A Hollywood Director Possessed

William Friedkin made movies like The Exorcist and Sorcerer his way, no matter what changes transformed his industry.

Friedkin’s life ended like a true Friedkin film. It’s hard to tell if he won or lost, or something in between, or if those terms even apply. Photo: Laura Lezza/Getty Images
Friedkin’s life ended like a true Friedkin film. It’s hard to tell if he won or lost, or something in between, or if those terms even apply. Photo: Laura Lezza/Getty Images

Was William Friedkin the best director of the 1970s? Maybe. He was certainly the most 1970s director, making ’70s movies long after the ’70s had ended. He entered the decade with an adaptation of Mart Crowley’s play The Boys in the Band, one of the first mainstream features with openly gay characters as well as the first to use the C-word in its dialogue. He went on to direct two of the decade’s most financially successful and culturally influential films, The French Connection and The Exorcist — plus one more, the 1977 jungle thriller Sorcerer, that bombed for a lot of reasons, including being unknowingly out of steps with the Zeitgeist (it opened one week after Star Wars). But it was belatedly reclaimed as a stealth classic and one of his best films.

Friedkin was a bit of a huckster and charlatan, doing and saying whatever was needed to burnish his legend and keep making movies his way, no matter what changes transformed the industry. You had to take his words with a grain of salt the size of the demon statue in The Exorcist. He variously claimed to have fallen in love with movies after seeing Citizen Kane in high school and not seeing it until he was 25. The critical biography Hurricane Billy said he shaved a few years off his age in the ’70s so that the entertainment press would lump him in with the much younger so-called “movie brats” of the era — Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, and Brian De Palma — who were redefining American cinema. A William Friedkin character par excellence was Friedkin himself, who in interviews appeared brash, ruthless, self-interested, and above all, desperate to tell the most exciting story possible.

Friedkin was born and raised in Chicago, and when he spoke, you heard the city loud and clear. He didn’t come from money. His mother was a registered nurse. His father was a softball player, merchant seaman, and men’s clothing salesman. He attended Chicago public schools and was a strong enough high-school basketball player to consider pursuing it as a career (decades later, he directed one of the most cynical of all basketball movies, Blue Chips). He drifted into filmmaking almost by accident, getting a mailroom job at a local TV station right out of high school and directed his first TV program at 18 (he was as much of a prodigy as Spielberg in that way, although, unlike Spielberg, he didn’t own a movie camera until he was in his 20s).

For television, Friedkin made impassioned documentaries about progressive social issues, including The People vs. Paul Crump, which led to the freeing of a man on death row who’d been wrongly imprisoned for murder and robbery. The acclaim for Crump got Friedkin a directing agent and scripted TV series work (including an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour). Although he continued to make nonfiction as well, he eventually shifted full time into feature films, debuting with the Sonny and Cher comedy-musical-western Good Times, then segueing into the burlesque-era comedy The Night They Raided Minsky’s, a train wreck of a production that’s mainly remembered by film buffs because of a classic book by its editor, Ralph Rosenblum, When the Shooting Stops … the Cutting Begins, which characterizes Friedkin as an insufferable young striver who was in over his head but too arrogant to admit it.

Friedkin bounced back from Minsky’s beyond anyone’s expectations, including his own, with his next film, The Boys in the Band, then made The French Connection, an Oscar–winning cop thriller about a renegade detective named Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) chasing a French heroin supplier. Although it was criticized for choppy editing and hard-to-follow plotting (the Mad parody was titled “What’s the Connection?”), it was a pop-culture milestone that won multiple Oscars and upped the ante for heartstopping big-city car chases and unlikable lead characters. It also drew controversy for its matter-of-fact, seemingly ambivalent portrait of police brutality, just five years after the Supreme Court’s Miranda v. Arizona decision. The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael, the most influential film critic of the ’70s, panned The French Connection and called out Friedkin for being a calculated filmmaker who wanted to make a movie that appeared to be anti-police brutality — the better to appeal to the post–Easy Rider trend toward counter-culturally aligned material — while at the same time pandering to reactionaries by dwelling on the spectacle of Doyle bullying Black suspects. This and other pans failed to impede the film’s momentum: The French Connection struck a nerve with viewers all over the political spectrum, which somehow validated both Kael and Friedkin, who always said the film was mainly about obsession, and compared Doyle to Captain Ahab in Moby Dick. “I was making a film about unsympathetic characters,” he told Forbes last year. “But I tried to present them as honestly as I saw them.”

Gene Hackman in The French Connection. Photo: Allstar Picture Library Ltd. / Alamy Stock Photo/

The French Connection and another 1971 hit, the original Dirty Harry, redesigned the template for Hollywood policiers (now more often described as “copaganda”). Written by Ernest Tidyman (Shaft), The French Connection focused on a narcotics detective who ultimately nails the bad guy in spite of all the lily-livered bureaucrats who are worried about proper procedure and suspects’ rights. (In the final sequence, Doyle also kills an FBI agent by mistake, one of many bleak Friedkin endings that snatch defeat from victory.) Kael’s French Connection review cited a term popularized by Hollywood trade-paper reporters, “Cinema du Zap,” to disparage Friedkin’s anything-for-a-jolt directing style, which became popular after “decency codes” disappeared in the late ’60s and were replaced by a rating system. Kael was being mean, but she wasn’t wrong. Friedkin admitted to many journalists, including this writer, that he would do whatever he thought was necessary to make an audience react viscerally to a film, more often with dread, nausea, shock, and despair than any of the brighter emotions, because he had a dim view of humanity.

Friedkin’s next film, the original adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, was Cinema du Zap incarnate: a film about demonic possession that left nothing to the imagination, using then state-of-the-art sound and visual effects (including makeup by the legendary Dick Smith) to make audiences feel as if they were watching a documentary about evil taking over a human body. The result was the most revolting horror film ever released by a major studio at the time. Friedkin knew audiences were starting to become inured to a new bluntness and the only way to get their attention was to break every remaining taboo. Inhabited by the demon Pazuzu, poor Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) curses out priests (in the croaking voice of Mercedes McCambridge), spits up green pea soup, twists her head 180 degrees on her neck, masturbates with a crucifix while profaning Jesus, and shoves her mom’s face into her bloody crotch. Friedkin knew he had a hit on his hands when he saw a patron stumble out of a preview screening and vomit into a lobby trash can.

The Exorcist was his commercial peak and would remain so, thanks in part to a 2000 rerelease that unexpectedly became one of that year’s biggest theatrical earners. Friedkin’s follow-up, Sorcerer, revolves around four international fugitive criminals, led by French Connection co-star Roy Scheider, who are hired to drive two trucks filled with explosives through mountainous, rain-soaked Venezuelan jungle to extinguish an oil-well fire. Sorcerer was shot on location in five countries with real stunts and explosive effects, as was the norm then. It was so big that it had to be financed by two studios. The story was adapted from the same French novel as Henri-Georges Clouzot’s classic French thriller The Wages of Fear. Friedkin hated it when critics referred to it as a “remake,” as my colleague Bilge Ebiri discovered when interviewing him ten years ago. (“It’s not a remake of The Wages of Fear!” he said. “Somebody’s probably doing Hamlet somewhere right now; that’s not a remake of Hamlet.”) Sorcerer was mocked for its title, which some thought was an attempt to trick Exorcist fans into thinking it was another horror film; Friedkin invited this by opening the movie with a shot of a stone face carved in an ancient shrine and including a closeup of a Pazuzu-like demon drawn on one of the trucks with chalk. Strangely, it does end up feeling like a movie in the same vein because it’s about four men who make catastrophic messes of their lives, are sent to a purgatorial place they can’t escape, and must accept a mission to drive to hell and extinguish fire with fire to redeem themselves.

From the ’80s onward, Friedkin scrambled to get funding for his projects. He never again had commercial success like he’d enjoyed in his heyday. But somehow he kept doing it his way and released quite a few bad or merely serviceable movies (which he copped to in interviews, to his credit) plus other films that stood tall alongside his signature works while revealing new aspects of Friedkin’s talent. Highlights include a pair of nail-bitingly intense adaptations of Theatre du Zap plays by fellow Chicagoan Tracy Letts, Bug and Killer Joe (the latter got Friedkin his first NC-17 rating at age 73); the Vietnam–themed horror short “Nightcrawlers,” easily the scariest episode of the 1980s Twilight Zone reboot; a Showtime remake of the legal drama 12 Angry Men, starring Jack Lemmon in the Henry Fonda role that was almost as strong as Sidney Lumet’s version; the lean, relentless military thriller The Hunted with Tommy Lee Jones as a combat trainer assigned to capture his star pupil (Benicio Del Toro), who has become unhinged from PTSD and is killing hunters in the woods; and perhaps most notoriously, 1980s Cruising, a hybrid of The Boys in the Band and The French Connection starring Al Pacino as a New York cop who pretends to be gay so that he can enter the world of leather bars and S&M and catch a killer.

Cruising was protested as homophobic after its initial release, but, like Sorcerer, has been somewhat reassessed by viewers — including queer critics who view it more as a period-specific grindhouse thriller set within a distinct subculture, released at a time when gay characters in movies tended to fall into one of two categories: lisping scene-stealers and vicious criminals. Friedkin himself has acknowledged the latter conundrum. Much like his defense of The French Connection as a film more concerned with obsession than police work or victims’ rights, he described Cruising as a murder mystery based on a true story but added that, in the aftermath of its theatrical run, gay men were even more ostracized because of the so-called “gay cancer” that was eventually renamed AIDS. “Many critics who wrote for gay publications or the underground press felt that the film was not the best foot forward as far as gay liberation was concerned, and they were right,” he said. “Now it’s reevaluated as a film. It could be found wanting as a film, but it no longer has to undergo the stigma of being an anti-gay screed, which it never was.”

Towering above the rest of Friedkin’s post-70s output is the 1985 cops-on-the-edge thriller To Live and Die in L.A. Based on a novel by former treasury agent Gerald Petievich, it was celebrated for an extended, against-traffic freeway chase that outdoes even the cop-car-versus-elevated-train chase in The French Connection. But it deserves to be just as well-known for its pointed critique of the same tendencies that Popeye Doyle’s charisma enshrined as a cop film cliché. It’s probably the movie Kael wanted. (She didn’t review it.) The treasury-agent hero Chance, played by William Petersen, is a cowboy cop-type, horny, and brutal, and impulsive, but his contempt for everyone else’s opinions and process, including his straight-arrow partner’s, causes society-wide collateral damage (particularly in the chase scene) as horrific as anything unleashed by his target, a devious counterfeiter played by Willem Dafoe. And unlike Doyle, who got to star in a sequel, Chance reaps what he sows.

As was increasingly Friedkin’s preference post-1980, he shot most of To Live and Die in L.A. as quickly as possible, usually with little or no rehearsal, including the chase scene, which was personally filmed by cinematographer Robert Yeoman in the back of a car being driven in excess of 70 mph against traffic. Most of the shots in the film are the first or second take. Sometimes Friedkin called for a rehearsal, secretly rolled film, then said, “Cut, we’re moving on,” to the astonishment of the actors, who didn’t know they’d started. Friedkin was willing to mislead his actors or crew if it got him what he wanted.

Linda Blair in The Exorcist. Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

He was obsessed with filming real people and real things on real locations, often without regard for the feelings or even safety of others. The most frightening moments in the famous French Connection chase came from one take, filmed through the window of a car driven beneath elevated train tracks in Brooklyn, without a permit; the cars and pedestrians reacting in terror aren’t part of the production. Likewise, you can see throughout Sorcerer that the actors, including Scheider, are doing things that should have been done by stunt performers, including driving or guiding trucks across a rickety wooden bridge during a rain-machine-induced tropical storm, above a real river with currents strong enough to dash boats against rocks.

“It was the most difficult film I ever made,” Friedkin wrote in a 2016 Variety article celebrating the film’s resurgence nearly four decades after its original release. “Fifty members of the crew suffered gangrene and other serious illnesses and had to be sent home. Various members of the cast and crew were busted for drug use, and the tension and frustration behind the camera was every bit as nerve-rattling as what we were filming.”

Friedkin sometimes said he worked this way because he prized spontaneity above almost everything else. But the tendency was also possibly a twisted (though undeniably effective) attempt to recapture the rush Friedkin got during his documentary filmmaking heyday, where the goal was to capture astonishing moments that could only happen once. (Friedkin returned to documentaries periodically, as both filmmaker and subject, up until his final years.)

Freidkin was, as they say, a complicated person. Over 30 years ago, I spent an afternoon with him in Fort Worth, Texas, where he was screening his horror movie crime thriller Rampage, based on a real case about a progressive district attorney (Michael Biehn) who decides to pursue the death penalty against a serial murderer known as the “Vampire Killer.” Then in his late 50s, and wearing a pair of the sans-a-belt slacks that would become his sartorial signature, Friedkin responded to every pointed question I had in a frank and disarmingly sardonic way. He freely admitted that the original film — which was supposed to be released in 1987 but was delayed five years when its financier, De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, went bankrupt — questioned the necessity and moral rightness of the death penalty; it was a strange fit for the late ’80s, a very right-wing period for Hollywood. Five years later, at an even more reactionary time for films, Friedkin recut Rampage to make it more creepy and fear-mongering. He justified this decision to me as a commercial necessity, resulting from what would now be called “reading the room.”

I also asked Friedkin if it was true that, during the making of The People vs. Paul Crump, he’d punched his own subject in the stomach. He said yes because he felt there needed to be a scene at that point in the story where Crump cried on camera, and since Crump was a nonactor who couldn’t produce tears on command, he had to slug him. He talked smack about other directors too and about genres he didn’t appreciate, starting with the space operas and fantasies that dominated cinema after Star Wars, continuing into the 2020s, a decade defined by what Friedkin called “spandex movies,” among other pejoratives. “Films used to be rooted in gravity,” he said at the Champs-Élysées film festival. “They were about real people doing real things.”

He was a character and not the role-model sort. He told a screening audience that he hired a master forger to make the prop money for To Live and Die in L.A., and after the shoot, he kept some of it and spent it, which is a federal crime. (He told this story only after the statute of limitations had expired; he was brazen but not foolish.) He said that the exploding tree in Sorcerer was rigged by a retired arsonist, nicknamed Marvin the Torch, because he was the only person who would make it blow up just the way Friedkin wanted. He knew a lot of shady or even criminal people and didn’t apologize for it. Later in life, he said that looking back, he’d never have shot the car chases in his films in the same reckless way he shot them in the 1970s and ’80s, but he never exactly said he regretted doing them. He pressured Ellen Burstyn to do her own stunt for the scene in The Exorcist where the possessed Regan throws her mother from her bed, injuring Burstyn’s coccyx. In a 2018 New York Magazine profile, Burstyn told me she suffered permanent damage from the scene.

“Later on, I thought, ‘Why didn’t I say something?’” she wondered. “At the time I was more concerned about being able to shoot the next day without my cane, which I used for weeks whenever I wasn’t on camera. So it was a pretty severe injury … But the arrangement is, the director always wins — the unspoken arrangement.” (Burstyn is co-starring in a forthcoming sequel to The Exorcist, which Friedkin had nothing to do with.)

That Friedkin wasn’t “canceled” on social media a dozen times over during his final years is a mystery that might never be solved, though it’s possible that his smiling steamroller attitude towards fans, haters, studios, colleagues, and pretty much everyone he didn’t vibe with sent a message that he’d keep going no matter what accusations were piled on his shoulders. What’s the point of attacking a person who is so laser-focused on his own work and legend, and prizes the end over the means? You’d have better luck throwing rocks at a battleship.

Friedkin generally hated happy endings, though he’d do one if he believed it was the necessary choice. Otherwise, he made films where the hero was a driven, resourceful sinner who achieves the impossible despite overwhelming odds, only to see it all slip through his fingers. He wanted viewers to think, cry, and feel sick and would do what he had to do to make it happen. Friedkin’s life ended at the age of 87. Like a true Friedkin film, it’s hard to tell if he won or lost, or something in between, or if those terms even apply. His death will leave many with mixed feelings and make them sit with those feelings for longer than they might want to. Friedkin beat his viewers up and left a mark.

A Hollywood Director Possessed