Now in his seventies and with a new thriller enjoying controversy, the Exorcist director William Friedkin still knows how to rough up Hollywood
Jeff Dawson Published: Sunday Times Culture, 1 July 2012
From the top of wrought-iron gates, two winged lions scowl. In the hills of Bel Air, where the anonymity of the elite is secured by checkpoints and threats of “armed response”, the gothic adornment is a mischievous clue to the identity of the resident within, best known for directing The Exorcist in 1973.
You press the buzzer, the gates glide open and you park near the sunken tennis court before an exquisite hacienda-style dwelling, framed by palm trees and a kaleidoscopic explosion of bougainvillea. It seems like something out of F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon, the film version of which featured William Friedkin’s first wife, Jeanne Moreau.
True to the old school, there’s not a publicist in sight, no ticking clock. “Call me Bill,” Friedkin says, dispatching the houseboy to fetch morning coffee and croissants, walking me past fine art and a baby grand adorned with photos of Sherry Lansing, his current (fourth) wife, the starlet who rose, in the 1990s, to become the all-powerful head of Paramount Pictures.
Dressed in striped shirt, chinos and trainers, Friedkin has a thick head of hair for a man in his seventies. He looks tanned and healthy. In the outhouse that serves as his office, an exercise bike stands before a flatscreen TV. Piled on the couch are moleskin-bound journals, from which he is compiling his autobiography for HarperCollins.
If there’s a moment to sear Friedkin into Hollywood legend, it’s the night of April 10, 1972, when he won an Oscar for directing the landmark cop thriller The French Connection, beating Norman Jewison, Peter Bogdanovich, John Schlesinger and Stanley Kubrick. His award was introduced by Jack Lemmon and presented by Natalie Wood and Frank Capra. Upstairs, on the gallery where he keeps his desk, Friedkin points to a framed envelope, with Capra’s name pencilled on the flap. “You should add one more thing,” he says. “That was the night Charlie Chaplin was welcomed back with an honorary Academy Award.”
Then 32, or so it is said, Friedkin is supposedly the youngest recipient of the best director accolade, although, given Hollywood’s capacity to lie through its teeth regarding dates of birth (Friedkin may well have been 36), nobody is entirely sure.
In Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, the set text about the 1970s new wave, Friedkin is described as “a tough critter. He didn’t give a f*** about anybody else that walked the face of the earth... unfettered by the usual Hollywood inhibitions”. Certainly, it’s been a strange ride. Lately, Friedkin has diverted into opera, directing The Tales of Hoffman in Vienna. This month sees the release of Killer Joe, a low-budget psychological thriller from the pen of the Pulitzer-winning playwright Tracy Letts — “One of the few who can be compared with Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. He’s that good” — and with whom Friedkin collaborated on 2006’s critically lauded horror flick Bug. Billed as “a totally twisted deep-fried Texas redneck trailer park murder story”, the film sees Matthew McConaughey — detective by day, contract killer by night — give a revelatory performance, exuding the raw power he displayed before the contractual shirtlessness and the romcoms with Kate Hudson.
If Killer Joe illustrates one thing, it is Friedkin’s continued fascination with moral complexity. “There are dual sides to our nature, and that’s what attracts me — the constant tension between good and evil that’s in all of us.”
Realism has always been essential, too. Such characters do exist, Friedkin says, as he learnt when researching The French Connection. “I knew a lot of guys in New York who did what Joe did, ex-cops who were also contract killers. If you met them, they were ordinarily decent, wonderful guys. Meanwhile, they were doing this other stuff.”
The French Connection’s impact came in part through the hand-held vérité camera techniques Friedkin had acquired in his early career as a documentarian. “I found that I was more interested in spontaneity than perfection.” The Exorcist, meanwhile, was the author William Peter Blatty’s fictionalised version of a real event that took place in Maryland in 1949. Among others, Cruising (1980), with Al Pacino as a cop who goes undercover in New York’s hardcore gay scene, was filmed amid the genuine S&M fleshpots. Deemed exploitative at the time, it is now regarded as a historical pre-Aids curio.
Born in Chicago, the son of a clothes retailer, Friedkin fell in love with Citizen Kane and left school to work in the mail room of his local TV station, WGN, swiftly progressing through the ranks and directing by 22. Once, while helming The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, he was dressed down by the great man for not wearing a tie. Years later, at an award ceremony, he got his revenge: “I was wearing a rented tux. I went and snapped my bow tie at him — ‘How d’ya like the tie now, Hitch?’” He laughs. “He stared at me. He had no memory of it.”
The late 1960s saw him move into features, with the Sonny and Cher romp Good Times and the burlesque comedy The Night They Raided Minsky’s. He also made a screen version of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party. “I learnt everything I know about drama from a year I spent with him in London.” And, absolutely not for the last time, Friedkin courted controversy with The Boys in the Band, a gay-themed parlour piece that set off in a lifelong battle with the censors. (Killer Joe has been slapped with a restricted NC-17 rating in America.) By the time of The French Connection, with its winning performances by the little-known Gene Hackman (as Popeye Doyle) and Roy Scheider, not to mention the famous car chase, Friedkin was big news, a rare master of drama and action. The sensation caused by his follow-up, The Exorcist, with its bannings and mass hysteria, put Friedkin at the top of the directors’ A-list.
So impressed was Hollywood, it started ripping him off. The French Connection begat The French Connection II, with no official involvement from Friedkin: “I’d finished with it. I had nothing more to say.” That was nothing compared to the abominations passed off as Exorcist sequels, which were still being churned out as recently as 2005, again without his participation. “They’re awful beyond description,” he winces.
A great raconteur, Friedkin details the premiere of the execrable The Exorcist II: The Heretic. “About 10 minutes into the film, a guy stood up in the audience and shouted, ‘The people who made this piece of shit are in this room.’” The Warner Brothers dignitaries had to flee before an angry mob. “I seem to be telling that story with great relish,” he adds. “And I do have great relish.”
For someone who exudes the air of a genteel academic, Friedkin earned a reputation as a bruiser. He once declared that, were he not a director, he’d have been a serial killer. “It’s a bit of an exaggeration,” he muses. “But from time to time, I’ve had the impulse to kill.” On The Exorcist, he allegedly fired a gun behind the head of the actor Jason Miller to shake up his performance. He also delivered a full-on slap to the face of Father William O’Malley — a genuine priest, rather than a trained actor — to elicit the correct look of shock on screen, a trick “the old-timers used to use all the time”, he explains. “He thanked me for it and blessed me for it.”
Unfortunately, between marriages (including to the British actress Lesley-Anne Down and the newscaster Kelly Lange) following relationships with Howard Hawks’s daughter, Kitty, and the dancer Jennifer Nairn-Smith, his work became less “in sync with the zeitgeist”, as he puts it. One of his favourites, the 1977 thriller Sorcerer, tanked. His stylish 1985 counterfeiting film, To Live and Die in LA, came only to be appreciated retrospectively, although it did introduce the actor William Petersen, one of whose later episodes of the television show CSI Friedkin directed.
In 1995 came Jade, a big, glossy noir penned by Joe Eszterhas, an inferior retread of the writer’s Basic Instinct. Friedkin’s big-budget tale about Middle East terrorism, Rules of Engagement (2000), was slammed as anti-Arab in the PC climate pre-9/11.
Friedkin confesses he doesn’t watch much these days. “When I started, films were largely influenced by literature. Films today are largely based on comic books and video games. You don’t have to think any more.” He reserves his biggest tirade for the onslaught of 3D and the vacuous blockbuster showmanship of the likes of James Cameron, cited as a presence every bit as demonic as anything Max Von Sydow had to contend with. “You want to see the pyramids in 3D?” he growls. “Go the hell over to Egypt.”
Notwithstanding his concession that “film is a young man’s game”, the passion still burns. There’s the book to finish. Then there’s his next screen outing, Trapped, by the British writer Gary Young, who wrote Harry Brown.
Back in the blazing sun, Friedkin offers a thank-you. “You know, all most people ever want to know about is how I got Linda Blair’s head to spin around.” He nips off and returns with a volume of criticism by Ruskin. He selects a quotation, aimed at Cameron, about a charlatan architect who seeks to draw attention to the individual quality of his bricks.
He adds another one, from memory, by the producer David Brown, partner of Richard Zanuck, aimed not a little at himself. “Those whom the gods would destroy, they first make successful in showbusiness.”