Cruise’s “MISSION IMPOSSIBLE,” a sort of namesake for BDP’s career. I can’t even count in this blog how many failures that makes, but the next time you lose $40 million or $100 million, remember that Brian De Palma never allowed those losses to define his career or his life or his soul. Here is a man who can play chess with Ingmar Bergman’s Death character from “THE SEVENTH SEAL” and probably win. One failure – or a dozen – does not define a man.

For more failures by the Greats, check out: David O. Russell, Stanley Kubrick, and Steven Spielberg


Written by: Norith Soth

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