‘Being a bachelor for 38 years,’ says De Palma, is more than enough’
Brian De Palma was familiar with the classic romantic entanglement of director and actress. He dated Margot Kidder when she appeared in his film Sisters in 1973, for instance, and recalls, “In some cases it gets in your way, but Margot was very easy to work with.” Then in the summer of 1978, on the set of his Home Movies, De Palma encountered a more complicated situation, directing Nancy Allen. They were living together and headed for a January wedding.
Nancy met Brian when she read for a part in his biggest hit, Carrie, in 1975 and still sighs, “I never expected to get the job, let alone marry him.” They did not even date until three months after Carrie wrapped, and Nancy admits to qualms about working with her husband. “When things happen on a set and you have disagreements about scenes,” she says, “you want to come home and say, ‘God, do you know what this crazy director wanted me to do today?’ If you’re living with someone and do that, it starts World War III.” So they agreed, says Nancy, “to just go home and go to sleep immediately and not discuss the day at all.”
That modus operandi obviously succeeded, for Allen has the lead in De Palma’s current property, Dressed To Kill. Says the director: “Our relationship developed over a very long period, and it just gets better and better and better.” Coming from a man who once said, “I’ve never married and don’t want to,” and who was called Hollywood’s “coldest hot young director,” that’s giddy talk.
As a counterculture auteur in the late ’60s, he directed Greetings and Hi, Mom!, both black comedies starring the then unknown Robert De Niro. Then came Sisters, a mystery about a schizophrenic Siamese twin, and Obsession, a romantic suspense film that led to De Palma’s comparison with Hitchcock (sometimes unfavorably). But his breakthrough was Carrie, in which Sissy Spacek played a high schooler whose psychic powers enabled her to splatter her enemies all over the scenery. Even though his subsequent The Fury was less successful, De Palma has progressed from a cult director to bankability. “When I started to develop some kind of economic stability, the idea of marriage looked very good to me,” he says now. “Being a bachelor for 38 years is more than enough.”
The son of an orthopedic surgeon and a housewife, De Palma, 39, watched his father in the operating theater back home in Philadelphia and even did bone transplants on animals in his dad’s lab at 17. But Brian felt medicine was “not precise enough.” So he went from a Quaker prep school to studying physics at Columbia and, while taking a master’s at Sarah Lawrence, shot an award-winning film short. He then supported himself making documentaries for the Treasury Department and the NAACP until Greetings, a satire on political activism of the ’60s, won a Silver Bear Award at the 1969 Berlin Film Festival.
Nancy, 29, was born in New York City, the daughter of a police lieutenant and a housewife who sent her to dance class as a kid because “I was so shy I wouldn’t move two steps away from her.” It worked, and she went on to the High School of the Performing Arts and later private dance and acting classes. She began modeling at 15, when she did the first of some 50 TV commercials, and at 22 appeared in The Last Detail with Jack Nicholson. “I had a very small part absolutely no one remembers, which I’m grateful for,” she cracks. But that emboldened her to move to Hollywood and within three months came Carrie.
Nancy had just emerged from a four-year relationship with a photographer when she had her first dinner date with De Palma and “thought, Jesus, he’s a nice guy.” After a three-year commuting courtship (he has always lived in New York), Brian and Nancy were married January 12 by a Unitarian minister in their Greenwich Village duplex. Only her parents, her nephew and two friends were witnesses. Others, guests who were invited to the subsequent party, didn’t know it was a wedding reception. Typically, De Palma assigned a student to film the guests’ reactions as they found out what had happened.
While Home Movies was partially bankrolled by De Palma’s pals Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, and stars Kirk Douglas, it was largely the product of the students in a film class Brian teaches at Sarah Lawrence. Nancy describes her character, the female lead, as “a very suggestible young lady, the kind of girl who’s been led around by men and had a wild sex life, which was professional for a while.” It’s loosely based on a girl De Palma once knew. There’s a limit to the autobiographical content of his work though. Despite the alien quality of many of Brian’s films, Nancy says, they don’t live in the twilight zone. “Brian is not a very weird person,” she says. “He’s got a terrific sense of humor and he’s very loving and warm.”
De Palma doesn’t even believe in the supernatural. He says that telekinesis—the mental power to move things, including a plot, that he employed in Carrie and The Fury—is “just a dramatic device. Going to a movie is like being in a dream, especially if you don’t touch down in reality too much,” he explains. “You can manipulate the audience emotionally with images and get them in a kind of trance. You can get them euphoric and play on things like guilt, anxiety and tension. Dealing with people on a subconscious level is the real power of cinema.” Kirk Douglas says, “Brian is like a brilliant child—every day is fun and nothing bothers him. There is never a catastrophe even when there’s a catastrophe.” Adds Spielberg, “De Palma is the most experimental filmmaker in our group, and he has the most guts.”
While De Palma hasn’t found a distributor for Home Movies yet, he’s already shooting Dressed To Kill, in which Angie Dickinson will play a suburban housewife with an active fantasy life, though Nancy has what he calls “the biggest part in the picture.” Brian creates his films on intricate story boards at his old bachelor apartment, just blocks from the bigger one that Nancy is decorating with country furniture.
Evenings, they go to movies or restaurants in the Village. Says Nancy: “In our business you’re seeing people all the time, so I really like just going home and being alone with Brian.” She enjoys cooking, though she says, “When you’re up at 5 in the morning and get home at 8 at night, the last thing you want to do is start playing Suzy Home-maker.” Her hobbies are photography and swimming, his reading nonfiction. “I’m a Watergate junkie,” he says.
Manhattan discomania is hardly their scene, and the only two times Nancy went to Studio 54 she was turned away. Once it was with Brian and they were armed with an invitation. “We gave our names at the door and they wouldn’t let us in,” recalls Nancy. “They told us to come to the celebrity entrance, and there were 500 ‘celebrities’ there. We’ll never go back.”
Allen is increasingly a celebrity—aside from De Palma films, she recently completed 1941 with Spielberg—but they have other plans. “The thing on my mind most right now is having a few children, very soon,” says Nancy. Brian agrees. And no, they leap to point out, if they have a daughter, she won’t be called Carrie.