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Ladies Love Cool De Palma

by Jason Adams

It's the 78th birthday of the director slash living legend Brian De Palma today. Did everybody watch Noah Baumbach & Jake Paltrow's 2015 documentary aka an excuse to listen to Brian De Palma tell movie stories for two hours? I've watched it four times now and I'm still nowhere near sick of it - I wish they'd just release the hundreds of hours of raw footage they took so I can just wade in there and never come back again.

Anyway I decided that the best way to celebrate one of my favorite movie-makers today (as he prepares to maybe make a Harvey Weinstein movie next, a real tighrope of a proposition there) is to celebrate a few of the great roles he's given actresses over the years. Here are five favorites (well technically six but you can't make me choose between the first two) -- feel free to add your own in the comments!

Sissy Spacek & Piper Laurie in Carrie

Nancy Allen in Blow Out

Margot Kidder in Sisters

Angie Dickinson in Dressed to Kill

... and of course Michelle Pfieffer in Scarface

Runners-up: Carla Gugino in Snake Eyes, Amy Irving in The Fury, Rebecca Romijn in Femme Fatale, Melanie Griffith in Body Double, Rachel McAdams in Passion and Fiona Shaw in The Black Dahlia (and I won't hear otherwise)

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Reader Comments (16)

You left out Mia Kirshner, best in show IMO in Dahlia, even before Shaw (whom I think is aces in it)

September 11, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterPeter

You're not wrong about Mia K, Peter, she is super in it. It's just that whenever I think of that movie my brain is swallowed up by memories of Shaw, probably because she crawled out of the screen and literally chewed up my brain with her performance.

September 11, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJason


I would add Geneviève Bujold (OBSESSION) and Lolita Davidovich (RAISING CAIN) too. Dickinson's my fave of them all.

September 11, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Carden

Jason, yes those Shaw scenes are...something. The second one is so poorly written and convoluted it’s kind of astonishing how she manages to rise above it all. Kirshner just disturbs me so much in that movie, the scene where she’s telling a (probably fictional) story about her lover being shot down in a plane gave me nightmares, she looks so tired a strung out (de Palma almost does to good a job as the skeevy casting director off screen. The whole thing reminds me of the way Jack Nicholson talks to Shelley Duvall in the shining, before the full on crazy)

September 11, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterPeter

Also I’m about to commit blasphemy and say I would take mastrioni over pfeiffer in Scarface any day, and I LOVE Pfeiffer (I just don’t really get the huplah there, it’s not much of a role compared to her counterpart in the original whose way tougher and more active).

September 11, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterPeter

These are all super choices. And now I'm wishing there was a Nancy Allen in De Palma films write-up to read.

September 11, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterScottC

For me, the five best female performances in a de Palma film are:

1. Piper Laurie-Carrie
2. Sissy Spacek-Carrie
3. Angie Dickinson-Dressed to Kill
4. Margot Kidder-Sisters
5. Nancy Allen-Dressed to Kill

I love Brian de Palma and I have seen that doc as I feel the man doesn't get enough credit for what he's done. Plus, I think when it comes to directing women. He is also underrated in that as he manages to do more with women than what most filmmakers do with them.

Plus, how can anyone not love what Amy Irving did at the end of The Fury?

September 11, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterthevoid99

For a director often considered a misogynist, his films are certainly filled with warmly conceived, three dimensional female characters. Many women did some of their best work in DePalma films, and that can't be happenstance.

September 11, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterDan H

All the female cast of Carrie for me - everybody fantastic(the movie had all to be a disaster). Ironically, I think his most perfect one is all male, The Untouchables.

September 11, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterGwen

I will vote for Jennifer Salt in Sisters. "There was no body because there was no murder!"

September 11, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterAdam Lewis

I don't really get Nancy Allen—AT ALL—but the rest of your top five* are aces. Melanie Griffith in Body Double definitely belongs in the top five. (It is astonishing, as oft-maligned an actress as she is, that she managed to do Body Double, Something Wild, Stormy Monday *and* Working Girl all back-to-back.)

@Peter, to your point, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio certainly is doing more "actressing" than Michelle Pfeiffer in Scarface, but Pfeiffer is doing "attitude" and style in such vividly memorable ways that it's hard to take your eyes off her. And Fiona Shaw and Mia Kirshner are so clearly MVPs that every other character seems so ordinary/secondary. I mean, Scarlett Johansson *looks* the part but can't it, and Hilary Swank can *act* the vampy part but doesn't look it. (That multiple references to how much she looks like the Black Dahlia were made still makes me LOL.)

Speaking of The Shining, it's remarkable that Brian De Palma and Jack Nicholson *never* worked together. Their pairing seems so obvious but never materialized. But kudos to De Palma for giving un(der)known actresses like Carla Gugino, Griffith, Pfeiffer, Rebecca Romijn and Sissy Spacek such actually or potentially star-making roles. Not many male directors take that many gambles that often.

September 11, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMareko

My 5:

1. Sissy Spacek & Piper Laurie - Carrie (I also refuse to choose).
2. Michelle Pfeiffer - Scarface.
3. Angie Dickinson - Dressed to Kill.
4. Nancy Allen - Blow Out.
5. Rachel McAdams - Passion.

September 11, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterthefilmjunkie

My 5:

1. Nancy Allen, Blow Out (her heart, soul, and likability makes the tragedy at the end so unbearable that it likely killed the film’s chances of being a hit.)
2. Amy Irving, The Fury (her heart, soul, and likability make the ultra-violent ending the glorious surprise that it is.
3. Sissy Spacek, Carrie (her wounded vulnerability makes the horror all that much more horrifying and makes it—that word again—tragic in an almost Grecian sense.)
4. Angie Dickenson, Dressed to Kill (her warmth—both maternal and sexual--makes her death halfway through every bit as much a comic slap in the face as Marion Crane’s in Psycho.)
5. Carrie Snodgress, The Fury (a great comic turn. Her rapport with Kirk Douglas is a beautiful thing to behold.)

September 12, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterDan H

Betty Buckley for Carrie (and she was terrific this last season of Preacher). Follow her on Twitter (LOL, but do it).

September 12, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMe34

1) Sissy Spacek & Piper Laurie in Carrie*
2) Mia Kirshner & Fiona Shaw in The Black Dahlia (Like you could choose...)
3) Michelle Pfeiffer in Scarface
4) Rachel McAdams in Passion
5) Rebecca Romijn in Femme Fatale

*Honorable Mention to Betty Buckley

September 12, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterEli

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September 13, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterpexe jurer

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