The Wedding Party (1963): Really Young Young Robert De Niro and Jill Clayburgh

In 1963, Brian De Palma made his first movie, basically a student film, co-directed with Wilford Leach. (It’s listed as 1969, because that’s when it was completed, and got released, because of De Niro/De Palma’s rising stardom. It’s just been released again in a new “early De Palma and De Niro” box set, with The Wedding Pary, Greetings and Hi Mom!). The Wedding Party brings in every cliche in the book: a young guy about to be married travels to Shelter Island before the wedding, meets his prospective wife’s slightly terrifying rich family, and on the eve of the wedding starts to freak out, egged on by his two rowdy friends (one of whom is played by De Niro). Now it’s 1963, okay. So we’re talking pre-ERA, pre-birth-control-pill, pre-women’s-liberation. Not that women hadn’t been bucking against constrictions and limitations and unfairness for centuries, but here, you can still feel the 50s’ influence on the characters. There are sections in the film that unfold in speeded-up fashion, like a Keystone Cops film, an early silent, and the sound is sometimes dubbed in later, giving an eerie dissociated quality.

This is Robert De Niro’s first film. This is Jill Clayburgh’s first film. It’s fascinating to see them before they became themselves.

Young pudgy Robert De Niro is cast as “one of the guys,” a rowdy friend of the bridegroom. It’s total miscasting, but he’s so young he doesn’t know it yet. It’s touching to watch him try to do what the character requires: being rowdy and funny and girl-crazy and joshing around with his friends. It doesn’t fit him at all! Already, it doesn’t fit. There’s something unformed in him, he doesn’t register, you would never pick him out for Great Things. It would take almost a decade – the decade where the culture broke apart, where things got ugly, where the studio system collapsed and independent film rose, where certainties vanished, where Bonnie & Clyde happened, ushering in violence on film … all of that … it would take all of that for films to catch up with him, to present him with the roles where he could actually use that unformed anti-social part of himself, the part of him as a person that “doesn’t register”. Because Travis Bickle “doesn’t register.” Travis is a void. De Niro understood that void. Robert De Niro didn’t need “forming.” He needed “revealing.” But who could even see it yet at this early point? But he tries in The Wedding Party and it’s sweet to see the attempt.

There’s also Jill Clayburgh, timorous and needy, girlish and hovering. She takes tiny little steps, meant to be funny I think, and she’s all slumped posture and body shape. Again, it would take the 1970s to unleash Jill Clayburgh, to make her THE symbol of the burgeoning women’s movement. There’s not even the slightest indication here of what is to come.

Except … that they’re both working, and working hard. They’re where they need to be.

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