If you want my opinion, Gerrit Graham is the whole show.
Tony Dayoub’s DePalma Blogathon here.
Brian DePalma’s PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE — his name is above the title, despite the fact that who the hell was he, anyway, in 1974? — is an oddity in his career, a career strung with oddities. Despite perhaps borrowing its bird imagery from PSYCHO, and featuring probably his funniest take on the shower scene, PHANTOM isn’t particularly a Hitchcock-referencing film, which sets it apart from SISTERS beforehand and OBSESSION afterwards. The movie does feature a replay of TOUCH OF EVIL’s opening long take, though, with a split-screen twist. I think in this case he ruins the song and creates confusion rather than clarity (for much of the sequence both images show basically the same action), but it’s still an amusing trope, somehow.
Has DePalma somehow obtained custody of a dead little girl, and mounted the tiny corpslet on wires like some kind of macabre marionette? Or has he hired Paul Williams to act in his film? I’m not sure which is the greater outrage against taste and decency. Williams provides the score, which contains enjoyable but not truly memorable songs — the big problem is probably that they don’t feel specific to this story. The plot details the mounting of a rock opera based on Faust, but the songs don’t seem that specific to that either. Even when the Faust plot invades the main storyline in an outrageous and rather-unprepared-for supernatural twist, the songs don’t really mesh with it. But they’re good little toe-tappers while they’re on.
Depressingly, DePalma’s script derives more from the Claude Rains PHANTOM than from the Chaney, despite name-checking that film’s leading lady, Mary Philbin. This means that practically the first half of the movie is an origin saga, before the Faustian pact can get going, and the relationship between the Phantom (William Finlay, still working for BDP in 2006’s THE BLACK DAHLIA) and his muse, Phoenix (Jessica Harper) is relegated to a couple of lines of dialogue. That’s often been my trouble with DePalma’s “sweeping and Wagnerian” romantic side — he can’t spare the time or effort to suggest a real relationship, so the love interest is gestural and generic and totally fails to move me.
But — PHANTOM is so popping with ideas, and so strikingly designed by Jack “the man in the planet” Fisk, that such problems, while certainly central and critical, do not prevent a good time from being had. Meeting Finlay in his pre-phantasmal geekdom robs him of all the grandeur Chaney possessed, but DePalma is aiming for a more pathetic creature of the night anyway, albeit one who has inexplicably acquired the ability to punch through walls.
“Style will always convince cinematic purists that the surfaces they admire contain depth, and that clear shortcomings in disguise. DePalma isn’t logical, so he must be impressionistic. He isn’t realistic, so he must be surrealistic. He isn’t scrupulous, so he must be audacious. He isn’t earnest, so he must be ironical. He isn’t funny, so he must be serious.”
So writes Martin Amis in The Movie Brute, his very funny, grossly unfair but quite well-aimed takedown of DePalma and his pretensions to greatness, written as BDP was shooting BODY DOUBLE (which would have given Amis a lot more grist to his mill had he been able to see it in time). Amis’s sarcastic remarks (leaving aside the fact that most of them could equally well apply to himself) are, in a way, literally true, in not quite the way he means — if only by default, DePalma is surreal and audacious and the rest. He can also occasionally be funny, but perhaps not frequently enough to fill a whole movie. PHANTOM is funny while Gerrit Graham is strutting and preening as rockstar “Beef.” BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES has André Gregory ranting about Don Giovanni (his introduction, given several times: “This is Aubrey Buffing, the poet. He has AIDS.”) RAISING CAIN has a fantastic John Lithgow turn, and another dead child in a fright wig (“It is a bad thing that you are doing!”). WISE GUYS has Joe Piscopo and isn’t funny at all.
DePalma addressed this comedic lack when he appeared at the Edinburgh Film Festival: after averring that he wasn’t afraid of anything, he admitted that he probably wouldn’t be making any more comedies anytime soon. And yet he practically began as a comedy director: that’s one word used to describe GREETINGS and HI MOM! anyway, and then there’s the Tom Smothers movie and PHANTOM. I think maybe DePalma’s sense of humour is a little too outre for popular taste, like Polanski’s, and his technique doesn’t really lend itself to chuckles — I can recall a 360 degree pan in WISE GUYS, and it didn’t really work as a gag-delivery mechanism. Plus Polanski and DePalma can’t help throw in unpleasant little details that make the laughter shrivel in your throat — here there’s a gratuitous tooth-pulling episode that leaves the Phantom with a ritzy set of steel gnashers. He doesn’t USE them, but there they are.
Jessica Harper, who’s had a surprisingly psychotronic career for such a nice-seeming girl (SUSPIRIA, SHOCK TREATMENT, SAFE, even MINORITY REPORT) has a big voice and a beautiful little-girl face. She’s good at looking perplexed, which is helpful here. And she dances like a mad aunty at a drunken party.
I don’t know why Gerrit Graham isn’t at least as famous as, say, Al Pacino. On this evidence, he should have his face on a stamp for services to lisping and mincing. It must be difficult to act this good without attracting the attentions of the vice squad, but anyhow we can cherish him in this film, threatening to erupt all over the audience like a protoplasmic Roman candle, a bipedal outrage who makes overacting a religious calling. He should be in every film, giving this performance. It would improve EVERYTHING.
When he’s not about we can admire Harper and the sets (dressed by Sissy Spacek!) and stare slack-jawed at the multi-talented Paul Williams, with his tiny hairless body, bri-nylon cancer wig, groovy shades and jaunty philtrum (I want a film in which he plays Ron Perlman’s conjoined twin and I want it NOW). DePalma’s nightmarish, nihilistic ending, a sort of gothic Altamont revenger’s tragedy, left me feeling woozy and a little depressed, but I was glad I’d been on the PHANTOM ride. Always, with the pleasure, a little malaise.
1) At Edinburgh Film Fest, DePalma asked his driver, a friend of mine, for a lighter. My friend passed one over. DePalma pocketed it. Are other people just walking dispensers of stuff to Brian?
2) He tried to get a young female producer to sit on his lap, and when she politely declined, he spanked her.
3) Fiona walked with him from one party to another. “How much farther?” whined BDP, like a big baby. Quote from Amis’s profile ~
“‘Hitchcock was sixty when he made PSYCHO. I don’t know if I’ll be able to walk when I’m sixty.’ A curious remark — but then Brian is not a good walker, even now, at forty-four; he is not a talented walker.”
Still, at 69, Brian is still walking and still making films, and they’re still interesting and undiluted and personal. That deserves some credit.