De Palma Does Hollywood: Fleshing Out the Split-Screened Study of Voyeurism & Illusion in Body Double

Melanie Griffith and Craig Wasson in "Body Double" (original artwork by Tony Stella)

illustration by Tony Stella

I

“I LIKE TO WATCH”

“Today, there’s such an incredible amount of lovemaking and nudity on cable television, and in pornography on the internet. You see bodies photographed from every conceivable angle, doing every conceivable thing, so you really have to think hard to approach eroticism with a fresh idea. Just showing people kissing, people fucking—it’s of no interest to me.”

—Brian De Palma, Brian De Palma’s Golden Rules of Shooting a Sex Scene


Los Angeles, 1984:

Hardcore pornography is wilting from theaters, devolving from 35mm eroticism projected onto screens and into roughshod productions made for the VCR, pixelated and wobbly images of tanned and anonymous bodies tangling, colliding, and fucking between jagged torrents of red-green-blue tracking lines on video. The act of watching can now be done at home, alone, in the safety of shadow-flit, curtain-drawn darkness. Porno videocassette sales explode as the market hungrily devours these boxes of bodies flattened onto magnetic tape.

Los Angeles, 1984:

Hardbodies, a leering and brainless sub-Porky’s sex comedy plays in mainstream theaters, the story of three aging divorcés who hire a young stud conman to help them have sex with the young “hardbodies”—impossibly taut, impossibly bronze, impossibly beautiful-bodied young women—they watch from afar on a nearby beach. Originally filmed for the Playboy Channel, Hardbodies is purchased by Columbia Pictures for theatrical release, where it becomes a surprise hit with audiences eager to watch, and nearly quadruples its budget at the box office.

Los Angeles, 1984:

The once rail-thin Bruce Springsteen, having spent two years with an intensive bodybuilding routine following the release of his last album, returns to L.A. with the Born in the U.S.A. tour and a newly tanned, muscular body (which he will display in the music video “Dancing in the Dark,” directed by one Brian De Palma), reflecting the athletic demands of his marathon live shows as well as an increasing national focus on fitness, on beauty, on bodies. Thousands gather in the darkness to watch Springsteen’s new body hold court with a seven-night stand in the city, celebrating his album the same week De Palma’s newest sex thriller premieres in theaters.

Los Angeles, 1984:

Rows of bodies line the gyms in L.A., on the incline treadmills, legs pistoning together in time, endless right-angled arms with downs of sun-goldened hair and tanned skin swinging in synchronized arcs as the bodies get harder, more beautiful, more perfect, generating and reflecting and reinforcing the illusory bodies we watch on the screen.

Los Angeles, 1984:

Earlier that year: Many of those same hardbodies pack tight into a bar, filming a scene for that new Brian De Palma thriller, wrapping around tables and chairs, filling in the background, filling in the illusion of a busy restaurant. In the foreground, stars Craig Wasson and Melanie Griffith are body-doubling the stars of Alfred Hitchcock, the director whom De Palma’s own career has doubled. Wasson’s long milquetoast face, pursed lips, and benign horny-pervy hangdoggedness mirror the weirdo smarm-charm of Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window and Vertigo; Griffith, a revelatory fusion of otherworldly charisma, sexual control, and icy blonde beauty, acts as a literal double of her mother, The Birds and Marnie star Tippi Hedren.

The scene finds Griffith’s character, porn star Holly Body, laying down the rules as they apply to Holly’s body vis-a-vie a prospective follow up to her newest film, Holly Does Hollywood:

“I do not do animal acts. I do not do S&M or any variations of that particular bent. No water sports, either. I will not shave my pussy, no fist-fucking, and absolutely no coming in my face. I get $2,000 a day and I do not work without a contract.”

This is Body Double, a wet fever-dream of porn, driller killers, Hollywood sleaze and simulacra, murder, sexual obsession/power, and—this being De Palma, after all—voyeurism. And it’s the stealthiest, possibly most misunderstood, and certainly most deranged masterpiece he ever made.

~ ~ ~

1984 marked the end of the Golden Age of Pornography, as well as the end of the Golden Age of De Palma: an 11-year run of slyly self-aware, erotically-charged thrillers (from Sisters to Carrie to Dressed to Kill to Blow Out, et al.), each coded in the stylized visual language of Alfred Hitchcock, in which all manner of pleasures and traumas are loosed upon the human body and presented for our eyes with a prismatic array of stylistic innovations and malicious methods for creative inhumanity.

Body Double is peak De Palma, the endorphin-flooded, muscle-tightened climax of the period that has come to define his career. It’s also an angry, gnashing rebuke to the critics who labeled his prior films hyper-violent, near-pornographic Hitchcock rip-offs (“If they want an X, they’ll get a real X! They wanna see suspense, they wanna see terror, they wanna see sex—I’m the person for the job. It’s gonna be unbelievable,” De Palma told Esquire prior to the film’s release). An illusory, artifice-lubed fuck-flick “fuck you” to traditional Hollywood storytelling and cinematic “reality.” A dizzyingly perverse, pastel-hued celebration of cinematic pastiche and formalist trickery. A latex-slicked interrogation of the hero’s journey, as well as a smirking appropriation of it.

But perhaps most importantly, if his previous films used the visual grammar of “Hitchcockian” to have a kind of reflexive, filmic conversation with (and about) the works of Hitch (and they did), then the defiantly, diabolically unhinged Body Double is a fully-realized evolutionary leap forward, in which De Palma used the tools from his career-length survey of Hitchcock’s films and techniques to finally have a full-on cinematic conversation with (and about) Brian De Palma.

II

“MAKES YOU HOT, DOESN’T IT?”

“You make a certain kind of movie because that’s the way you see things. And these images keep recurring again and again in your movies. And that’s what makes you who you are.”

—Brian De Palma, De Palma

Body Double opens on a gaudy graveyard movie set framed by a garish, matte-painted sunset. D-list actor Jake Scully (Wasson), dressed as a leather-clad, peroxide-blonde punk rock vampire, lies terrified in his fake coffin. Jake is unable to respond to a director’s calls for “Action!”—his claustrophobia has been triggered by the cramped space, his body is paralyzed by fear, and he’s unable to complete the scene.

Body Double ends with Jake being buried alive in a shallow grave—for real this time—with a leather-clad, peroxide-blonde punk rock porn star lying by his side while a maniacal killer shovels dirt on their bodies. Jake’s claustrophobia has again been triggered, his body again paralyzed by fear.

De Palma’s films often end as they begin, bending back on themselves to form a Möbius loop of his recurrent themes and obsessions. Dressed to Kill begins and ends with beautiful blonde women having violent fantasies inside the same suburban bathroom; following the modular throwaway of a pre-credits sequence, Mission: Impossible opens and closes with spies on planes, receiving mission specs coded within in-flight movies; and in the most thematically layered of his flanked repetitions, Sisters begins with a man being watched by couch potatoes on a hidden-camera game show called Peeping Toms (in which he is caught spying on an undressing blind woman), and the film ends with that man’s dead body hidden inside a couch being spied upon by a private investigator. These endings spin back around to reflect the beginning in order to show us how much has changed, and how we are different now, too, for having watched. With Body Double, one wonders how that applies to its director as well.

Melanie Griffith and Brian De Palma on the set of Body Double

Melanie Griffith and Brian De Palma, on the set of “Body Double” | Columbia Pictures

What happens between the film’s bleached-blonde bookends, even by typical De Palma standards (deeply adult thrillers heat-warped by sexual obsession and meticulously constructed, gore-chunked murder setpieces), is an unhinged flood of his megatonic, metafilmic id as his terrors, troubles, and turn-ons are shaped into an oneiric hall of mirrors, one that works just fine as a surface-level bizarro whodunit, but beneath its uncanny valley of Hitchcockian anti-reality rests a work of surprising depth and intricacy—one that pays homage not to the film world of Hitch, but rather employs it to investigate the works and world of Brian De Palma.

Following Jake’s on-set anxiety attack, he returns home to find his live-in girlfriend voraciously fucking another man (“Her face was glowing,” he obsesses later). He falls off the wagon and starts drinking again. He loses his job in Vampire’s Kiss. He’s subjected to a string of deeply humiliating auditions. He’s homeless and couch-hopping and tickling rock-bottom—and then meets fellow struggling actor Sam Bouchard (Gregg Henry). Bouchard takes pity on Jake and, leaving town for a theater gig, allows Jake to crash where he’s been housesitting: the Chemosphere, a hyper-modernist octagonal structure perched atop a tall pedestal in the Hollywood Hills, which, with its entirely windowed circumference, allows for a city-wide vantage.

And as Bouchard points out with an in-house telescope, from the Chemosphere one can see directly into the bedroom of the wealthy, extraterrestrially gorgeous Gloria Revelle (Deborah Shelton). Every night at the same time, Gloria performs an exotic dance ritual for herself that climaxes with the elaborate frenzy of a choreographed masturbation routine. The voyeur within Jake is awakened and obsessed. Soon, he notices a disfigured man he later dubs “the Indian” also watching Gloria from afar. Jake stalks them both across Los Angeles, foiling one attack on Gloria, but not a second, in which “the Indian” uses an absurdly long, phallic drill to penetrate her torso and kill her. Shattered by this most recent (and graphically monumental) of his many failures, the object of his newfound obsession now dead, Jake turns his dejected gaze to the world of hardcore.

~ ~ ~

From the beginning of his career, voyeurism has been an instrument for and subject of De Palma’s work. Beginning as mild tics in early films like Murder a la Mod and Hi, Mom! (both of which feature peeping toms and budding pornographers), it then grew to encompass characters as metaphoric stand-ins for the subject (Blow Out’s sound engineer Jack Terry inadvertently spies an assassination attempt while recording sounds for a new movie, the psychic teenager of The Fury can read the deepest thoughts of the people she touches) before exploding into the full-on grand mal of Body Double, in which the main character is no longer just a metaphor for voyeurism, but is, purely and simply, voyeurism itself. Jake is the kind of man who’d find himself standing in line beneath a flickering marquee, sheepishly asking for one ticket for Hardbodies, please; or, as we’ll see later, a man who will breathlessly hurtle inside Tower Records, desperate for the new Holly Body tape. Jake likes to watch.

Effete and cuckolded at home, rendered impotent in his professional life, Jake discovers a profoundly carnal thrill watching Gloria masturbate from a distance. The humiliation of his deteriorating career and the vision of his girlfriend’s naked body writhing against another man all melt away, because voyeurism gives Jake power. He can watch a woman in her most intimate moments and experience sexual exaltation but never risk the rejection that has become all too familiar. The cost, though, is Gloria’s humanity—Jake, in vicariously stealing these moments from Gloria, giddy and giggling with the horny buzz it gives him, reduces her from a person to a level of artifice. A thing to be watched, coveted, fucked. A body.

And a body can be anything—an object of desire, the key to a mystery that may or may not exist, someone in need of rescue…anything you need it to be. Flattening a person or character into a body allows us to project upon them whatever dreams/nightmares we are in need of living/exorcising. It’s why we watch movies. It’s why we watch pornography. And it is, Jake discovers, why he likes to watch. One suspects that, with Body Double, De Palma understands this, too; it’s of little surprise that Jake is a bland, nebbish character defined by his lack of agency, always dressed in beige, and played by the knowingly innocuous Wasson—Jake is a flattened character designed for his audience, and his director, to project upon.

Craig Wasson in a scene from Brian De Palma's "Body Double" (1984)The voyeur is in a position of supremacy, reducing people to mere bodies like a God, like a director—like Brian De Palma, who returned to this type of filmmaking only after the financial failure of the personal, political Blow Out, the critical failure of hired-gun gig Scarface, and the collapse of his marriage to actress/collaborator Nancy Allen. Voyeurism was no longer just a tool and metaphor borrowed from the work of Hitchcock, but as De Palma reveals in Body Double, it became a refuge that allowed for control. Borrowing the structure of Vertigo and the conceit of Rear Window, De Palma sought sanctuary in the thrill of watching his characters spin and sputter within the rat maze he designed for them, just as Jake watches Gloria from the safe distance of the Chemosphere as she dances, comes, and is killed. Watching Body Double is to watch De Palma coming to terms with the power and meaning of his psychosexual art, as well as understanding why he so often thrusts his autobiography into the wind-up toy mechanics of Hitchcock’s plot structures: De Palma likes to watch.

The elaborate complexity of this excoriating self-reflection is even literalized in two of Body Double’s primary setpieces: Jake stalking Gloria and “the Indian” in an outdoor mall, and Jake spying on Gloria as she checks into a beachside motel. “Following” sequences are a hallmark of De Palma’s cinema, but there is a newfound intricacy here. No longer content to photograph one-dimensional planes in which a character secretly follows another within labyrinthine hallways or cluttered city streets, De Palma films these three characters alternately following and avoiding one another in the massive outdoor, multi-tiered Rodeo Collection mall, a structure crisscrossed with incurvating escalators, glass-tubed elevators, and multiple levels on top of levels. Later, Jake briefly confronts Gloria at the Beach Terrace Motel, a tall and sloping motel of layered terraces cascading downward into the beach. De Palma’s once flat and ground-level x-axis following sequences now stretch upward, downward, and outward, expanding in all directions, mirroring the growing thematic density and depth of his vision as the film becomes a self-aware meditation and reflection of himself.

Jake, through the Rear Window-esque telescope, is drawn into himself and his dark desires, just as the film draws De Palma inward. While his earlier films are littered with autobiographical elements—he was a teenage inventor like Keith Gordon’s Dressed to Kill whiz kid; his obsession with the Zapruder tape fueled Blow Out’s paranoid descent into political murder—Body Double abandons the whispers of personal details for a full-throated jailhouse confession of his sexual desires and insecurities. Jake isn’t a stand-in for some sub-textual commentary on voyeurism—he’s a naked portrait of a horny pervert, and is lonely voyeurism embodied. The coveted Gloria isn’t killed by a knife or gun, she’s drilled through the center by a giant steel cock; when he struggles to break into Gloria’s house and save her from an attack upstairs, Jake watches in horror as the intimidatingly large drill bit of the killer shoots through the ceiling of the living room with an ejaculation of blood and gore, and he is once again rendered an ineffectual failure by another more powerful man.

To be a watcher is not enough, De Palma tells us. A voyeur only has the illusion of agency, but no real ability to affect change, to act. Jake is both a literal and figurative contradiction of the actor—he is a one-man audience member rather than performer, and he is literally unable to act in order to save Gloria. In order to resolve this murder and bring his ludicrous hero’s journey to its conclusion, he will have to step out of the safety of the Chemosphere into the dark underground, and truly act.

III

“COME OVER HERE, I’LL SHOW YOU HOW HOT”

“I’ve been obsessed with this kind of visual storytelling for quite a while, and I try to create material that allows me to explore it.”

—Brian De Palma

If the first hour of Body Double is a critical self-examination and refinement of the kind of De Palma film that one had come to expect by 1984 (indeed, it plays like a lurid Greatest Hits package of his effectively deployed suspense tropes, gauzy eroticism, and Hitchcockian glossolalia), then the second hour is its twisted, mutated double—a serrated, Grand Guignol giallo-porn, in which the filmmaker takes every exaggerated would-be critique a critic could have of the film’s first half (and thus, by extension, of his entire embattled career), internalizes and weaponizes them, then jams them deep into Body’s every orifice as a wickedly funny and vulgar rejoinder to those who’ve dismissed or ignored the substance generated by and beneath the layered surfaces of his work.

For years, De Palma was wrongfully accused by his critics of making the same soul-corrupted, maniacally sex-obsessed cinematic bloodbath over and over again, so in a hubristic act of defiance he actually made it with this uniquely split-screened film, whose second hour watches and comments upon the first just like Jake peeped Gloria’s bedroom from afar. And the sleazy, smirking miracle of the thing is that Body Double is a deceptively intricate masterpiece—using the craven elements his critics hated, he fashioned a film that is at once a suspense piece, a meditation on the primary subject of his career, and, finally, a critical visual essay on the nature of cinematic art and artifice. This film is a voyeur that spies upon itself.

~ ~ ~

“… no fist-fucking, and absolutely no coming in my face. I get $2,000 a day and I do not work without a contract.”

Craig Wasson in "Body Double"As Holly finishes the speech to Jake about her performance dos-and-don’ts, a look of shock spreads across his dumbfounded face—this is not the sex-crazed porno-punk he (or we) expected. Rather (and thanks to Griffith’s career-best performance), this is a woman with agency, in full command of her body, career, and sexuality. Much as Body Double is so much more than the pornographic misfire its detractors claimed it to be, Holly is a rebuke of the illusion Jake held of the leering, lip-licking porn star in Holly Does Hollywood; Body (and Body) is far more than the name implies. Her galvanizing presence wrests the film from Jake’s solipsistic journey inward and redirects it out into the nightworld beyond his voyeuristic safety net, just as her arrival wrenches the film itself out of its purposeful “cinematic” unreality of ‘50s-style Hitchcockian aesthetics and into an overblown neon hell of De Palma’s ‘80s porn-pop.

The film’s sun-swathed first half is Jake’s world, one of literal and figurative Hollywood unreality. Shots linger on gorgeous mountain ranges that are revealed to be matte paintings pushed across a studio lot; Jake cruises through town in his convertible with a jittery, antiquated rear-screen projection of Los Angeles behind him; thick, syrupy strings of Pino Donaggio’s throwback score ooze melodrama throughout the proceedings; even the villain Jake pursues, “the Indian,” is a caricature of racist Hollywood western archetypes. And just as the film’s reflexive second hour is De Palma’s counter-critique to his critics, it is also a gear-shift into Holly’s world, a nightscape L.A. wherein De Palma subverts the tropes he littered throughout the film’s first half by employing the postmodern grimy-sticky grit of VHS porn, MTV-styled music video theatrics, and the twisting of a traditional hero’s journey dropped into the duplicitous hell of Me-Decade Hollywood.

~ ~ ~

Following Gloria’s murder, Jake turns his obsessive gaze to pornography. Watching Holly Body’s newest film, he notices her solo masturbation routine matches Gloria’s exactly—same dance moves, same rhythms, even the same mistletoe tattoo on her left buttock. Suspicious, he dons a leather jacket and pants, slicks his hair back, and with a jittery, cokespoon braggadocio, infiltrates a porn set posing as an adult performer. Jake acts and takes a role in Holly’s new movie, shoots a sex scene with her, and then reveals his suspicions:

Jake believes Holly was hired to impersonate Gloria in order to fix his attention onto the Revelle house, so that he would later witness a disfigured madman killing the real Gloria. Seeing this would give Gloria’s husband, Alex Revelle (a.k.a., Sam Bouchard, who set Jake up in the Chemosphere) a perfect alibi, allowing him to inherit Gloria’s millions, Vertigo-style.

Beneath that crazed patchwork of Hitchcockian plotting, boundary-pushing carnality, and self-aware ridiculousness (and it could have been far more so—De Palma originally intended Body Double to be the first mainstream Hollywood film to feature unsimulated hardcore sex scenes, and had even cast adult actress Annette Haven as Holly before a panicked Columbia pulled the plug) lies a finely-crafted and labyrinthine funhouse mirroring of the queasy Hollywood irreality of the film’s first half, gleefully poking holes in those traditional contrivances and subverting the viewer’s expectations of every scene.

Craig Wasson and Melanie Griffith in Brian De Palma's "Body Double" (1984)When Jake smarms his way into Holly’s new pop-music porno, he doesn’t walk into some shag-carpeted ranch house in the Valley; rather, De Palma outrageously shot the entire film-within-a-film sequence of Holly and Jake’s sex scene as an opulent and wildly scuzz-slicked music video for Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Relax” (“This was in the era you put a pop song in and made a video that would promote the movie,” he deadpans in the De Palma doc, “so then I thought, ‘well, I’ll just put the video into the movie’”). Doing so, De Palma wildly undercut the traditional mechanics of a thriller, even allowing members of the camera crew to be seen in mirrored surfaces of the sequence, intentionally highlighting the fakery of the production by showing the reality beneath it.

Even the sex itself subverts expectation. Unable to shoot actual hardcore intercourse, De Palma leaned hard in the other direction—while one would expect explicit sex in a film such as this, Jake and Holly remain fully-clothed for their scene, framed in a tight head-and-shoulders shot as Jake climaxes along with the song. The only real crudeness lies in Jake’s machinations, as our hero seems to think the most reasonable method of approaching Holly with his theory is to fuck her on camera first (as opposed to, say, just asking her about her body double work). His actions in the film’s second hour throw his character into question, forcing one to wonder which Jake is real and which is the illusion: the quietly perverted, relatively well-meaning nerd we came to know, or the borderline sociopath who uses Gloria’s murder as a springboard to fucking his masturbatory dream girl in order to bring his fantasy life into reality. This “performance” of Jake feels somehow more lived-in and real than the “real” Jake of the film’s first half, creating another series in the movie’s seemingly endless hall of mirrors, as does Holly herself—she is both a fake double of Gloria Revelle as well as a real-deal peroxide-blonde punk, more authentic than Jake’s approximated simulation of a bleached-out punk in Vampire’s Kiss.

That hall of mirrors stretches all the way into the film’s ending—the killer ties up loose ends by burying Jake and Holly alive in a shallow grave, with Jake reliving the paralysis from the opening scene of both Body Double and its double, Vampire’s Kiss. But Jake reaches deep into his memory, forcing himself not only to relive that mock burial, but to imagine fighting through his claustrophobia of that first day and completing the scene. He succeeds in the fantasy, which then allows him to break free of the claustrophobia in “real life,” vanquish the killer, and save Holly.

But this sequence, and the credits that follow, are structured in such a way as to make any grip on the overall film a slippery one—was the murder mystery and pornographic underworld of Body Double all a fantasy in Jake’s head as he was frozen in that fake coffin, a mental exercise to help him finish the scene in Vampire’s Kiss? Was the film’s second half simply a masturbatory daydream of Jake’s as he watched Holly Does Hollywood, mourning his failure to save Gloria and imagining himself as the hero who saves the girl this time? Or has it all happened, within the context of the film, “for real”?

Before these questions can be answered, the film unceremoniously cuts to black.

But look:

We’re suddenly back in the world of Vampire’s Kiss, the world of artifice, the world of Jake, as De Palma ends things where they began, only just a little different, because now we’re different from having watched. Jake, now a newly confident man of action, has been rehired to star in the shoddy horror film, and is filming a scene in which his punk vampire descends upon a beautiful nude victim in a shower stall. Jake handles the cramped space with ease, his claustrophobia gone. As we watch this scene from Vampire’s Kiss, the final credits for Body Double begin to scroll down the screen.

But look:

The credits abruptly stop and the façade of the Vampire’s Kiss scene ends. The film’s director calls for a cut and Jake waits as the actress playing the victim demurely exits the shower and a tanned, buxom body double inserts herself in the victim’s place for close-up nudity shots. These faux behind-the-scenes machinations puncture the reality of Vampire’s Kiss we were so briefly immersed within.

But look:

With the body double in place, the “reality” of Vampire’s Kiss takes over again, seamlessly cutting from Jake and the original actress to close-ups of the double’s hard, tanned body, cementing the illusion that these two women are one and the same, and the credits now resume, as if Body Double was unable to complete itself until Vampire’s Kiss had achieved that illusion while we watched.

This closing credits sequence is a microcosm of Body Double’s entire structure: An illusory world is presented, is then punctured by a prolonged sequence that undercuts that illusion, all before reinstating the illusion again. The film’s second hour is the necessary body double that both enhances and comments on the illusion of the first, so that it may complete itself.

As it fades to black, the final image of Body Double/Vampire’s Kiss is a tight close-up of the body double’s large breasts as torrents of thick, goopy blood cascade down their curves, a fittingly grotesque parting shot from both films, one that makes clear what Brian De Palma has to say about the nature of Hollywood filmmaking, and about what critics snidely expect to see in his work.

The preceding film, though, captures what he has to say about himself, his films, and—as yet another of his endings loops back to the beginning—his audience:

We like to watch.