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R.I.P. Film and Opera Renaissance Director William Friedkin (1935-2023)

A still from the 2019 documentary, "Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on 'The Exorcist.'"

I was so sad to hear of the death of celebrated filmmaker William "Billy" Friedkin, a director who made one of my favorite films of all time, and who was much admired by my late husband, Roger. I send the deepest condolences to his wife, Sherry Lansing, and their family. I knew both Billy and Sherry as lovely, decent people who, in addition to their talent in the film world, were also philanthropic and reached out to lend a hand in various charitable endeavors. 

Personally, I am so grateful to Billy (and Sherry) for being so helpful when Roger was sick, helping to lift Roger's spirits when he was in the hospital. And helping to lift mine after his death. Even though they both went on to make names for themselves in Hollywood, they both retained those kind Midwestern (Chicago) values. He died yesterday, August 7th, at the age of 87. 

I am on the board of the LA Opera, and the President and CEO, Christopher Koelsch, notified us of the quite extensive opera background of Friedkin's that I was not aware of. "Billy had a profound impact on the LAO community with his extraordinarily insightful and extremely popular productions of Bluebeard's Castle/Gianni Schicchi (2002), Ariadne auf Naxos (2004) and Il Tabarro/Suor Angelica (2008)," he wrote. "He also won acclaim for productions around the world, including WozzeckThe Makropoulos Case and Rigoletto in Florence, Salome in Munich, and Aida in Turin." 

William Friedkin and Sherry Lansing. Photo credit: Kristy Sparow / Getty Images

Billy's talents extended far and wide, even saving someone from death row. Interestingly, he told Donald Liebenson, one of our Contributors at Rogerebert.com, that when he made his first film, 1962's "The People vs. Paul Crump," I had the hope, but not the certainty, that it would help Crump in some way and that it would in some way be the beginning of an education for me in how to make a film.” But his actions led to Paul Crump being taken off of death row. 

Roger saw the potential in Friedkin's work early on, praising his 1968 film, "The Night They Raided Minsky's," writing, "It avoids the phony glamour and romanticism that the movies usually use to smother burlesque (as in 'Gypsy') and it really seems to understand this most-American art form." Roger also favored Friedkin's 1969 adaptation of Harold Pinter's "The Birthday Party," claiming that "it's impossible to imagine a better film of Pinter's play than this sensitive, disturbing version."

Yet it was in 1971's "The French Connection" where Friedkin's genius was on full display, particularly in its landmark car chase sequence. "In Friedkin's chase, the cop has to weave through city traffic at 70 m.p.h. to keep up with a train that has a clear track: The odds are off-balance," marveled Roger in his four-star review. "And when the train's motorman dies and the train is without a driver, the chase gets even spookier: A man is matched against a machine that cannot understand risk or fear. This makes the chase psychologically more scary, in addition to everything it has going for it visually." The film went on to win five Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director.

Friedkin's next picture, 1973's "The Exorcist," is on my Top Ten List of Movies. It is also the one for which he is most widely remembered, in part because it continues to frighten audiences a half-century after its release. "If movies are, among other things, opportunities for escapism, then 'The Exorcist' is one of the most powerful ever made," Roger wrote in his four-star review. "Our objections, our questions, occur in an intellectual context after the movie has ended. During the movie there are no reservations, but only experiences. We feel shock, horror, nausea, fear, and some small measure of dogged hope." In 1979's "The Brink's Job," Roger wrote in his three-star review that Friedkin affirmed his versatility by exhibiting "a light touch, an ability to orchestrate rich human humor with a bunch of characters who look like they were born to stand in a police lineup."

Roger said that Friedkin crafted another of the all-time great chase sequences in 1985's "To Live and Die in L.A." "I don't know how Friedkin choreographed this scene, and I don't want to know," Roger wrote in his four-star review. "It probably took a lot of money and a lot of drivers. All I know is that there are high-angle shots of the chase during which you can look a long way ahead and see hundreds of cars across four lanes, all heading for the escape car, which is aimed at them, full speed. It is an amazing sequence.

1992's "Rampage" offered a different angle on the death penalty debate, as detailed in Roger's three-star review: "Friedkin does not quite say so in as many words, but his message is clear: Those who commit heinous crimes should pay for them, sane or insane." 1994's "Blue Chips" also received thumbs up from Roger, who wrote, "What Friedkin brings to the story is a tone that feels completely accurate; the movie is a morality play, told in the realistic, sometimes cynical terms of modern high-pressure college sports."

 For 2003's "The Hunted," Roger found that the director had stretched his mastery of the chase sequence to feature-length. "Here the whole movie is a chase, sometimes at a crawl, as when Hallam drives a stolen car directly into a traffic jam," he wrote in his three-and-a-half star review. "What makes the movie fresh is that it doesn't stand back and regard its pursuit as an exercise, but stays very close to the characters and focuses on the actual physical reality of their experience"

Roger awarded another three and a half stars to Friedkin's 2007 adaptation of Tracy Letts' hit play, "Bug," which he hailed as "a claustrophobic masterpiece" and a "return to form" for the director. The final Friedkin film reviewed by Roger was another Letts adaptation, 2012's "Killer Joe," which he praised in his three-star review as "one hell of a movie. It left me speechless. I can't say I loved it. I can't say I hated it. It is expertly directed, flawlessly cast and written with merciless black humor." 

After Roger passed away in 2013, Billy Friedkin paid tribute to him at the inaugural Chicago Critics Film Festival by quoting a verse from Dylan Thomas' poem, "And Death Shall Have No Dominion," which I am now quoting today in the director's honor...  Billy, I hope you Rest in Bliss.

“And death shall have no dominion.

Dead men, naked, they shall be one

With the man in the wind, and the west moon;

Though they go mad

They shall be sane,

Though they sink through the sea

They shall rise again;

Though lovers be lost

Love shall not;

And death shall have no dominion.”

Read Scout Tafoya's tribute to William Friedkin here, and the tributes penned by various RogerEbert.com contributors here.

Chaz Ebert

Chaz is the CEO of several Ebert enterprises, including the President of The Ebert Company Ltd, and of Ebert Digital LLC, Publisher of RogerEbert.com, President of Ebert Productions and Chairman of the Board of The Roger and Chaz Ebert Foundation, and Co-Founder and Producer of Ebertfest, the film festival now in its 24th year.

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