Brian De Palma Biography

Director and screenwriter

Brian De Palma

Born Brian Russell De Palma, September 11, 1940, in Newark, NJ; son of Anthony (an orthopedic surgeon) and Vivenne (also Vivienne) De Palma; married Nancy Allen (an actress), 1979 (divorced, 1983); married Gail Anne Hurd (a film producer), 1991 (divorced, 1993); married Darnell Gregorio, 1995 (divorced, 1996); children: Lolita (with Hurd), Piper (with Gregorio). Education: Graduated from Columbia University, 1962; enrolled in the master of fine arts program at Sarah Lawrence, 1962–64.

Addresses: Contact —Creative Artists Agency, 9830 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA 90210.


Director of films, including: Icarus , 1960; Woton's Wake , 1962; Greetings , 1968; The Wedding Party , 1969; Dionysus in '69 , 1970; Hi, Mom! , 1970; Get to Know Your Rabbit , 1972; Sisters , 1973; Phantom of Paradise , 1974; Obsession , 1976; Carrie , 1976; The Fury , 1978; Home Movies , 1980; Dressed to Kill , 1980; Blow Out , 1981; Scarface , 1983; Body Double , 1984; Wise Guys , 1986; The Untouchables , 1987; Casualties of War , 1989; The Bonfire of the Vanities , 1990; Raising Cain , 1992; Carlito's Way , 1993; Mission: Impossible , 1996; Snake Eyes , 1998; Mission to Mars , 2000; Femme Fatale , 2002; The Black Dahlia , 2006.

Awards: Richard and Hilda Rosenthal Foundation Award, National Society of Film Critics, for student film Woton's Wake , 1963; Silver Berlin Bear, Berlin International Film Festival, for Greetings , 1969; Grand Prize, Avoriaz Film Festival, for Phantom of the Paradise , 1975; Grand Prize, Avoriaz Film Festival, for Carrie , 1977; Blue Ribbon Award for best foreign language film, for The Untouchables , 1988.


As a director, Brian De Palma is known for following his own dark muse. Over the course of his four-decade filmmaking career, De Palma has turned out some of the movie industry's most remembered—and controversial—films. De Palma's creepy yet showy films are populated with mind-boggling characters and twisty plots that leave moviegoers feeling slightly unhinged. In his 1976 stunner Carrie , the main character crucifies her mother with kitchen utensils; in 1983's Scarface , a man's arm is removed with a chainsaw, and in 1984's Body Double , an assailant uses a power drill to murder a woman. Often knocked for being too violent, De Palma is a director critics either love or hate. His technical skills and artful approach to moviemaking, however, make it hard to simply dismiss him as a second-tier director.

De Palma was born into an Italian-Catholic family on September 11, 1940, in Newark, New Jersey, the youngest of three boys. When De Palma was five, the family relocated to Philadelphia, where he attended a Quaker school but received a religious education in the Presbyterian church. Growing up, De Palma had little interest in movies. Instead, physics occupied his young mind and he spent his teenage years entering—and winning—science fairs. He also tooled around with electronics, designing his own computers. Another hobby included watching his father, an orthopedic surgeon, perform surgical procedures. In a 1975 interview with David Bartholomew, reprinted in the book Brian De Palma: Interviews , De Palma admitted that when he was young, he was more scientist than artist. "I thought science, now that was something really important. I was brought up in the '50s when going to the moon was the most important thing man would ever have to do."

After De Palma graduated from a private high school in the late 1950s, he enrolled at Columbia University intent on studying physics and technology. Once there, De Palma discovered movies—he became hooked after watching Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo . De Palma soon turned his back on science to concentrate on drama and acted in a few plays at Columbia. The idea of filmmaking so captivated De Palma that he sold his electronic equipment to buy film equipment, thereby trading one preoccupation for another.

De Palma's first film was the mid-length Icarus in 1960. Two years later, he released Woton's Wake , which follows the exploits of a sculptor who finds that a piece of his abstract art has morphed into a woman. The 30-minute flick, which ends with a mushroom cloud, won the 1963 Rosenthal Foundation Award. After graduating from Columbia, De Palma attended Sarah Lawrence in Bronxville, New York, and spent 1962 to 1964 enrolled in its master of fine arts program. While there he made The Wedding Party , a semi-improvised comedy that marked Robert De Niro's first film appearance. The film, however, was not released until 1969.

Looking at De Palma's early films, it is clear he caught the anti-establishment fever that gripped his peers. Thus, De Palma dwelled in satire, producing 1968's Greetings , an X-rated comedy that paid homage to those who dodged the Vietnam war. De Palma, himself, escaped service due to asthma. Greetings , which featured De Niro as an aspiring filmmaker and peeping tom, satirized the Kennedy assassination, free love, Vietnam, and amateur filmmaking. The antiwar film, which cost $43,000 to make, brought in $1 million and made De Palma a cult icon. Next, he made Dionysus in '69 , a split-screen film in which De Palma simultaneously showed the actors on one half of the screen and the audience on the other. It is a technique that would become a De Palma trademark.

By the early 1970s, De Palma had attracted the attention of several Hollywood studios and Warner Brothers tapped him to direct Get to Know Your Rabbit . The film tells the tale of a corporate executive, played by Tom Smothers, who abandons his career and becomes a tap-dancing magician. There was tension on the set and De Palma was removed from the film, though he received credit for his directing. The ill-fated studio debut did nothing to further De Palma's career. Disgruntled with Hollywood, De Palma returned to New York, where he has spent most of his career.

De Palma went back to independent filmmaking, scraping together funding from investors and his own pocket. During the 1970s, he made some gruesome, twisted tales, including 1973's Sisters and 1974's musical thriller Phantom of the Paradise , which won the grand prize at the 1975 Avoriaz Film Festival. It was Sisters , however, that cemented De Palma's reputation as a master of the offbeat slasher film, though some critics simply called him a Hitchcock copycat.

Sisters featured Margot Kidder as a set of separated Siamese twins—she played both roles. In the film, one twin brings home a man, the other sister finds out and his brutal murder ensues while a neighbor watches through the window. Once again, De Palma made use of the split-screen technique. For nearly ten minutes, he built suspense by showing the murder cover-up on one side of the screen, while on the other side, viewers watched the neighbor frantically trying to launch an investigation—and get in the apartment—before it is too late. Critics called Sisters the most shocking film since Hitchcock's Psycho . De Palma said he got the idea for the film after reading a 1966 Life magazine article about a set of Russian Siamese twins who were developing psychological problems as they aged. After seeing the article, De Palma was struck with a desire to explore these types of bonds.

De Palma's next super shocker was 1976's Carrie , which film buffs maintain is one of the most brilliant adaptations of a Stephen King novel. Carrie features Sissy Spacek as a shy teenager, taunted by her peers and her religious fundamentalist mother. She does, however, possesses telekinetic powers. The film begins with a promiscuous slow-motion look inside a girls' locker room, contains the infamous prom scene where Carrie is doused with a bucket of pigs' blood and climaxes in a confrontation where Carrie uses her telekinetic powers to impale her mother with kitchen utensils. De Palma's cinematography created other noteworthy scenes as well, including the dance floor scene where the camera circles counterclockwise as Carrie and her prom date turn in the opposite direction, thereby fully capturing the wooziness felt by the characters in that moment. Spacek's portrayal of pain and humiliation earned her an Academy Award nomination, which was rare for horror films. In addition, De Palma met his first wife, Nancy Allen, on the set and she appeared in a number of his later films.

In 1980, De Palma released Dressed to Kill , which created an uproar among feminists who felt the film's graphic content—murder and rape—promoted violence against women. Some critics, however, hailed it as a masterpiece. This movie followed the fate of an unhappily married woman, played by Angie Dickinson, who has a tryst with a stranger and ends up sliced to death in the elevator of his apartment building. The film employed several of Hitchcock's storytelling techniques, including the act of killing off a main character early on—as in Psycho —thereby turning the film into a murder mystery instead of the character study it began as. Dressed to Kill made money, though De Palma was labeled a misogynist after its release. De Palma received similar criticism after the release of 1984's Body Double .

In an interview with Jean Vallely in the book of De Palma interviews, the director said critics simply misunderstood what he was trying to do in Dressed to Kill . "It's like pop art, in a sense. When pop art first came out, the academic, mainline critics just dismissed it as shocking and ridiculous. How could anyone find anything artistic about a painting of a Brillo box? And when people started writing seriously about rock & roll, they were called nitwits…. Same with my movie. It can be dismissed on so many levels: The genre is dimestore stuff, it's dirty, it's bloody, what does it have to do with art? But you always have to fight that."

Over the years De Palma did make some movies that earned critical acclaim, such as his 1983 American gangster film Scarface , written by Oliver Stone. Set in 1980s Miami, the film featured Al Pacino in a breakout performance as a Cuban émigré involved in the cocaine trade. Like De Palma's other films, Scarface was rife with violence—more than 2,000 bullets were fired in the film—yet it was the first fully realized drama De Palma had ever produced.

More mainstream entertainments followed, including The Untouchables , a 1987 film about Chicago gangsters during the Prohibition. The Untouchables brought in nearly $80 million in domestic sales and earned Sean Connery an Academy Award for best actor. There was also 1996's Mission: Impossible , staring Tom Cruise, which proved to be the third highest-grossing film of the year. As usual, De Palma received some criticism, this time for advancing a too-complicated plot. In addition, reviewers criticized De Palma for concentrating on the exploits of Cruise's character, rather than using teamwork to get the job done as in the original television series.

De Palma flopped with 1990's The Bonfire of the Vanities , an adaptation of Tom Wolfe's bleak yet comic novel about race and class in New York City. Some critics did not blame De Palma; they blamed the film's failure on a studio trying to squeeze a crowd-pleaser out of a highly sophisticated plot. The film follows the unraveling of an arrogant and highly successful Wall Street tycoon named Sherman McCoy, played by Tom Hanks.

One central scene in the film involves the uppity Sherman getting tossed in jail. In an interview with Bruce Weber in the De Palma book of interviews, De Palma discussed his identification with that scene. De Palma confessed that in 1963, he got drunk and stole a motorcycle in Manhattan. "Some cops pulled me over, and I was feeling a little self-destructive. And I knocked one down. And they ran me down and shot me." De Palma later pled guilty to grand larceny and assault and drew a suspended sentence. The experience of spending the night in jail, though, helped De Palma understand Sherman's feelings when he is thrown in jail. "When you're brought up as a middle-class kid from Philadelphia, you've gone to private schools and Columbia, and suddenly you're in the tank? Whoa! You're in there with people you've sort of read about in the newspaper. And you realize you're just one, and everybody is equal before the law."

With more than 35 films under his belt, De Palma was still going strong in the mid-2000s, filled with ideas. "Once I get a good idea it doesn't let go," De Palma noted in the Vallely interview. "I walk around, doing my normal activities, but I'm in a daze, because I'm trying to figure out how to get this character over to that point so he can meet this other character." When De Palma gets an idea, he sketches out his thoughts in stick-figure pictures on index cards and sticks them on his office wall.

More than 40 years into his career, De Palma was still concentrating on movies involving murder and mayhem. In 2002, De Palma released another suspense flick, Femme Fatale , and followed with 2006's detective thriller The Black Dahlia , about a murder in 1940s Los Angeles. It drew some high praise from critics when it opened at the Venice Film Festival.

Though De Palma has created some memorable films and distinctive scenes, he has yet to be recognized as one of the great directing talents. De Palma, however, does not care. "It doesn't bother me," De Palma told the Guardian 's Steve Rose. "Because I've always been against the establishment from day one. I've never been accepted as that conventional artist. Whatever you say about David Lynch or Martin Scorsese, they are considered major film artists and nobody can argue with that. I've never had that. I've had people say it about me. And I've had people say that I'm a complete hack and you know, derivative and all those catchphrases that people use for me. So I've always been controversial. People hate me or love me."



Knapp, Laurence F., editor, Brian De Palma: Interviews , University Press of Mississippi, 2003.


Guardian (London, England), September 8, 2006, p. 6.

Los Angeles Times , September 24, 2006, p. E1.

New York Times , September 17, 2006, sec. p. 1.

Washington Post , July 27, 1980, p. G1.

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: