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Director defends new `Exorcist' cut

For 27 years he defended his original cut of "The Exorcist," says William Friedkin, who directed the timeless horror classic.

For all of those years, William Peter Blatty, who wrote the original novel and screenplay and produced the film, argued for a longer version.

"I finally heard something in his voice a year ago that made me want to go back and look at it again," said Friedkin. "It wasn't easy for me to say to him after 27 years: `You know what? I think I was wrong.' " Friedkin's new version, 11 minutes longer than the 1973 original, opened in theaters Friday to reviews that generally agreed the film still holds the power to shock and entertain. But some critics, myself included, questioned a revised ending.

And I also suggested that the new version might have less to do with art than with marketing. That was why Friedkin called me Friday, and why he was mad.

I wrote: "While these scenes may have various rationales in the minds of Friedkin and Blatty, they have one obvious rationale in the thinking at the studio: They provide an excuse for the theatrical re-release, and will help sell the video, even to those who already own the earlier version."

I could hear the anger in his voice.

"You can say you don't like this version, and that's fine," Friedkin told me.

"But to call it a marketing ploy is way off-base. We had to take them to the wall to release this version.

The studio (Warner Bros.) was never in favor of it. They wanted it to open in two theaters in New York and Los Angeles. We had to fight them to even think about it.

They hate us because we forced them to do this by exercising a load of muscle, and if it turns out to be successful, it has nothing to do with them."

According to Friedkin, the current command at Warner Bros. has no stake in the film "because they weren't around when it was made."

When the original version was re-released in England a year ago and grossed $13 million in a month, he said, the studio was unhappy because "it outgrossed their own new picture, 'Lethal Weapon 4,' and that made them look bad."

It has been known for years that Friedkin and Blatty disagreed about the final cut of the film. Friedkin showed studio executives a cut that was about 140 minutes long. The studio wanted it trimmed to two hours, fearing the longer running time would turn off audiences.

Friedkin trimmed it and liked his trims, feeling the 120-minute version was tauter.

"When the picture came out," he recalled, "Bill was vitriolic. He was harsh. He would denounce the picture. Then, over the years, our relationship mellowed into friendly banter.

Bill has been begging me for years to go back and examine the footage that we cut. A year ago, we looked at it together, and I told him, `I think you're right. But even if you're not, I'll do it for you anyway, because it's your right'."

Now, says Friedkin of the new 131-minute version, "I think this is better."

Dubious "director's cuts" have become notorious in recent years for justifying new video releases. After talking to Friedkin, I believe I was wrong to suggest that was the case this time.

But what about the ending? "It's like a guest who keeps talking after the party is over," I told him.

The original ending is a somber, quiet note. In the revised ending, a surviving priest makes small talk with a detective (Lee J. Cobb), who likes to imagine weird movie casts and suggests "Wuthering Heights" with Jackie Gleason and Lucille Ball. In my review, I called this new ending "catastrophic."

"I originally thought it should just cut off at the end," Friedkin said. "Blatty always thought we should show normal life resuming. Now I prefer this ending. I love seeing Lee J. Cobb. It reminds me how great he was to work with.

Does the new ending have anything to do with the movie? No. It's an aesthetic consideration. I'm a changed guy. I had a much harder edge in those days. I don't have that edge now.

"Have you ever heard the story of how the French painter Bonnard, when he was an old man, went into the Louvre with a paintbrush and started touching up his paintings? They threw him out. `But they're my paintings!' he said. He saw them differently now. I feel the same way. Given the chance, I'd go back and redo everything I've done."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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