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He Did It All: William Friedkin (1935-2023)

Everybody who has seen horror movies remembers the image that most frightened them, that put the hook in them, that alerted them to the idea that a movie could contain more than its fair share of the malevolence of the universe in its images. How could this thing fit into a single frame? How did someone dream this up? I remember what mine was. I opened Entertainment Weekly in 1999 because of a dare of front cover offering up the scariest movies of all time. I flipped to the centerfold and saw Linda Blair, her face scarred and craggy, her eyes staring into your soul and finding nothing they could not destroy, her head turned around as her legs sat like a doll’s uselessly the other way in a room whose disheveled arrangement offered a short story of its own. I couldn’t look at it squarely. I couldn’t get it out of my head. This was “The Exorcist.” This was horror. This was William Friedkin. And he was just getting started.

Friedkin now is as famous for his bullheaded intensity as a public artist as for his 12-gauge tales of amorality and obsession. It’s funny to imagine he was once just a director hungry to start making movies and not a man who gained and lost the world in the same gesture. What made him popular also brought him lower than he could have imagined. He spent the last 30 years of his career as close to a fringe figure as a legend can be, as known for his foul-mouthed interviews as his equally obscene movies. But before all that, he was a kid with a keen interest in basketball.

He was born in Chicago in 1935 to Jewish-Ukrainian immigrants who had not taken much of the American dream seriously. His dad didn’t care much about making money. If William was more ambitious than his father, it also took him a while to know what direction he wanted to move. It wasn’t until he started watching films and plays that he understood where his passions could take him. In devouring movies by Orson Welles and plays by Harold Pinter, Friedkin saw just the right balance of edgy, cutting cynicism and unbridled, romantic technique. He started working in the mailroom at a TV station and worked his way up to directing in a few short years. This was the era of the TV director as men like Sidney Lumet, John Frankenheimer, and Delbert Mann were directing live theatre on TV and graduating to handsome Hollywood productions. Suddenly, Friedkin’s tunnel vision had a destination in mind.

The People vs. Paul Crump

In 1962, he financed a documentary about a prisoner on death row that highlights the persuasive style that Friedkin would later adopt. “The People vs. Paul Crump” was what they now term a calling card, and the calls didn’t stop coming. He got a gig directing an episode of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” He made a handful of documentaries highlighting the contradictions that refused to make up Friedkin’s personality. Almost in direct response to his “The People vs. Paul Crump,” he made “The Thin Blue Line” in 1966 about the challenges facing police officers. Ever the sports aficionado, he directed both “Pro Football: Mayhem on a Sunday Afternoon” and “The Bold Men” in 1965, combining the momentum and pageantry of sport with his own developing cutthroat style behind the camera and in the editing room. 

In 1966, having moved to Hollywood, he met Sonny Bono and Cher through a mutual executive friend. This was the era, thanks to Richard Lester’s Beatles movies, of the rock and roll movie. John Boorman (who would later direct a disastrous but stunning sequel to “The Exorcist” to Friedkin’s chagrin) had directed the Dave Clark Five in “Having A Wild Weekend.” Herman’s Hermits had their own films, the Monkees’ "Head" was on its way courtesy of Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson, and even Otto Preminger had found room for the rock group The Zombies in his 1965 thriller “Bunny Lake Is Missing.” Maybe Sonny and Cher, who were growing in popularity all the time in the late '60s, could anchor their own movie?

Good Time,” the film that Friedkin, Sonny, and Cher put together, was made for very little money and a lot of energy. Friedkin had difficulty getting a read on Cher, but when push came to shove, she showed up and did the work. The film suitably has the energy of a couple of friends getting together to make something in their garage in their spare time. It’s got the vibrance of a lot of early Friedkin, even if it was clear that comedy wasn’t exactly his forte. However, that didn’t stop him from proving it again and again. Take his next film, the Jewish music hall comedy “The Night They Raided Minsky’s,” written in part by sitcom maven Norman Lear, about an Amish girl who winds up in the middle of a love triangle at a burlesque house in lower Manhattan. The film was a train wreck during production, with last-minute casting replacements, co-star Bert Lahr’s death mid-movie, and Friedkin’s inability to wrangle such a comparatively large production. The film took on a second life as one of the key texts mentioned by editor Ralph Rosenblum in his book When the Shooting Stops ... the Cutting Begins. Rosenblum took a year and barely rescued the film from agreeable incoherence. By then, Friedkin was long gone. He was in England working on his next act.

Friedkin had seen The Birthday Party in 1962, and when offered some money to make his next film, he decided he wanted to turn it into a movie. Fleeing the troubled “Minsky’s” production, he started crafting the film with Harold Pinter, who wrote the script and helped with casting. The resulting film is Friedkin’s first great movie, the perfect fusion of a playwright chasing a good idea down a corridor and a director hungry for new images his previous assignments hadn’t allowed him to create. It’s a whirling, claustrophobic nightmare woozily anchored by a terrific Robert Shaw performance. The double talk and incessant interrogation of the film’s final act would return in a few years when Friedkin started work on a Robin Moore adaptation scripted by “Shaft” novelist Ernest Tidyman, but first, he received a simpatico assignment.

The Boys in the Band

As Friedkin’s two movies were nearing their theatrical debut, Mort Crowley’s play The Boys in the Band sought a director willing to turn it into a film, courtesy of socially conscious producer Dominick Dunne. Friedkin turned the deeply cynical play into an unforgettably excoriating dark night of the soul. Two gay men in their late 30s (Kenneth Nelson and Leonard Frey) host a night of deliberate humiliation for their friends, and, over the course of the night, the whole crew will be forced to bring themselves low to appease their friends’ lust for self-loathing performance. It’s still a troubling film 50-plus years later, a true time capsule of a New York having real difficulty learning to love itself. My friend Willow Maclay put it quite wonderfully in a piece from last year: “One can perhaps even make an argument that the single set is a metaphor for the closet itself, which damages queer people whenever it is required for the sake of safety. In 1970 it was very obviously required far more frequently than it is today, and the result is a birthday party that is completely exhausting and draining on every single guest. No one leaves this party a better, or healthier person than before they arrived."

With his two theatrical features fueling his reputation as a man willing to take risks, Friedkin stepped into the production of “The French Connection,” based on the true story of a world-historic heroin bust in the 1960s. To get a feel for the material, Friedkin started doing ride-alongs with NYPD officers Sonny Grosso and Eddie Egan, whose exploits taking on drug smugglers had inspired the book. Friedkin and the pair would stay close for years, with the cops running security for several of his film shoots. Also on the scene was Randy Jurgensen, a fellow NYPD officer who turned to the occasional acting gig thanks to Friedkin putting him on camera. This would eventually pay rich dividends.

“The French Connection” may look like a fairly unassuming docudrama today, hardly much different from a rising tide of movies about cops and robbers from this very fertile period for the genre, but it was an unprecedented success. It broke box office records and won a half dozen Oscars, including Best Picture. Gene Hackman, a bit player in TV movies who’d been given his break as Clyde Barrow’s brother in “Bonnie and Clyde” became a leading man and people’s favorite following his turn as Lt. Popeye Doyle. Roy Scheider, a theater actor who impressed Friedkin during his audition by saying he’d been playing a nun off-Broadway, became a fixture of American movies. Friedkin managed some incredible stuff with his camera, shooting the movie guerilla-style on the streets of Manhattan.

The French Connection

Like “Minsky’s,” it was a production plagued by problems and improvisations, including the accidental casting of Fernando Rey as the villain (Friedkin wanted Francisco Rabal), who refused to shave his beard for the part or go home when it became clear he had been sent to New York by mistake. The film’s famous centerpiece car chase, in which Hackman’s Doyle races a subway train (today it would be the D train if I’m not mistaken), made hay out of its precedents. Friedkin was dating Howard Hawks’ daughter, and the old pro gave his young charge the idea during one of their many conversations. Not even the storied “Bullitt” chase was anywhere near its equal (another movie produced by Philip D'Antoni). Ultimately, its story of racist cops happening upon their biggest bust fades into the background; Friedkin’s attention to grubby detail is why the film is still remembered. From the rough-hewn performances to the graffiti-laden streets of New York, this is a relic of a bygone era, yet it stands outside time. This guy was going places in a hurry.

Friedkin can’t really be trusted with the origins of “The Exorcist” anymore; he’s told the story too many times and too many different ways, but one thing’s for sure: he knew he had the makings of a hit on his hands when he pried open William Peter Blatty’s book one morning in his Southern California home. Friedkin’s told a hundred tales about what the film means and what genre it’s meant to occupy, so let’s take his opinion out of the matter and get down to brass tacks. The story is very loosely based on a story Blatty remembered from his childhood about a case of demonic possession. Like Graham Greene, Blatty was a concerned Catholic, the kind the church didn’t know what to make of. Friedkin, a Jew with a burgeoning god complex, was just the right man to take a scalpel and feel around inside Blatty’s crisis of conscience.

“The Exorcist” is one of the most important films of all time, to the world and me personally. It was the first film that felt genuinely dangerous to me. Before I ever saw it, its image taunted me from posters and VHS covers. When I finally saw it in its 2000 re-release (with the still-too-harrowing Spider Walk sequence restored), I thought I’d never stop having nightmares. It tells the story of a young girl (Linda Blair) who finds herself the target of demonic possession. Her mother (Ellen Burstyn) pursues every medical solution. When they fail, she pursues the help of a priest undergoing a crisis of faith (Jason Miller), who in turn calls in his own reinforcement, a priest (Max Von Sydow, made up like Chishu Ryu in an Ozu movie) who has a score to settle with this particular demon. Imagine having been weaned on an antique version of horror for a minute, then settling in for the scariest thing you’d ever seen. 

The Exorcist

Nothing prepared audiences for how dirty “The Exorcist” would play. Friedkin took all the lighting tricks he developed shooting the climax of “The Birthday Party,” the documentary tactics which rendered the medical segments so barbed and harrowing, and the pitch-black tone that overtakes “The Boys in the Band,” and he fused them. The surgically precise lighting, the unspeakable make-up effects, and the perfectly masked practical stunts create an atmosphere of pure trauma. Friedkin may never have topped his all-out assault on the viewer’s nerves here, but to his enormous credit, this man made several films as good as this. It was a worldwide talking point, was nominated for Best Picture (the first horror film to do so), and inspired hundreds of remakes and rip-offs, still going to this day.

After “The Exorcist,” Friedkin found himself in that rarefied, unenviable position of appearing to have the world by the tail. His biography describes the moment before hubris perfectly set him up for a fall. He, Francis Ford Coppola, and Peter Bogdanovich were in a limousine toasting champagne to their successes. All of them were Oscar winners and box office record-breakers; they had everything to celebrate … and no one would ever be as successful again. Friedkin could have done anything, so he decided to try Everything. The hubris was off the charts. He was going to remake one of the best films of all time (Henri-Georges Clouzot’s “The Wages of Fear”) with a script by “The Wild Bunch’s” Walon Green, a score by experimental electronic act Tangerine Dream, a cast of international almosts. It was going to be his biggest, best picture yet. He was right, but nobody else knew or cared. “Sorcerer” was marketed like a spiritual sequel to “The Exorcist” (one of the trucks has a drawing of Pazuzu on its hood) and opened against “Star Wars.” It got murdered at the box office. If you’ve been following my work as a video essayist, you know I covered it as one of The Unloved some ten years ago. Time has since caught up to “Sorcerer’s” greatness, but it’s unthinkable now that it was ever unpopular.

Sorcerer

Roy Scheider, Bruno Cremer, Amidou, and (at long last in the right place) Francisco Rabal play four refugees from the world working for an oil company in Colombia. They have no money and can’t go home thanks to checkered criminal pasts, so when the chance comes to drive explosives to clear an oil field fire, they leap at the chance. “It’s risky moving one of those cases ten feet ... you gotta move it 200 miles.” A perfect premise. A perfect movie. Scheider was a last-minute fill-in for Steve McQueen, who demanded his wife Ali McGraw be allowed to have a job in the film (Friedkin, ever the egotist, refused to have anyone tell him how to run his set), and he brought with him Popeye Doyle’s hat from “The French Connection,” as if to remind people of his history with Friedkin. "Sorcerer" is all nerve-wracking tension and a sweaty, inch-thick atmosphere. The depressive vibes of the jungle, every bump and turn of the road promising death, and the justifiably famous bridge sequence—“Sorcerer” still plays like gangbusters in front of an audience or alone at 2 AM on your TV. “Sorcerer” is one of the finest thrillers of the 20th century.

After “Sorcerer” turned out to be a box office disappointment, Friedkin again looked for movies he could make without too much fuss. This, alas, was a feint. His two comedies, 1978’s charming “The Brink's Job” (which reunited John Cassavetes’ leads Peter Falk and Gena Rowlands) and his 1983’s disappointing “Deal of the Century,” were also flops, which didn’t help Friedkin rejoin the A-list.

In between was “Cruising.” “Cruising” started life the Friedkin way; he caught up with his pal Randy Jurgensen, who had worked a serial killer case in the 1970s, and discovered that a man named Paul Bateson (who just so happened to be an extra in “The Exorcist”) was the likeliest culprit. Friedkin visited Bateson in jail and got a first-hand account. Bateson claimed he was so high during that period that he didn’t remember doing half the things he was accused of, but it was as likely as not that he was guilty. Friedkin turned his and Jurgensen’s accounts into “Cruising,” starring Al Pacino as a rookie detective who goes undercover in New York’s leather bar scene to find a killer. The film was picketed during production as it was made clear that Friedkin hadn’t sought any input from the gay community in New York before embarking on the project, and people were worried he was harmfully othering them to the mainstream (not that conservative America needed any help from a director as polarizing as Friedkin). Pacino, for his part, was deeply upset when he saw the final project and discovered reasonable doubt as to whether his character had been the killer all along. It’s a grubby, grim film, pure Friedkin in its ambiguity and excitement at transgression, the kind of thing people barely attempt, let alone achieve these days without it becoming a tired pose. There are a million great pieces about the movie (maybe its crowning achievement is that it inspired so much scholarship and activism), even if watching it can be a perplexing and disturbing experience.

To Live and Die in L.A.

Friedkin’s days as a box office fixture may have been numbered, but his life as a provocateur was hardly over. 1985’s “To Live and Die In LA” is his last masterpiece, a sexually charged movie of moral backsliding. William Petersen plays a secret service agent who goes undercover to bust up a counterfeiting operation run by Willem Dafoe. Between its world-historic car-chase (Friedkin set himself the task of one-upping his work on “The French Connection” and managed) and its Wang Chung-scored seductive fascist mindset (Petersen is an unapologetic bastard who leaves little but destruction in his wake, which eventually rubs off on his nervous partner, played by John Pankow), this is a great Friedkin movie as well as just a great action movie. Friedkin existed to make you question what you suspected you knew about how the world worked, and “To Live and Die in LA” wanted you to wonder what you’d put up with to stop one wrong.

1987’s “Rampage” asked the same thing. In that film, Michael Biehn plays an attorney who gets a murderer off death row, only for the fellow to go out and kill again when he escapes from a prisoner transport. Friedkin was very interested in making people squirm regarding their thoughts on the death penalty (something he waffled over in his personal life, like so much else). Though he re-edited the film in 1992 when the film was released properly, it’s an open question what Friedkin wants us to think about the police after so many years documenting their exploits. In 1995, he released his Joe Eszterhas-scripted “Jade,” and, in 1997, his adaptation of Reginald Rose’s “12 Angry Men” (originally directed by Friedkin’s colleague Sidney Lumet), which comes at the problems of law and order from two deliberately disparate points of view. The contradiction is the point.

His hits would be intermittent from here on out. In the ‘90s. he released an almost completely forgotten horror movie about a killer tree witch called “The Guardian” (not without interest), a throwback biker film as part of Showtime’s “Rebel Highway” series, and a great little sports drama called “Blue Chips” with a nevertheless perplexing message. In the 2000s, he’d tackle US Militarism once more from opposing viewpoints. “Rules of Engagement” finds Samuel L. Jackson on trial for killing civilians during a military occupation (he gets off, it’s a happy ending), whereas “The Hunted” finds two shell-shocked veterans coming after each other with knives when one goes rogue. The former argues that war cannot be understood by anyone who wasn’t present. The latter argues that it shouldn’t matter if you come home and start racking up a domestic body count.

Bug

Just what does war do to soldiers? “Bug,” based on a Tracy Letts play, asks the question again. Michael Shannon is another PTSD-addled veteran who drags Ashley Judd into his world of paranoid delusions until they’re both painted in innocent blood and kerosene. Friedkin’s second Letts adaptation, the deliriously entertaining “Killer Joe,” wonders if perhaps every American doesn’t deserve a little violence. Featuring stupendous performances from Matthew McConaughey, Thomas Haden Church, and Gina Gershon, this trailer park passion play is not to be missed. Like “The Exorcist” and “Cruising,” it was censored. Friedkin, at age 76, was as divisive as he was at age 36. He lived long enough to become polarizing for a whole new set of reasons.

He still has one more film, “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial,” premiering in Venice next month, but Friedkin’s later years were spent largely as a raconteur and inveterate shit-talker. Having more than earned the right by now, Friedkin entered a period of more than a decade where he would travel to anniversary screenings and festivals butchering sacred cows. His films by now had inspired sequels and remakes—“The Exorcist” had become a franchise; his old peer John Frankenheimer had directed the sequel to “The French Connection,” which had inspired legions of imitators, everything from Italian crime films to cheap Floridian kung fu films; “The Boys in the Band” was carelessly remade by Ryan Murphy, etc. And so he had an awful lot to say about the world he’d helped create. His quotable takedowns of John Boorman, Oliver Stone, and Nicolas Winding Refn, among others, have been doing the rounds in the hours since his death was announced.

To the bitter end, he was an original and a cautionary tale. Be yourself, see the world, just don’t expect it to be smooth sailing. Friedkin changed the world with his movies. He gave me some of my most vivid nightmares and cherished memories at the cinema. What else could you ask of an artist? He did it all, and then he did it again. 

Scout Tafoya

Scout Tafoya is a critic and filmmaker who writes for and edits the arts blog Apocalypse Now and directs both feature length and short films.

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