Brian Russell De Palma
(born September 11, 1940) is an American film director and screenwriter. With a career spanning over 50 years, he is best known for his work in the suspense
and psychological thriller
genres. His prominent films include mainstream box office hits such as Carrie
(1976), Dressed to Kill
(1983), The Untouchables
(1987), and Mission: Impossible
(1996), as well as cult favorites
such as Sisters
(1972), Phantom of the Paradise
(1974), Blow Out
(1981), Body Double
(1984), Casualties of War
(1989), Carlito's Way
(1993), and Femme Fatale
De Palma is often cited as a leading member of the New Hollywood
generation of film directors.
His directing style often makes use of quotations from other films or cinematic styles, and bears the influence of filmmakers such as Alfred Hitchcock
and Jean-Luc Godard
His films have been criticised for their violence and sexual content but have also been championed by prominent American critics such as Roger Ebert
and Pauline Kael
De Palma was born on September 11, 1940, in Newark, New Jersey
, the youngest of three boys. His Italian-American parents were Vivienne DePalma (née Muti), and Anthony DePalma
, an orthopedic
surgeon who was the son of immigrants from Alberona
, Province of Foggia
He was raised in Philadelphia
, and New Hampshire
, and attended various Protestant
schools, eventually graduating from Friends' Central School
. He had a poor relationship with his father, and would secretly follow him to record his adulterous behavior; this would eventually inspire the teenage character played by Keith Gordon
in De Palma's 1980 film Dressed to Kill
When he was in high school, he built computers.
He won a regional science-fair prize for a project titled "An Analog Computer
to Solve Differential Equations".
An early association with a young Robert De Niro
resulted in The Wedding Party
. The film, which was co-directed with Leach and producer Cynthia Munroe, had been shot in 1963 but remained unreleased until 1969,
when De Palma's star had risen sufficiently within the Greenwich Village
filmmaking scene. De Niro was unknown at the time; the credits mistakenly display his name as "Robert Denero".
The film is noteworthy for its invocation of silent film techniques and an insistence on the jump-cut
De Palma followed this style with various small films for the NAACP
and the Treasury Department
During the 1960s, De Palma began making a living producing documentary films, notably The Responsive Eye
, a 1966 movie about The Responsive Eye op-art
exhibit curated by William Seitz for MOMA
in 1965. In an interview with Gelmis from 1969, De Palma described the film as "very good and very successful. It's distributed by Pathe Contemporary and makes lots of money. I shot it in four hours, with synched sound. I had two other guys shooting people's reactions to the paintings, and the paintings themselves."
Dionysus in 69
(1969) was De Palma's other major documentary from this period. The film records The Performance Group
's performance of Euripides' The Bacchae
, starring, amongst others, De Palma regular William Finley. The play is noted for breaking traditional barriers between performers and audience. The film's most striking quality is its extensive use of the split-screen
. De Palma recalls that he was "floored" by this performance upon first sight, and in 1973 recounts how he "began to try and figure out a way to capture it on film. I came up with the idea of split-screen, to be able to show the actual audience involvement, to trace the life of the audience and that of the play as they merge in and out of each other."
1970s: transition to Hollywood
In the 1970s, De Palma went to Hollywood where he worked on bigger budget films. In 1970, De Palma left New York for Hollywood at age thirty to make Get to Know Your Rabbit
, starring Orson Welles
and Tommy Smothers
. Making the film was a crushing experience for De Palma, as Smothers did not like many of De Palma's ideas.
After several small, studio and independently-released films that included stand-outs Sisters
, Phantom of the Paradise
, and Obsession
, De Palma directed a film adaptation of the 1974 novel Carrie
Though the psychic
thriller is seen by some as De Palma's bid for a blockbuster, the project was in fact small, underfunded by United Artists
, and well under the cultural radar during the early months of production, as the source novel by Stephen King
had yet to climb the bestseller list. De Palma gravitated toward the project and changed crucial plot elements based upon his own predilections, not the saleability of the novel. The cast was young and relatively new, though Sissy Spacek
and John Travolta
had gained attention for previous work in, respectively, film and episodic sitcoms
became a hit, the first genuine box-office success for De Palma.
It garnered Spacek and Piper Laurie
Oscar nominations for their performances.
Pre-production for the film had coincided with the casting process for George Lucas
's Star Wars
, and many of the actors cast in De Palma's film had been earmarked as contenders for Lucas's movie, and vice versa.
The "shock ending" finale is effective even while it upholds horror-film convention, its suspense sequences are buttressed by teen comedy tropes, and its use of split-screen
, split-diopter and slow motion
shots tell the story visually rather than through dialogue.
The financial and critical success of Carrie
allowed De Palma to pursue more personal material. The Demolished Man
was a novel that had fascinated De Palma since the late 1950s and appealed to his background in mathematics and avant-garde
storytelling. Its unconventional unfolding of plot (exemplified in its mathematical layout of dialogue) and its stress on perception have analogs in De Palma's filmmaking.
He sought to adapt it on numerous occasions, though the project would carry a substantial price tag, and has yet to appear on-screen (Steven Spielberg
's 2002 adaptation of Philip K. Dick
's Minority Report
bears striking similarities to De Palma's visual style and some of the themes of The Demolished Man
). The result of his experience with adapting The Demolished Man
was The Fury
, a science fiction psychic thriller that starred Kirk Douglas
, Carrie Snodgress
, John Cassavetes
and Amy Irving
The film was admired by Jean-Luc Godard
, who featured a clip in his mammoth Histoire(s) du cinéma
, and Pauline Kael
who championed both The Fury
and De Palma.
The film boasted a larger budget than Carrie
, though the consensus view at the time was that De Palma was repeating himself, with diminishing returns. As a film, it retains De Palma's considerable visual flair, but points more toward his work in mainstream entertainments such as Mission: Impossible
, the thematic complex thriller for which he is now better known.
1980s and breakthrough
1990s - 2000s: career downturn
De Palma's work after Mission: Impossible
has been less well received. His later films Snake Eyes
(1998), Mission to Mars
(2000), and Femme Fatale
(2002) all failed at the box office and received generally poor reviews, though the latter has since developed a cult status amongst cinephiles.
His 2006 adaptation
of The Black Dahlia
was also unsuccessful and is currently the last movie De Palma directed with backing from Hollywood.
A political controversy erupted over the portrayal of US soldiers in De Palma's 2007 film Redacted
. Loosely based on the 2006 Mahmudiyah killings
by American soldiers in Iraq, the film echoes themes that appeared in De Palma's Vietnam War
film, Casualties of War
received a limited release in the United States and grossed less than $1 million against a $5 million budget.
De Palma's next project was the 2019 thrillerDomino.
The film stars Nikolaj Coster-Waldau
and Carice van Houten
Domino received generally negative reviews and was released direct-to-VOD in the United States, grossing less than half a million dollars internationally. 
De Palma has also expressed dissatisfaction with the final product.
Trademarks and style
De Palma's films can fall into two categories, his psychological thrillers
, Body Double
, Dressed to Kill
, Blow Out
, Raising Cain
) and his mainly commercial films (Scarface
, The Untouchables
, Carlito's Way
, and Mission: Impossible
). He has often produced "De Palma" films one after the other before going on to direct a different genre, but would always return to his familiar territory. Because of the subject matter and graphic violence
of some of De Palma's films, such as Dressed to Kill
and Body Double
, they are often at the center of controversy with the Motion Picture Association of America
, film critics
and the viewing public.
De Palma is known for quoting and referencing other directors' work throughout his career. Michelangelo Antonioni
and Francis Ford Coppola
's The Conversation
plots were used for the basis of Blow Out
. The Untouchables'
finale shoot out in the train station is a clear borrow from the Odessa
Steps sequence in Sergei Eisenstein
's The Battleship Potemkin
. The main plot from Rear Window
was used for Body Double
, while it also used elements of Vertigo
was also the basis for Obsession
. Dressed to Kill
was a note-for-note homage to Hitchcock's Psycho
, including such moments as the surprise death of the lead actress and the exposition scene by the psychiatrist at the end.
Film critics have often noted De Palma's penchant for unusual camera angles and compositions throughout his career. He often frames characters against the background using a canted angle shot
techniques have been used to show two separate events happening simultaneously.
To emphasize the dramatic impact of a certain scene De Palma has employed a 360-degree
. Slow sweeping, panning and tracking shots are often used throughout his films, often through precisely-choreographed long takes
lasting for minutes without cutting. Split focus shots, often referred to as "di-opt", are used by De Palma to emphasize the foreground person/object while simultaneously keeping a background person/object in focus. Slow-motion is frequently used in his films to increase suspense.
De Palma has been married and divorced three times, to actress Nancy Allen
(1979–1983), producer Gale Anne Hurd
(1991–1993), and Darnell Gregorio (1995–1997). He has one daughter from his marriage to Hurd, Lolita de Palma, born in 1991, and one daughter from his marriage to Gregorio, Piper De Palma, born in 1996.
He resides in Manhattan
, New York
Renowned paleontologist Robert De Palma is Brian De Palma's cousin.
Critics who frequently admire De Palma's work include Pauline Kael
and Roger Ebert
. Kael wrote in her review of Blow Out
, "At forty, Brian De Palma has more than twenty years of moviemaking behind him, and he has been growing better and better. Each time a new film of his opens, everything he has done before seems to have been preparation for it."
In his review of Femme Fatale
, Roger Ebert
wrote about the director: "De Palma deserves more honor as a director. Consider also these titles: Sisters
, Blow Out
, The Fury
, Dressed to Kill
, Wise Guys
, Casualties of War
, Carlito's Way
, Mission: Impossible
. Yes, there are a few failures along the way (Snake Eyes
, Mission to Mars
, The Bonfire of the Vanities
), but look at the range here, and reflect that these movies contain treasure for those who admire the craft as well as the story, who sense the glee with which De Palma manipulates images and characters for the simple joy of being good at it. It's not just that he sometimes works in the style of Hitchcock, but that he has the nerve to."
has written that critics have accused De Palma of being "a perverse misogynist".
De Palma has responded to such accusations 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?"
His films have also been interpreted as feminist and examined for their perceived queer
affinities. In Film Comment
's "Queer and Now and Then" column on Femme Fatale
, film critic Michael Koresky writes that "De Palma's films radiate an undeniable queer energy" and notes the "intense appeal" De Palma's films have for gay critics.
In her book The Erotic Thriller in Contemporary Cinema
, Linda Ruth Williams
writes that "De Palma understood the cinematic potency of dangerous fucking, perhaps earlier than his feminist detractors".
an overtly feminist film, writing that "one can define the monster of Sisters
as women's liberation; adding only that the film follows the time-honored horror film tradition of making the monster emerge as the most sympathetic character and its emotional center."
Pauline Kael's review of Casualties of War
, "A Wounded Apparition", describes the film as "feminist" and notes that "De Palma was always involved in examining (and sometimes satirizing) victimization, but he was often accused of being a victimizer".
Helen Grace, in a piece for Lola Journal, writes that upon seeing Dressed to Kill
amidst calls for a boycott from feminist groups Women Against Violence Against Women and Women Against Pornography
, that the film "seemed to say more about masculine anxiety than about the fears that women were expressing in relation to the film".
wrote in his entry for De Palma, "There is a self-conscious cunning in De Palma's work, ready to control everything except his own cruelty and indifference." Matt Zoller Seitz
objected to this characterisation, writing that there are films from the director which can be seen as "straightforwardly empathetic and/or moralistic".
Awards and nominations received by De Palma's films
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Last edited on 12 May 2021, at 07:59
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