Polarizing Brian De Palma Gets His Due at New York Film Festival

Brian De Palma - H 2015
AP Images

Brian De Palma - H 2015

The director will be highlighted at the fest with a new documentary (directed by Noah Baumbach and Jack Paltrow) about his six-decade career.

This story first appeared in the Oct. 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Brian De Palma is having a moment. The 75-year-old director — whose films include such indelible images as Sissy Spacek's blood-drenched prom in Carrie, Robert De Niro's bat-swinging menace in The Untouchables and Tom Cruise's suspenseful drop of sweat in 1996's Mission: Impossible — was feted at the Venice International Film Festival, where he received the Jaeger-LeCoultre Glory to the Filmmaker Award. And on Sept. 30, his work will be highlighted at the New York Film Festival. That day, the fest will screen De Palma, a new documentary (which premiered in Venice) by directors Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, followed by a retrospective screening of De Palma's Blow Out. The 1981 thriller stars the director's then-wife, Nancy Allen, opposite John Travolta, who plays a movie sound man who discovers audio evidence of a political murder.

Throughout his career — which ranges from his 1968 anti-war comedy Greetings (starring De Niro) to his most recent movie, 2012's Passion, starring Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace — De Palma has triggered debate. Critic Pauline Kael was an ardent champion of his early work, which was just as vehemently criticized by Kael's critical rival, Andrew Sarris. Kael greeted the release of De Palma's Dressed to Kill, in which a mysterious woman is out for murder, by exclaiming that De Palma was "a true visual storyteller" who understood that "voyeurism is integral to the nature of movies." She enthused, "In his hands, the thriller form is capable of expressing everything — com­edy, satire, sex fantasies, primal emotion." However, a less impressed Sarris called the film "a shamefully straight steal from Psycho, among other things."

De Palma (right) with Allen and Travolta at a 1981 screening of 'Blow Out.'

New York Film Festival director Kent Jones recalls some of the heated debates that surrounded De Palma in the past. "I remember the excitement I felt when I saw Dressed to Kill and Blow Out for the first time — I went back to see both of them again a day later. During that time, there was a great debate about De Palma — he was hopelessly derivative of Hitchcock, he was a misogynist, he did sequences but not films, his stories didn't come together and so on. I fell into some of that punitive stuff myself." De Palma, for his part, doesn't deny his admiration for Hitchcock as a visual artist — and, in fact, in the new documentary positions that admiration as a virtue, saying, "People call [him] influential, but I haven't seen that many people who actually follow his form except for me."

The celebratory doc came about because Baumbach, known for his very human comedies like the recent Mistress America; Paltrow, who directed the 2014 dystopian tale Young Ones; and De Palma all are friends of long-standing. The younger directors wanted to capture on film the sorts of conversations the three had shared. "Brian is a very personal filmmaker," says Baumbach. "It was important for us personally to hear Brian talk extensively about his life and career." Watching De Palma, which is to be distributed by A24, persuaded Jones to take another look at the director's films — from his controversial '80s movies to titles like Carlito's Way and Casualties of War. "My sons and I looked at them together, and we were all absolutely stunned," says Jones. "He was and is a great filmmaker, end of story."