Repurposing the Past: Intertextuality and Satire in De Palma’s PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE, BODY DOUBLE, and THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES by Justin Macy

In a career lasting from 1968 (when his earliest features were released) to 2019, (with his most recent film Domino) Brian De Palma has worked with a variety of forms, genres, and themes. De Palma started out making experimental films and anti-establishment comedies before he found great success with Hitchcockian thrillers, and then moved into larger and more prestigious productions. As he described in Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s documentary De Palma (2016), the reception of his films varied, from acclaimed films like The Untouchables (1986) and Mission Impossible (1996) to the critically panned Mission to Mars (2000).[1] Despite this variety in material and reception, De Palma’s films always contain rich intertextual references and timely satire.

Phantom of the Paradise (1974), a relatively early De Palma film, blends aspects of musicals, comedies, and traditional monster movies. Body Double (1984), set in Hollywood in the 1980s, is a taut thriller. The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990) is a high-budget, star-studded adaptation of the novel of the same name by Tom Wolfe. These three films are not among the most successful films of De Palma’s career, so rather than being indicative of De Palma’s peaks as a commercial artist, they demonstrate the usual range of styles in which he worked.

By looking at these three films, some points of De Palma’s authorship will be explored in detail. Brian De Palma uses intertextuality to satirize both the works that he draws from and the institutions present in those works. By transforming the entertainment industry, the male gaze, and the discourse around race in the media into objects of ridicule, De Palma opens up these targets to new understanding, as well as further criticism and deconstruction. Lessons can be taken from De Palma’s worldview and applied both in art and in life.

Phantom of the Paradise is woven with intertextual references, in the plot, the music, and the production style. The plot of Phantom of the Paradise is inspired by the stories of Faust, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and The Phantom of the Opera. The fictional bands featured in the film, as Annette Davison writes, include a band modeled after the1950s styled rock’n’roll group Sha Na Na, and similar parodies of the surf rock style of the Beach Boys, as well as the horror rock group Alice Cooper.[2] The production design, according to Davis, “references… German Expressionist film, especially The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).”[3] De Palma blends these disparate elements into a wild yet cohesive story about music and lost love. In reference to Faust, the German legend of a man who trades his soul to the devil in exchange for worldly knowledge and pleasure, similar deals are made for people’s souls. A video tape of one of those deals stays as a record, and prevents a character from aging, like the titular picture of Dorian Gray. The character of Winslow Leach, played by William Finley, who is severely disfigured before becoming the “Phantom” and haunting the Paradise “rock palace” is, along with the title of the film, a clear homage to The Phantom of the Opera.

Transposing these intertextual references to the setting in the modern rock music industry provides a background for De Palma to make his points about creativity and how financial decisions can corrupt art. In the music industry, profit is often held as more important than quality, and originality can quickly turn into cliche. Phantom of the Paradise explores this idea, satirizing this system that devalues creativity. Following the opening number, the 1950s styled pop song “Goodbye Eddie, Goodbye,” we are introduced to Leach’s “Faust” cantata, an emotionally raw piece of music telling the story of Faust and his longing for love. The music is then stolen by Swan and Philbin, who, in spite of Leach’s convictions that only he can sing his cantata, begin auditioning female singers. After an accident that disfigures Leach, his first act of terror against the “Paradise” occurs in the sequence in which “Upholstery,” a surf rock song, is rehearsed, featuring the music from Leach’s “Faust,” with Leach’s emotional rawness replaced by “The Beach Bum’s” pop banality.

The two Faustian bargains in Phantom of the Paradise work to illustrate De Palma’s view of the music industry, and by extension the film industry that De Palma was disillusioned with at the time. As he describes in De Palma, the production of Get to Know Your Rabbit (1972) at Warner Bros. Inc. left him “devastated” and feeling “finished.”[4] He felt as though his work was taken away from him by the studio, the same way that Winslow Leach’s “Faust” cantata is taken from him by Swan. The Faustian bargains work as a perfect metaphor, as selling one’s art is easily conflated with selling one’s soul, and when an artist makes the decision to put the studio’s desires ahead of their own vision, it can be a trap that is hard to escape from.

Body Double is De Palma’s most Hitchcockian film in a career full of films influenced by Alfred Hitchcock’s plotlines, style, black comedy, and suspense. Combining elements of Rear Window (1954) and Vertigo (1958), both directed by Alfred Hitchcock, De Palma creates in Body Double a meditation on fear and obsession. Just like James Stewart’s character L.B. Jefferies from Rear Window, the protagonist Jake Scully, played by Craig Wasson, watches a neighbor voyeuristically as she dances in front of her window each night and, due to his voyeuristic habit, becomes witness to a murder. Similar to Stewart’s Scottie Ferguson in Vertigo, he falls in love with a woman who is murdered, before he sees another woman who resembles her. Like the main character in Vertigo, Scully has a crippling fear: this time claustrophobia. By combining elements of these Hitchcock movies into his own film, De Palma is able to use Hitchcock’s themes and techniques to his own ends, in order to further analyze the ideas present in Hitchcock’s work.

Body Double functions as an exploration of the male gaze. Scully falls in love in a purely scopophilic way and is shown in parallel with the killer, the “Indian,” as someone for whom women are objects of visual pleasure. Scully first sees the “Indian” as they both watch Scully’s neighbor, Gloria Revelle, played by Deborah Shelton. Scully then follows Revelle and the “Indian” through a mall and to a beach, before finally explaining to her that she is being followed, a confusing statement, as she is aware that Scully was following her. The “Indian” then steals Revelle’s bag, and Scully chases him into a tunnel, before panicking due to his claustrophobia. Scully and Revelle then passionately kiss in an over-the-top scene that plays as pure fantasy. By showing the male gaze and male fantasy in this over-the-top way, De Palma satirizes these concepts that have driven Hollywood films as long as they have existed. By giving the audience exactly what they want, De Palma makes light of these desires while drawing attention to them.

David Greven writes about De Palma’s Hitchcock influence in Psycho-Sexual, that “De Palma uses these more obvious borrowings as a point of departure for the more serious business of investigating and reimagining Hitchcock’s formal and thematic concerns.”[5] The sequence in which Jake Scully follows Gloria Revelle through a mall, closely mirrors a similar scene in Vertigo. While Hitchcock plays the scene straight, with irony only taken on by the audience watching the film, De Palma bakes humor into his sequence. In Vertigo, as shown in Figure 1, Scottie Ferguson’s gaze drives the film forward, with the audience taking on his perspective. In Body Double, shown in figure 2, the camera always watches Jake Scully watching, providing an exterior perspective, never fully immersing the audience in the male point of view. As opposed to the dreamlike romanticism of the sequence in Vertigo, De Palma opts for a comic realism, reflecting the creepiness of the scenario.


Figure 1 from VERTIGO.


Figure 2 from BODY DOUBLE.


In making The Bonfire of the Vanities, Brian De Palma adapted Tom Wolfe’s acclaimed novel, by drawing on a variety of sources including classic Hollywood films, as well as his own films, to change the source material into something uniquely his own. De Palma’s process on The Bonfire of the Vanities is documented in The Devil’s Candy: The Bonfire of the Vanities Goes to Hollywood by Julie Salamon. Salamon describes the casting of Tom Hanks, who had recently had great success in Big (1988) and was gaining a reputation as the “American everyman,” as Sherman McCoy, the unlikeable main character of Wolfe’s novel.[6] This casting choice was not De Palma’s, but was instead that of producer Peter Guber.[7] In order to make the casting work, De Palma transforms McCoy into a classic Hollywood protagonist, akin to characters played by James Stewart and Gary Cooper in films like those of Frank Capra. Drawing on this classic Hollywood influence, De Palma was able to turn a dark novel into a film that the studio would accept.

With The Bonfire of the Vanities, De Palma satirizes the news media and race relations, drawing attention to those, particularly in the media, who use racial conflict for their own personal gains. After Sherman McCoy and his mistress Maria Ruskin, played by Melanie Griffith, hit a young Black man with McCoy’s car, there “begins a descent into urban hell for McCoy, in which all of the various interests in the City begin circling like carrion eaters, the wounded ‘master of the universe.’”[8] In depicting Sherman McCoy’s downfall, De Palma plays the loss of privilege with a mix of humor and poignancy.

Film critic for The New Yorker Pauline Kael wrote in her review of The Bonfire of the Vanities that “De Palma… had already made his Bonfire of the Vanities… the daring race-relations jamboree Hi, Mom! (1970).”[9] Hi, Mom! depicts race relations in American culture with the main character, Jon Rubin, played by Robert De Niro, as a young man who recently returned from the Vietnam War falling in with a group of Black radicals, who are putting on an experimental theater piece called “Be Black Baby!” During this sequence, De Palma explores racial conflict through a film of the performance, in which the mostly white spectators are forced to endure negative experiences, up to and including police brutality and rape, that are regularly experienced by Black people in America. In The Bonfire of the Vanities, De Palma repeats this idea, with Sherman McCoy’s fall from his high position in Wall Street, to his treatment as a criminal and as low class in the eyes of his aristocratic peers. For the first time in his life, McCoy experiences life outside of his position of privilege, just as the audience of “Be Black Baby!” experiences.

Another self-referential feature of De Palma’s filmmaking in The Bonfire of the Vanities appears in De Palma’s use of the split-screen technique. The split-screen sequence in The Bonfire of the Vanities works as an impressive, layered commentary on media and political exploitation of racial conflict. The scene draws on the pop culture iconography of the Reverends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, who made careers due to media prominence in the 1980s, as well as journalist and tabloid talk show host Geraldo Rivera, who appears in the scene playing a character loosely based on himself. The character of Reverend Bacon, played by John Hancock and based on Jackson and Sharpton, is shown making a spectacle out of the call for justice for the injury of Henry Lamb in a news program being broadcast by Rivera’s character. De Palma uses his signature split-screen technique, which he describes in De Palma as giving the audience “a chance to… put two images together simultaneously.”[10] It works extensively in The Bonfire of the Vanities in order to show, in a single sequence, the production of the program, the program itself, and the reception of the program by Mayor Weiss, played by F. Murray Abraham.

The sequence begins with Bacon explaining to Peter Fallow, played by Bruce Willis, that he is not interested in the truth, instead “show business.” Bacon then puts on his show, with a gospel choir, staged protesters, and an impassioned speech, calling on Weiss to catch the hit-and-run driver, whom he does not yet know to be the white, upper-class McCoy and Ruskin. The audience sees, in the other half of the split-screen, Rivera’s character, broadcasting this exaggerated scene, much like he did with similar scenes in real life. When Mayor Weiss is mentioned, Rivera’s side of the screen quickly cuts to the Mayor’s office, where Weiss determines, in a flurry of racial slurs, that he will catch the culprit in order to win over Black voters. By showing the way that three figures, based on the popular media status of several noteworthy people, use a tragedy to their own personal ends, De Palma shows how those real figures exploit conflict and tragedy.

The world that De Palma creates is an exaggerated one in order to send a message. By shining a light on the corrupt systems that run our world and providing a rich array of art that reflects this corruption, Brian De Palma repurposes, through his satirical films, the classic Hollywood mythology that has defined these systems for the public. Through explorations of the entertainment industry, the male gaze, the media industry, and racial conflict in America, De Palma shows the opportunism and corruption that keeps oppressive systems in place, systems that control and harm artists, women, ethnic minorities, and the public as a whole.



[1] De Palma, directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, (2016; New York City, NY: A24), YouTube.

[2] Annette Davison, “Deals with the Devil: Faust, Contracts, and the Dangers of Mechanical Reproduction in Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise (1974),” The Opera Quarterly 34, no. 2–3 (2018): 201–220.

[3] Davison, “Deals with the Devil,” 208.

[4] De Palma.

[5] David Greven, Psycho-Sexual (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2014), 210.

[6] Julie Salamon, The Devil’s Candy: The Bonfire of the Vanities Goes to Hollywood (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2002), 10.

[7] Salamon, The Devil’s Candy, 8.

[8] James A. Clapp, “‘Are You Talking to Me?’—New York and the Cinema of Urban Alienation.” Visual Anthropology 18, no. 1 (2005): 10.

[9] Pauline Kael, “Vanity, Vanities,” The New Yorker, (January 14, 1991): 79.

[10] De Palma.