Recently I participated in an informal poll over at 24 Lies A Second regarding the films of Brian De Palma in which I casually commented that Body Double was one of three Brian De Palma films for which I essentially had little use (the others were Obsession and Scarface). My friend Peet, founder of the site and a vigorously articulate De Palma enthusiast, expressed surprise in an e-mail that I could so blithely dismiss the movie, as he has had much love for it ever since first seeing it years ago. So I wrote back inviting him to talk about it, as I had never really heard anyone mount much of a defense for this movie, much less someone who I knew would have well-formulated opinions and a good handle on his own responses to it. A little over a week ago Peet dropped a comment on this blog in which he took up my suggestion to elaborate upon why he holds Body Double so dear. Here’s what he said:
“I've always had a huge crush on this movie. I'm sure hormones played a part in that, since I was 13 or 14 at the time. But the film has never failed to mesmerize me since. It's one of the most hypnotic movies I know of and a masterpiece of mise-en-scene. I could marvel at that beach scene forever.
The subtext of the film is all about De Palma raising his middle finger to the critics who slaughtered him forDressed to Kill and Scarface. He openly confronted them with the very things they accused him of (excessive violence, misogyny) and made sure to enthrall them at the same time, just to point out their hypocrisy.
Feminists who hate the film will love me agreeing on this, but I really do think Gloria Revelle - her name says it all - is strictly an object of desire. Besides a bunch of other things, Body Double is very much about male fantasy. Gloria's good looks and vulnerable attitude make her the perfect projection of male obsession. There's nothing real about her. She's an ideal, a goddess. (Mind you, the way De Palma uses a sexual archetype in order to explore the theme of male desire is hardly the same as portraying ALL women as sex objects.)
Her death scene isn't exactly devastating, but a cold shower. Because De Palma puts so much effort into the visual "foreplay", Gloria becomes our object of desire as well. When the killer breaks into her house, we are torn between two extremes: wanting to save her and wanting to have her (there's no way I'll ever accept the drill is not a symbol for penetration, no matter what De Palma has said to defend himself). Especially because we don't get to see the actual killing ourselves, the emotional result is a double anti-climax. Not Gloria but Jake is the victim here, and it's ourselves we pity. In the end, the audience is revealed to be just as voyeuristic as Jake, and that thought made a lot of people uncomfortable. If Gloria's death scene doesn't seem emotionally satisfying, well... that's the whole idea, really... It's just about the cinematic equivalent of premature ejaculation if you think about it. De Palma's death scenes are really love scenes and his love scenes are really death scenes.
Despite the likes of Armond White calling him a "weak actor," I've always thought Craig Wasson was perfectly cast in this. Yes, he totally lacks the star power that could have helped to make the film a commercial success and he doesn't exactly deliver what can be described as a powerhouse performance. But the man's playing an unemployed actor, for God's sakes--a born loser, a regular Joe longing for a little excitement in his lousy life. A charismatic star like John Travolta in the same everyman role wouldn't have been believable.
Because Craig Wasson plays Jake as such a goody two-shoes, you never really believe he's a pervert, eventhough he's peeking at naked women and digging up panties from trashcans. I even like the part where Jake is pretending to be a sleazy porn producer. His performance is quite impossible to take seriously and it makes perfect sense, since we're looking at the reason why the guy's unemployed to begin with...
I guess it's more the character that the actor that annoys people, because weakness isn't exactly considered a virtue. But this is the story of somebody who tries to overcome his weakness. The story of an actor trying to act. The story of a sexless nobody wishing to become a stud. The weakness is an essential element of the narrative.”
I wrote back on the comments page that I was really happy to hear his words on the subject, and I promised I would respond. A little over a week later, with some good-natured prodding from Peet himself, I have finally done so. The following article is that response. Thanks for your patience, Peet, and again in advance for enduring the length of my comments. As you know, I am nothing if not long-winded, especially absent someone to crack the whip and wield the straight razor…
(Also, I am assuming, Dear Reader, a certain level of familiarity on your part with Body Double, which is why I have eschewed including a synopsis of its narrative. If you’re unfamiliar with what goes on in this movie, arguably one of De Palma’s most notorious, and still feel compelled to read on, you can catch up on a brief sketch of the plot before continuing on.)
Peet, the first thing that struck me when I revisited your comments re Body Double was that I didn’t really disagree with any of your observations per se, just maybe some of the conclusions. I never really cared much for Body Double when it was first released. Though it strikes me somewhat more mildly than it once did in terms of its subject matter, and, paradoxically, perhaps a little more potently as a whole film, I still think it’s among De Palma’s weaker efforts. (Is my tolerance/acceptance/understanding of Body Double a result of the aging process? Or is it that, in 2005, the envelope has stretched so far beyond recognition that a film so steeped in the desire to shock, to rub the audience’s nose in the supposed transgressions of its creator, seems relatively tame now compared to some of the raunchy roads traveled by R-rated films since it came out 20 years ago?)
I wrote in a review of the film in 1985 in which I expressed the opinion that one-upsmanship borne of anger was a fairly unstable foundation on which to build a film. I still feel that way. De Palma said in an Esquire interview at the time of Scarface’s release that he was so disgusted with the hypocrisy of the M.P.A.A. (the ratings board saddled the movie with an “X” until the director toned down the infamous chainsaw torture sequence) that he was really gonna let “them” (The M.P.A.A.? The paying audience? De Palma fans and supporters?) have it next time, saying, essentially, that if they want an “X,” by God, I’ll give ‘em one. The fundamental problem with .Body Double, as I see it, is not that impulse of anger itself, but how it seems to have clouded the director’s normally sharp instincts for what he can get away with, narratively speaking, through his visual style, even to the point of rendering that style itself relatively muddled, indifferent, uninspired.
AN INDIFFERENT STYLE AS SUBSTANCE
I agree wholeheartedly with the contention of your latest 24 Lies a Second essay that style can often be substance, especially in “the strange case of Brian De Palma”—and maybe this assertion is at the root of my own indifference toward the movie, because his visual style here seems wildly inconsistent. Body Double showcases, to my mind, one thrilling set piece-- the porno production number which doubles as a Frankie Goes to Hollywood video— but the movie seems more heavily weighted and mixed up with riffs on past, more successful efforts. To look at actor Craig Wasson as Jake Scully peering across the canyon at a woman dancing in her apartment, and then ultimately being stalked and attacked by an “Indian,” is to revisit a similar situation that was much more cleverly and fruitfully staged in Sisters; Wasson following Deborah Shelton through the maze of Beverly Hills shops and stealing her discarded panties is a warmed-over, and not nearly so heart-stopping, rehash of Angie Dickinson’s museum encounter in Dressed to Kill; the fetishized seduction at the beach tunnel recalls the florid theatrics of Obsession.
Most damning, though, is the indifference with which De Palma stages the many expository scenes required to get the little engine of the plot cooking. For the first time in his career, the director comes across as being bored—most of the conversations between Wasson and actors Gregg Henry and Melanie Griffith are comprised of flat-out uninspired, routine two-shot/medium close-up visual designs that have seemingly little going on in them other than their function to clunkily advance the narrative. All you have to do is look at the staging of the conversation between Griffith and Wasson in which she describes what she won’t do in a porno film up next to comparable scenes between, say, Nancy Allen and Keith Gordon in Dressed to Kill (the Psycho parody, for example, in which Allen explains transsexualism to Gordon and is overheard by some horrified diners), or sound man John Travolta describing his increasing paranoia to Allen, framed by the technological tools of his trade and shot by a probing, gliding camera, in Blow Out, to see how detached De Palma’s style seems in Body Double. Ironically, I find myself agreeing with almost all the observations you make about the movie and still feeling like it’s a half- baked project because of this tendency I perceive in the director to rush through the setups to get to what he must have, at the time, looked at as “the good stuff,” the stuff that would rile his detractors in the wake of Scarface’s initial M.P.A.A. reception. Body Double seems at times so detached from the hot red blood running through most of the rest of De Palma’s films that it almost feels like it was made by a De Palma imitator.
The director’s “fuck you” to the ratings board turns out to be more of a threat, in retrospect, than a reality though because, despite its setting in the sleazy underbelly of the Hollywood entertainment industry (and De Palma takes swift satiric aim at the idea of the legitimate movie business and the porn industry being two sides of the same coin), nothing in Body Double is nearly as graphically violent or as grotesquely, comically over-scaled as what could be seen even in the expurgated version of Scarface. That drill murder can’t hold a candle to the chainsaw sequence in Scarface, even if it was cut down, in terms of bloodshed or emotional intensity, and some of your observations about what’s going on in that drill sequence—the idea of Gloria being simply, and unapologetically, an object of desire, and the audience being torn being wanting to save her and simply wanting her, and then of course being made implicit in that fatal penetration—touch upon why.
I think you’re essentially right about that infamous scene. The drill clearly is a none-too-subtle visual metaphor for penetration, or more accurately, I think, rape. But is metaphor even the right term here? It’s such an explicit image, and the use to which it is put so closely resembles a savage sexually violent act, right down to the way the scene is framed, and the way the actual murder is alluded to—the drill emerging from the ceiling above Scully’s head—that to imagine it having even the slightest level of ambiguity that an assignation as metaphor might imply seems patently silly. De Palma going on the defensive to deny that this was his intention is either an instance of uncharacteristic submission to the general outrage of responses to the scene or, more likely, I think, a perverse way of continuing to goad his detractors and call attention to the elements that were being focused on in the press at the time. (Do you remember in what context his comments were made?)
SEXUAL OBJECTIFICATION AND THE MYTH OF MISOGYNY
I do agree with you that Gloria can really only be seen and taken seriously as an object, a projection of fantasy; I might even describe her as an abstraction. But given that this is how we are encouraged to see her—as Scully does—I think in sharing, as you describe, Scully’s indecision about wanting to save her and wanting to have her, we end up coming down fairly squarely on the more conventional side of saving her. Had Gloria been conceived in a more fleshed-out manner, had she been a real character (on the order of Dressed to Kill’s Kate Miller, say) rather than a relatively simple erotic abstraction, I think those of us who find Body Double a hollow experience might have found this scene as compelling and ambivalently disturbing as your description of it. We might have found Scully’s (and our) implication in her fate far more haunting in the way I’m sure De Palma intended. And given this “if,” perhaps even the charges of misogyny that seem to focus most intensely and insistently on this scene in De Palma’s oeuvre would have been at least partially defused—it’s harder to imagine, at least in my mind, a director being perceived as expressing a blanket attitude toward a gender (or an ethnicity, or a sexual orientation) if he’s taken the time to make the character who takes the brunt of his alleged violation a “real” person. In her mannequin-like beauty, actress Deborah Shelton comes across as an inexpressive actress in a straitjacketed role—therefore there’s no character to distract from the far more simplistic reading of her as simply an empty receptacle in which to contain the director’s supposed feelings of hatred and disgust for women.
In fact, one of the major revelations for me upon this viewing of Body Double was how little water those time-honored and quite tired accusations of misogyny seem to be able to hold. I’ve never felt that the charges made much sense in regards to De Palma anyway. Films like Sisters, Phantom of the Paradise, Carrie, Obsession, The Fury, Dressed to Kill and Femme Fatale are erotically charged, to be sure, and it would be silly to insist that De Palma hasn’t an appreciation of the sensual quality of many of the women in those films. But, as SLIFR reader Blaaagh has observed, De Palma’s films have always featured interesting women, women who have been subjected to as great a variety of directorial attitudes as one would expect they would encounter in the real world, a quality they share with the male characters in his films. Not many film artists working in the suspense genre, perhaps not even Hitchcock, have approached a variety female characters as rich as Carrie White, Margaret White (Carrie), Daniele Breton/Dominique Blanchion (Sisters), Kate Miller (Dressed to Kill), Sally (Blow Out) or Laure Ash (Femme Fatale). To say that De Palma is a misogynist, or even a sadist, because some of these characters meet horrific fates, or are the cause of horrific violence, or are the victims of some fairly sardonic jokes orchestrated by the director, is to dismiss all the other levels on which these women operate dramatically and emotionally, and quite satisfactorily so.
I think you could add Melanie Griffith’s Holly Body to this list too—she seems to literally hot-wire the second half with sexual impertinence and confidence, she’s very funny and likable and, whether credit is due to her leather bustier or her magnetism as an actress, Griffith and her comic turn are the elements that have made for my strongest associations with Body Double over the years. Shelton’s Gloria Revelle, of course, cannot exist on the same plane with these women because, as you point out, she’s explicitly a fantasy, as opposed to Holly, who embodies fantasy but is clearly a woman with her own thought processes and desires. She is insistent that she not be perceived as anyone’s pawn, though it will be revealed to her that she has, in fact, been used exactly this way in the villain’s plot. Gloria Revelle, on the other hand, amounts only to a pawn to get Scully, and the audience, in the right place at the right time. It’s a miscalculation to assume that she can sustain that level of visual/narrative abstraction when she’s being tortured and eventually cored out by a three-foot drill brandished by a man who will turn out to be her husband. But given the fact that gender has never been a meaningful boundary when it comes to De Palma and the assignation of dire fate to his characters—can John Cassavettes and Andrew Stevens in The Fury, or Lisle Wilson in Sisters, or Michael Caine in Dressed to Kill be said to be any luckier than Deborah Shelton?—it seems absurd to label this confrontational director, who has never courted easy responses to either his characters or his scenarios, as a misogynist based largely upon his treatment of one of the most plasticized characters, female or male, in his entire body of work.
At the same time, I don’t think I’m buying that De Palma’s strategy was to rub the audience’s collective noses in the more extreme elements of his narrative, and then make sure to enthrall them at the same time, in order “to point out their hypocrisy.” There just doesn’t seem to be much evidence, in box-office numbers-- the movie was a financial disappointment-- or anecdotal ruminations on the film from those who did pay to see it, that the audience was sufficiently enthralled. (Peet, you’re perhaps the first person I’ve known who has clearly loved the movie, had it speak to you in a profound way, and been able/willing to articulate why these things were so.) And you’re right-- it would be an act of supreme hypocrisy to rail against the violence and perceived misogyny of Body Double, then slink to the nearest multiplex, submit to the spell it might cast, enjoy (openly or not) those aspects of the movie that were once the focus of your ire, and then come out claiming to have been disgusted by what you saw on the screen. But I honestly don’t think many people approached or experienced the movie this way. Those who saw and loved it clearly are comfortable with the elements of the film that De Palma escalated in order to assault the sensibilities of those who would be offended at the mere announcement that he was making such a film. Those who saw it and were dissatisfied with it (like me) are obviously capable of holding the movie accountable for perceived insufficiencies that have less to do with the size of Gregg Henry’s drill and what he does with it than with De Palma’s script and direction of the entire film. And those who were shocked and horrified when they heard what De Palma intended to do probably stayed away, which may account, in some part anyway, for the movie’s tepid ticket sales in the U.S.
Of course, De Palma does takes advantage of the setting of the movie’s second half for some pretty explicit talk, particularly when Melanie Griffith’s Holly Body rattles off that very funny laundry list of porno “don’ts” to Craig Wasson’s Scully, whom she believes to be an adult film producer. Griffith, back when she was a recognizably unaltered beauty has a budding starlet’s excitability, piquancy and ripely funny sexuality (her body is only one consonant removed from holy) that really wakes the movie up from listless pacing through its overly familiar, and far less interesting, suspense motifs. But one of the most striking things to me about revisiting Body Double 20 years later is how relatively innocent it seems vis-à-vis its own sleaze factor, and I think this might be a direct result of De Palma, all anger and frustration aside, discovering, in the process of either writing the story or making the film, that that anger was giving way to his sharper satirical instincts. The second half of Body Double seems to perk up considerably, not just because of the luscious presence of a pre-plasticized, robustly curvy Griffith in a leather bustier and spiky dye job, but because De Palma puts his own shaky suspense story into lower gear in order to lounge around in this MTV-friendly porn universe for a while and have some fun with his characters, particularly Scully and his desire for role-playing in roles for which he is entirely and obviously inadequate as an actor (desirable stud, slicked-back porn entrepreneur, and finally, heroic savior).
HOLLY'S BODY: BODY DOUBLE'S EROTIC COMEDY
I think Body Double is much more of a success, and much more fundamentally interesting in the light of the rest of the De Palma canon, as a satirical jab at the movie business, especially in the way it indulges in a somewhat playful compare-and-contrast between the trials and tribulations of a underemployed actor and the comic undertones of the porn business. The Frankie Goes to Hollywood sequence is terrific, both as a parody of the ridiculous plotting of porn films (an excess which has all but disappeared in the video age) and a parody of music videos at a time when the phenomenon was still in its white-hot infancy. (Is it my feeble imagination, or did De Palma actually direct a video for “Relax” incorporating elements of this scene which actually played on MTV?) It’s also a terrific stylistic sequence that serves to reflect Scully’s heady disorientation at being plunged into this world and at the same time dismantle what it is we’re seeing as it is happening-- the surprise of seeing the film crew at one point reflected in a mirror is shocking and funny and emphasizes the artifice of the situation even as Scully finds himself responding to Holly sexually during the scene (a big porno no-no?) and remembering/superimposing his earlier moment with Gloria on the beach upon the on-set encounter. Finally, the end credit sequence of Body Double, which visualizes and parodies what we imagine were the behind-the-scenes action during the shooting of Dressed to Kill’s opening shower scene, must have had Angie Dickinson rolling in the aisles. It’s a premier example of the director’s multileveled design that works as comedy, as titillation, as an exposure of the utter absence of eroticism on a movie set (the blotchy-faced body double instructs Jake, holding stiff for the camera in full vampire regalia while she gets into position in the shower, to go easy on her nipples—they’re extremely sore due to her having just started her period) and as a means of encouraging the audience to tally up the ways in which a real situation sheds light on elements of their fantasies. The movie’s final image is a close-up of blood overflowing from the vampire’s arterial feast and trickling down the chest, over and between the painfully sensitive, but nonetheless lovely breasts, of the body double, and it’s funnier, more exciting and alive and provocative than almost anything else in the movie. It’s here that Body Double reveals its true place in De Palma’s work less as a pastiche of themes utilized more effectively in previous films than as a fitfully vital kissing cousin (with bared fangs) to the satirical sensibility displayed in films like Hi, Mom! and Phantom of the Paradise.
CRAIG WASSON, LEADING MAN
Finally, your comments have managed to shed light on one of the elements of Body Double that has always been problematic for me—the casting and performance of lead actor Craig Wasson. Over the past 20 years, whenever I’ve thought about it, I’ve always marveled that such a nondescript talent had, for a brief period in the early to mid ‘80s, such a run of work, and his appearance in the De Palma film always seemed to me the apotheosis of his white-bread “appeal.” But your argument is a very convincing one:
“I've always thought Craig Wasson was perfectly cast in this. Yes, he totally lacks the star power that could have helped to make the film a commercial success and he doesn't exactly deliver what can be described as a powerhouse performance. But the man's playing an unemployed actor, for God's sakes--a born loser, a regular Joe longing for a little excitement in his lousy life. A charismatic star like John Travolta in the same everyman role wouldn't have been believable. This is the story of somebody who tries to overcome his weakness. The story of an actor trying to act. The story of a sexless nobody wishing to become a stud. The weakness is an essential element of the narrative.”
It makes sense to me that De Palma would have an understanding that Wasson is no Jimmy Stewart everyman here—he’s investigating a very specific backstage world of which not many people outside of Hollywood (all efforts of Entertainment Weekly to the contrary) have any real understanding-- and it would be silly to think that’s what he had in mind. Nor does it seem much of a stretch at all to imagine a formally experimental film artist as De Palma playing with expectations to such a degree that he wouldn’t hesitate to cast a “regular-Joe” actor as a “regular-Joe” actor. So to that end I can accept that Wasson’s casting could be, in the terms laid out by the film, a success. And I can also accept that weakness can be, and perhaps is here, an essential part of the narrative. But again, to invoke Vertigo, Jake Scully is no Scottie Ferguson-- Hitchcock uses Scottie’s weakness to infuse his film with a creeping malaise and undercurrent of dread, to allude to the ever-present shadow of curdling obsession. But it seems De Palma embraces Jake’s weakness to such a degree that the film is less an illumination of that weakness as a subject than a victim of it as it is manifested in De Palma’s own relatively by-the-numbers approach. The weakness may truly be essential to the conception of Jake Scully as a character, but in Body Double it is also a symptom of a director momentarily spinning his creative wheels, looking to pump fresh blood into concepts he perhaps felt compelled to revisit for essentially compromised reasons.
20 YEARS LATER...
Looking at Body Double 20 years later, knowing that De Palma would recover his bearings, that works as masterful and resonant and audacious as Casualties of War and Femme Fatale were laying in wait, and even that he would rediscover his commercial footing with one of the most formally adventurous of Hollywood blockbusters (Mission: Impossible), it’s easier for me to forgive some of the flaws that I still find so apparent. And it’s even easier, given the passage of time, to look at the movie with new eyes and see that it’s nowhere near the viral offense to decent sensibilties that its most vocal detractors claimed in 1985 and still do today, that it actually does have some value, even though I still value it less than almost every other De Palma film. Why, I dare say I even had a good time seeing it again. It’s nice to be reminded that even the lesser films of a genuinely gifted film artist can yield plenty to think about and connect up with other films if given the space in a viewer’s mind in which to expand. In a million years, even at my most logorrheic, I would have never imagined that I would have been able to spend this much time in consideration of Body Double so long after its initial release. Such are the delights of considering cinema closely, I suppose. Thanks, Peet, for giving me yet another good reason to do so!