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Relax Don’t Do It: Brian De Palma’s Body Double

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Brian De Palma’s Body Double is like a Hitchcockian mashup between Vertigo and Rear Window: one which takes us into the seedy – in this case sometimes musical – underworld of the adult film industry circa the Los Angeles of the 1980s.

This film is like if Rear Window were centered solely on the blonde neighbor in that film who dances seductively in the window across from Jimmy Stewart’s spying L.B. Jefferies’, and all the other neighbors in his complex didn’t exist. In the affluent Hollywood Hills, where the spying takes place in this film — in the real-life Chemosphere, an octagonal modernist house built in 1960, famous enough to have its own Wikipedia page — homes don’t face as many neighbors as do apartment complexes in Manhattan. And so, we can zero in on the salacious dance performed nightly by a mysterious brunette in the windows of her home across the way without the distraction of barking dogs or gaggles of other neighbors underfoot.

This film is like Vertigo in its fixation on this strange woman and the leering protagonist’s tendency to trail behind, i.e. stalk, her, as well as another woman who later appears to mysteriously resemble the essence of the first. Admits De Palma, “Body Double was kind of a meditation on the idea in Vertigo where you create an elusive, beautiful, evocative woman character. It’s what we do as directors all the time in movies. We create these feminine illusions.”

Body Double is also an interesting send up of Hollywood itself, in all its real-life desperation and the illusions it creates. This film is something of a tour of Los Angeles landmarks as well. It opens with a sight gag outside Tail o’ the Pup, the iconic Los Angeles hot dog stand that opened in 1946. The end of the stand, which literally looks like a giant hotdog, protrudes alongside a man who is pushing a hotdog playfully into the mouth of his female companion. This doesn’t seem entirely innocent nor accidental, judging by the sensibilities of its filmmaker or this movie. Merely some subliminal foreshadowing, it would seem. The title sequence opens on a desert scene being pulled away to reveal that it’s just a painted backdrop in the studio lot, across which it is being carried. This serves as a reminder of Hollywood’s false facades: a body double being another form of this. A body double, for those unfamiliar, is a physical stand-in for a lead actor or actress when the face of the actor is obscured: as in closeups done on body parts during a nude scene that the leading lady may not be comfortable doing herself. It’s yet another illusion, and in this film such definitions serve as clues to the murder mystery that unfolds. (Murder mysteries being a key element in Rear Window as well, though in a much different way than seen here.)

Body DoubleThe life of an actor in Hollywood can be a seedy and a desperate one. The opening of the movie and the circumstances its lead Jake Scully, played by Craig Wasson, finds himself in are a reminder of this. Interestingly, it’s Holly, played by Melanie Griffith, who works in the adult film industry — that other film industry — who seems to have all the self-possession and control over her own life that Scully lacks. She’s smart, well-spoken, and seems to have good instincts for avoiding potential danger, most of the time.

Griffith deliberately infused her character, stage name: Holly Body, with intelligence.

“I tried to make Holly Body a smart businesswoman. She’s just doing her thing and getting by and she does have her boundaries, even if they are a little bit over the edge for some people.”

Griffith, who was just 26 at the time, was used to being overlooked or dismissed as a “dumb blonde” in her own life up to that point and was getting sick of it. “So I thought if I could do this character and make her cool and intelligent, but she’s also a porno queen, that would be really great.”

De Palma praised her performance, even as the movie was maligned by critics and then bombed upon initial release, something other films of his, like Phantom of the Paradise, had done, only to later reach cult status.

“She gave a sensational performance. As much as people disliked the movie, they all liked her. She brought a humor and humanity to the character that’s pure Melanie, and made her into the star that she became.”

Dennis Franz, who was in De Palma’s stable of actors at the time, having appeared in four of his films prior to this one, commented that he is often cast in these films as a sort of comic relief, though he added, “There’s a comic element to the most serious of his characters.” 

He seems to be deliciously poking fun at De Palma’s own image here, playing the director of the low budget horror film Scully has been cast in. Franz said he could see De Palma directing this film-within-a-film in real life, and when the costumer asked him how he saw his character dressed, said Franz, “I pointed to Brian and I said, ‘Exactly like that.’”

Laughs De Palma, “He got into the De Palma directing outfit and sort of ‘did’ me,” down to wearing De Palma’s signature green jacket.

Interestingly, it’s Scully himself, a down-on-his-luck actor who lives directly outside the gates of the Hollywood, low-budget, and pornographic worlds — he is fired from the aforementioned horror film at the film’s outset for being a vampire who gets claustrophobic inside his own coffin — who is the most morally problematic character in this film. More so, interestingly, than those in the adult film world he infiltrates.

In this movie, you’re asked to go along for the ride with his character as he becomes a peeping tom, but in this case, he isn’t America’s favorite, Jimmy Stewart, holed up with a broken leg. He’s a slightly more wholesome looking Bill Maher: their resemblance has been commented on more than a few times across the internet.

Wasson, who was seen briefly as Jodie Foster’s boyfriend at the beginning of Carny and starred in Ghost Story with a lot of heavy hitting old timers, was an up-and-comer at that time who audiences may no longer be familiar with.

He is (relatively) sweet-faced, and we are supposed to empathize with him, yet he does things like fish the woman he’s stalking’s underwear out of a public trashcan. Behavior that is even more problematic that it might have appeared 40 years ago, during Body Double’s release.

As he warns Gloria Revelle, the woman he’s so transfixed with that he follows her across Los Angeles in his car (one can only assume traffic was better 40 years ago), “Someone’s following you.” The irony is that he himself is following her too, quite blatantly.

Body Double2As previously mentioned, De Palma admits this film was influenced by Vertigo: in it, our protagonist becomes transfixed with a stranger he follows around and seems to interpret as his ideal woman. And It’s clear that without Hitchcock there would be no De Palma as we know him, but this film is also at times a little like he’s crossed Hitchcock with an Italian Giallo film in its humor and the audacity of its violence.

There is also something both seedily alluring and humorously intriguing about a protagonist who would enter the porn industry without hesitation in pursuit of trying to get to the bottom of a mystery. It’s reminiscent of George C. Scott’s Calvinist father posing as a porn producer in order to track down his lost teen daughter in Paul Schrader’s Hardcore, but in this instance, Scully lets himself be cast in an adult film with zero hesitation. I’m not sure if he’s an unreliable narrator, though he only knows as much as the audience does, so much as a morally questionable one, and the way he pulls the audience along with him seems to incriminate us as well.

Fascinatingly he pulls us at one point straight into a music video for the song “Relax” by the English pop band Frankie Goes to Hollywood, a band name which ironically seems to match the themes of this film. The entire film is momentarily taken over by this number, which turns out to be the opening of the adult film in which Scully makes his debut. This brings with it a sort of joyful “What is even happening right now?” audience response, which threads through a lot of this film and makes it such an enjoyable ride.

Said De Palma, “I don’t know where I got this idea to have this sort of porn (music) video, but I’d been watching a lot of MTV at that time because I was working on a script about Jim Morrison.”

Because this is De Palma and his protagonist is not female, we don’t really see anything terribly X-rated in this porno debut: Body Double (spoiler) contains zero male nudity. The depiction of said porn movie is very tame. Though it contains a few real-life porn stars, it was eventually even shown on MTV.

In the end, Scully must somehow learn to overcome his own claustrophobia-induced paralysis. With all the phallic imagery throughout, some of which, such as in the Giallo scene, I have not described in order to avoid spoilers, could Scully’s paralyzing claustrophobic attacks serve a symbol for impotence? It certainly creates an impotence in his inability to defend his love interests or even himself at key moments. 

De Palma comments that the claustrophobia of the character here was taken from his own life experience while playing a childhood game called “Sardine,” something that Scully also references.

“I’m not claustrophobic but I think I got myself in some kind of tight position where I felt claustrophobic at the time. A lot of the stuff in Body Double is very direct from my own experience.” Make of that what you will, but regardless of its source material and its influences, Body Double remains a fun ride through an underworld that may have been shocking in its day, but now feels more tame, but no less enjoyable. Forty years later, the shocks here come less from the underworld he enters than they do from the behavior of the protagonist.

Body Double screens starting Friday, June 21st.
Friday, Jun 21st – 8:15pm
Saturday, Jun 22nd – 10pm
Sunday, Jun 23rd – 8:15pm


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