In the movie, The Karate Kid, Daniel Larusso (Ralph Macchio) says the line, “Hey, it’s the 80s!” That is what you can say about movies like Body Double, which came out in 1984.
Brian DePalma was riding high after the success of Scarface and was offered a three-picture deal by Columbia Pictures. The studio was owned by the Coca-Cola Company, which had success with the Karate movie and Ghostbusters earlier that year.
It also found success in the early 1980s with movies such as Tootsie and Ghandi, which won the Oscar for Best Picture. Body Double wasn’t going to win the studio any awards he would be proud of. The Golden Raspberry Awards nominated DePalma for Worst Director.
It was 1984 and that sumbitch Reagan was poisoning middle Americans minds with his “City on a Hill” and “Morning in America” gee-golly-gee attitude as middle America was imploding in on itself.
The 1970s had seen a change in moviemaking the likes we may never see again. Filmmakers no longer had to abide by the Draconian Hays Code. People were saying “fuck” and even fucking on screen.
Deep Throat, Debbie Does Dallas and The Devil in Miss Jones were being shown in theaters with middle-American couples in attendance rather than dirty old men in trench coasts.
Rumors still persist this day that Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie decided to have real sex on screen in Don’t Look Now, even though that’s been highly debated. The same thing was sad about David Carradine and Barbara Hershey in Boxcar Bertha as they were dating at the time.
I think it was Tom Byron, a porn star from the 1970s, who said he was anticipating by the end of the decade to be doing a threesome with Robert DeNiro. Bobby is a method actor but I don’t think he’d go that far.
Harry Reems, who was in Deep Throat, was originally supposed to be cast in Grease but the filmmakers felt it would taint the production and release so Sid Caesar was cast instead.
Body Double explores two genres that are mostly hated by filmmakers, critics and some audiences – horror and porno. If horror is the red-headed stepchild of movies, then porno is the disowned bastard the result of a one-night stand at an insurance convention in Cedar Rapids, Iowa that movies wish would just go away.
Craig Wasson (the thinking man’s Bill Maher) play Jake Scully, an actor who has only appeared in bad movies and roles. When it opens, he’s playing some jazzed up punk vampire in what looks like a soft-core nudie horror movie. Jake suffers from claustrophobia and goes into a panic attack on set.
The director, played by the brilliantly sleazy Dennis Franz, assures him everything is fine and tells him to go home and rest, only to fire him later.
Going home early sets up a string of events. If anyone has seen any movie or TV show where a character arrives home earlier than expected, they know where this is headed. After picking up some food at the iconic Tail o’ the Pup stand, which provides Coke with a nice little advertisement, he comes home all happy to surprise his girlfriend, Carol (Barbara Crampton in her film debut), only to discover she is having sex with another man.
He doesn’t confront her with any words and they exchange looks. They both look surprised but she just gives him a look that says it is what is is as she’s been caught. She’s probably having an affair all when he’s out. He just looks. Then he leaves and heads to the nearest bar.
After crashing on the bartender’s couch at the Hollywood Tower apartments, he goes in searching of a place to stay while looking for acting gigs.
He runs into a fellow actor, Sam Brouchard (Gregg Henry) at two places and Sam is a friend of a friend. Sam comes to Jake’s aide when he is humiliated during an acting exercise at his acting class. Over drinks, Sam tells Jake that he’s leaving for a gig in Seattle but has been stuck house-sitting, and tells Jake he can arrange for him a place to stay.
It just so happens, the house is the iconic Chemosphere and it has a nice vantage point of another house whose female resident does a nice dance while dressed in lingerie and dimly lit rooms.
If you’re thinking this seems all too convenient or you’ve seen this before, then you’re correct in both regards. DePalma was heavily influenced by Alfred Hitchcock and this has elements of Rear Window, Vertigo, and Dial M For Murder and even Psycho. This movie gives away its own twist in its title. If you know what a body double is, you know something just isn’t right.
As the movie’s tagline indicates, “You can’t believe everything you see.”
When we see the woman at other times, she looks different. That’s because and I’m giving away spoilers here but this movie is almost 40 years old, they are two different people. The woman Jake sees at other times is Gloria Revelle (Deborah Shelton), who as Jake observes is being domestically abused by a man in a suit and hat.
There’s also an indigenous Native American workman who also happens to notice the little dance in the window. When Jake thinks this man is following Gloria, he follows her too. The indigenous man is never shown up close as well and there’s a reason. In many scenes, there’s just something that seems off about him.
After helping Gloria out after the indigenous man steals her purse and a card key, they have a moment of passion on the beach but there’s something not real about the background. In an earlier scene where Jake is driving home, the background doesn’t seem real.
What DePalma is doing is playing with our minds. The films he and other filmmakers grew up on used effects instead of realism that we don’t know what we’re seeing is real. And this is to make Jake realize that what’s he’s seeing isn’t the real thing.
Why would a woman dance in lingerie, half-naked in front of a window? And when we first see the workman he is doing some welding late at night. The sparks and lighting alone would have been able to be seen inside the house where Gloria is supposed to be dancing.
Also, Gloria appears to be more timid, introverted and scared in the scenes where she’s out. Why would the same woman be so open in her own home. Even though Shelton played the role, her lines were later re-dubbed by actress Helen Shaver. I think this gives Gloria an even better sense of not being a real person but an infatuation of Jake’s.
Unfortunately, Jake can’t get closer to Gloria as she is the victim of a brutal murder that he witnesses and tries to stop. This scene has been much criticized over the years as the indigenous man uses a huge drill. The way DePalma has shot it has been criticized as the drill bit is considered a phallic symbol.
However, DePalma said that wasn’t the case as his intention was to have Gloria be killed from the second floor while Jake could see the drill through the ceiling on the first floor. In fact, there’s hardly much graphic details. When you look at the Saw movies or the graphic violence of the American Horror Story episodes, it’s very tame. Still, this and how DePalma has portrayed violence against woman has been heavily criticized.
In Scarface, a person has their arms and legs sawed off by a chainsaw and The Untouchables had brutal violence against men. DeNiro as Al Capone bashing a guy’s head in with a baseball bat. Sean Connery using a dead man as a way to get another man to talk by sticking a gun in his mouth and pulling the trigger.
The violence in Body Double is very limited. It’s the use of sexual content that had the MPAA and Coke upset. While watching a pornographic channel, Jake notices that an actress, Holly Body (Melanie Griffith) is dancing just like the woman did in the window.
But Holly is a blonde and the Gloria was a brunette. But the woman in the window’s hair didn’t look natural, almost like a wig. DePalma isn’t trying to pull a twist out of the air. He’s telling us from the start there’s going to be a twist. This is like a magician or an illusionist telling you their tricks and showing it.
If you haven’t already figured it out, for a movie set in the glamour and fantasy of Hollywood, there’s more to Sam Bouchard as well. And there is a reason the indigenous man looks a little strange because it’s Sam in make-up. Sam is also Gloria’s husband. And Jake has been set up all along as a witness to her murder.
One of Hitchcock’s later movies, Frenzy, had us knowing who the killer was, even though the police suspect another person. In Rope, a person is killed at the beginning and the tension is if and when the partygoers will find the body.
Jake is a typical Hitchcockian protagonist. He’s not really a hero, but not really a bad guy. He’s a peeping tom, yes, but is it that bad if someone does it in front of a open window. He’s not a prowler lurking in backyard windows.
I remember when I was in college, I would occasionally walk through parking lots of dorms and see women changing in front of their windows. I didn’t stop and stare but glancing up, I could see them.
Jake is an average guy. There’s a mention that he has quit drinking but he doesn’t resort to alcoholism. Even with actors such as Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart, Hitchcock was able to make them seem average. Jake’s claustrophobia is no different than the vertigo Jimmy Stewart had. Because Jake seek assistance from two joggers in trying to stop Gloria’s murder, the police don’t suspect him, and Gloria contacts them about her stolen card key before her death.
Like Janet Leigh’s character in Psycho, we think Gloria is going to be more than what she is, but she is murdered setting up the second half which switches gears.
And this suddenly takes a turn in the second half as Jake is having to rebuild himself as a sleazy porn star and producer. This leads to a sequence in which what looks like a music video to Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s “Relax” turns into a porno.
This movie is set in a time period where home video was becoming popular and neon lights and nightclubs were more common. Seeing Jake walking around in a brown leather jacket and slick back hair talking so slimy as he interacts with Holly is both comical and tragic as we see that people like Holly interact with these creeps all the type.
The porn industry isn’t run by the Boy Scouts. Most early porno theaters were controlled by the mobs. And for an industry that uses the “cumshot” like punctuation, it’s hard to expect the best out of people. Considering many actors and actresses have to resort to the casting couch even in our modern times, it’s no surprise many people don’t remain in the industry that long.
DePalma wanted porn actress Annette Haven for the role of Holly before Columbia and especially, Coke, said no way. So, Griffith was hired instead with Haven as a consultant. Many actors in the cast aren’t big names or weren’t.
Griffith was just starting out in the business. Her mother is Tippi Hedren, one of Hitchcock’s actresses. Franz was still a character actor before NYPD Blue made him a household name. Wasson had appeared in Ghost Story but has and still remains a character actor himself.
Other actors, such as Shelton, Henry and Guy Boyd, who plays the detective investigating Gloria’s murder, are all character actors. However, Boyd and Henry have had some bigger roles in bigger movies in recent years.
DePalma was intentionally casting actors who he knew weren’t what the studios wanted. This is not to say that Wasson, Henry or Griffith were bad actors but many movies are really star-focused. Here is a movie made by a big studio, owned by an even bigger company, making more or less a B-movie about Hollywood. When Jake goes to auditions, it’s easier to picture him in a room with casting agents and directors looked a little nervous if it was Wasson instead of say, Richard Gere or Jeff Bridges.
Nowadays, meta movies are all the rage. People are able to enjoy movies that don’t take themselves seriously. Take the upcoming The Suicide Squad focusing on lesser known DC Comics characters. People like Easter eggs and in-jokes.
That’s why this movie failed so badly in 1984. Audiences were expecting a run of the mill thriller. And so was the studio. Reportedly, Columbia quickly dissolved the contract using a loophole to avoid legalities. DePalma was barred from entering and his designated parking spot was quickly painted over, according to the legend.
But it wasn’t the last of DePalma. He would continue to work more over the years even returning to Columbia a few years later to do Casualties of War. Griffith’s career took off thanks to roles in Something Wild and Working Girl before hitting mad snags in the 1990s.
Henry would go on to guest star multiple times in multiple roles on Murder, She Wrote before James Gunn began casting him in his movies and his status has improved. He even had a small role in Guardians of the Galaxy.
But mostly, the movie has been largely forgotten by anyone but fans of DePalma. Scarface memorabilia is everywhere. And Mission: Impossible kicked off a franchise for Tom Cruise. The Untouchables got some more attention after Connery’s death last year.
Yet this movie deserves a second look with younger generations who are more interested in movies than their elders were decades ago.