Remembering William Friedkin

William Friedkin on the set of The French Connection (1971)

Talking to William Friedkin for the LA Weekly in 2013, Paul Teetor asked him about Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ’n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood, Peter Biskind’s gossipy 1998 history of the rise of the New Hollywood in the late 1960s through to its demise the early ’80s. “I’ve actually never read the book,” said Friedkin, “but I’ve talked to some of my friends who are portrayed in it, and we all share the opinion that it is partial truth, partial myth, and partial out-and-out lies by mostly rejected girlfriends and wives.”

When Friedkin passed away on Monday at the age of eighty-seven, the New York Times’s William Grimes turned to Biskind for comment. “The paradox of William Friedkin is that he made only two really good films, The French Connection and The Exorcist,” Biskind told him. The outpouring of tributes to Friedkin over the past week, whether in the form of comments posted to social media, full-blown appreciations such as Justin Chang’s in the Los Angeles Times and Matt Zoller Seitz’s at Vulture, or the collection of heartfelt salutes from contributors to, serve as a diverse but essentially united rebuttal to Biskind’s appraisal.

Friedkin is “the only colleague I knew whose work actually saved a man’s life,” writes Francis Ford Coppola in a brief remembrance posted to Instagram. Coppola is referring to The People vs. Paul Crump (1962), a documentary portrait of an inmate on death row and Friedkin’s first full feature. Growing up in Chicago, he’d skipped college and opted, right out of high school, for a job in the mail room at WGN-TV, a local independent station. He rose rapidly through the ranks and within two years, he was directing short documentaries and live broadcasts. The People vs. Paul Crump won a top award at the San Francisco International Film Festival and contributed to the eventual commutation of Crump’s sentence.

Good Times (1967), a silly but fun Sonny & Cher vehicle, was Friedkin’s first narrative feature, and he followed up on it with the first of several faithful adaptations of plays that he made throughout his career. “It might seem odd that a filmmaker who got his start in documentaries spent so much of his career making filmed plays,” wrote Noel Murray in an excellent survey of the oeuvre for the Dissolve in 2014, “but Friedkin has always understood that the immediacy of live theater is its own kind of journalism, in that it presents real human behavior, in real time. His filmed plays have aspired to that kind of freshness.”

Harold Pinter himself wrote the 1968 adaptation of his 1957 play, The Birthday Party. After making The Night They Raided Minsky’s (1968), a celebration of 1920s-era burlesque, Friedkin was tapped by Mart Crowley and Dominick Dunne to direct The Boys in the Band (1970), based on Crowley's 1968 off-Broadway play. In 1999, Bright Lights Film Journal editor Gary Morris noted that the film had become “a sacred text of modern queerdom. And rightly so. This scathing but ultimately sympathetic group portrait of a gay birthday party that virtually self-destructs before the terrified eyes of mainstream audiences was the first Hollywood feature to take a close-up look at queer culture.”

In 1971, Friedkin teamed up with producer Philip D’Antoni (Bullitt) to adapt Robin Moore’s 1969 book, The French Connection, an account of a 1961 smashup of an international heroin-trafficking ring by two New York cops—played in the film by two then-little-known actors, Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider. Talking to Fade In Magazine in 2012, Friedkin said that when he saw Costa-Gavras’s Z (1969), “I realized how I could shoot The French Connection. Because he shot Z like a documentary. It was a fiction film but it was made like it was actually happening. Like the camera didn't know what was gonna happen next.”

The French Connection was nominated for eight Oscars and won five, including Best Picture and Director. Variety’s Owen Gleiberman observes that anyone revisiting the film today “may be shocked at what a quiet movie it is. It’s a real-time thriller about staking out criminals, about cops fighting not just crime but the bureaucracy of crime-fighting; it’s also about class differences and the ugliness of bigotry (especially when it wears a plain-clothes uniform), which the film portrays with unflinching honesty. But it’s also about the thrill of the chase.”

When Hackman’s Popeye Doyle hijacks a car to go after the sniper who has commandeered the elevated train above him, what ensues is “possibly the most electrifying chase sequence in movie history,” wrote Dave Kehr in the New York Times when he spoke with Friedkin in 2009. Friedkin manned the camera in the backseat of the car, and there was another camera in the front seat, and a third one attached to the front bumper. And off they went—without permits but with a blaring siren to give pedestrians fair warning. “The fact that we never hurt anybody in the chase run, the way it was poised for disaster, this was a gift from the Movie God,” Friedkin told Kehr. “Everything happened on the fly. We would never do this again. Nor should it ever be attempted in that way again.”

And that was only half the chase. Friedkin often enjoyed recalling how he and D’Antoni secured a permit from a representative of the New York City Transit Authority to shoot the scenes on the train speeding above Popeye. “You guys are crazy,” said the rep. “It would be really difficult.” D’Antoni asked, “How difficult?” The answer turned out to be forty thousand dollars and a one-way ticket to Jamaica—because the rep assumed that granting the permit would get him fired, and that’s where he wanted to retire. “And so he did,” said Friedkin, “happily ever after, I’m told.”

We do have to keep in mind that, as Matt Zoller Seitz reminds us, 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.” Seitz notes that in his 1990 book Hurricane Billy: The Stormy Life and Films of William Friedkin, Nat Segaloff claimed that Friedkin “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, 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.”

The Exorcist (1973) was Friedkin’s greatest commercial success, a lines-around-the-block sensation that wound up scoring ten Oscar nominations. William Peter Blatty wrote the adaptation of his 1971 novel, and Friedkin cast Linda Blair as a demon-possessed twelve-year-old, Regan; Ellen Burstyn as Chris, her distraught mother; and Max von Sydow as Father Lankester Merrin, who is called upon to perform the exorcism.

“I remember being afraid, genuinely afraid, at what I was going to experience in Regan’s bedroom,” writes the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, “and it never occurred to me then to dismiss it all as an allegory for anxious sexual awakening. The evil spirit in The Exorcist is not a metaphor; it is an evil spirit.” Justin Chang agrees, suggesting that “one of the reasons that 1973 landmark lives on so forcefully—the reason it’s outlived all the half-hearted horror homages, the pea-soup parodies, and the (still-ongoing) chain of sequels and prequels—is that it treats the reality of the demonic with a deadly serious, utterly unfakable conviction.”

On top of the world, Friedkin “went into the jungle to make his most ambitious film yet,” as Xan Brooks wrote in 2013 when he interviewed Friedkin for the Guardian. The occasion was a screening in Venice of a newly remastered print of Sorcerer (1977), an adaptation of Georges Arnaud’s 1950 novel Le salaire de la peur, which was made famous by Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1953 adaptation, The Wages of Fear. Sorcerer was “the one that came closest to my vision,” Friedkin told Brooks. “The way I saw the film in my mind's eye, that is the one that's pretty much there.”

But Sorcerer did not click with audiences. They were still flocking to George Lucas’s Star Wars, which had opened a few weeks before Friedkin’s adult thriller arrived. Noel Murray finds that the film is “hardly flawless—the action takes too long to kick into gear, and none of the main characters are all that well-developed, even with the long prologues—but the second hour of Sorcerer is about as good as suspense filmmaking gets.”

Adapting Gerald Walker’s 1970 novel Cruising in 1980, Friedkin made what can fairly be considered his most notorious film. Al Pacino stars as an undercover cop presenting himself as bait for a serial killer who’s been picking up gay men in West Village bars. All the leather and rough sex and the sheer gruesomeness of the murders combined with the outsiders’ POV of the filmmakers led to protests throughout the shoot, furious editorials, and more protests outside New York theaters when Cruising opened.

In an excellent deep dive into the film, Kyle Turner wrote last fall that “accusations of Cruising’s homophobia are more complex than a simple yes it is, or no it isn’t. Friedkin’s nihilism leaks onto the film in a curious way, oily and slippery. If, like the film noir (anti)hero, Pacino’s identity is in flux in a socially and politically tumultuous landscape, his ‘descent’ is not so much into gayness as it is into fascism. They’re (uh, problematically) conflated here: gays fetishize fascist aesthetics, America fetishizes the police, the police state fetishizes the tools fascism. None of these parties would ever admit what they’re into in this context.”

To Live and Die in L.A. (1985), starring Willem Dafoe as a counterfeiter and William Petersen and John Pankow as the Secret Service agents on his tail—and featuring a breakneck car chase on a freeway—is often seen as a west coast counterpart to The French Connection. “Friedkin borrowed the vivid color schemes and propulsive synthesized soundtracks of the then-hot TV series Miami Vice—the soundtrack provided by Wang Chung in this case—and his dialogue is punchy and pungent in the manner of the Stallone/Schwarzenegger-era action movies,” writes Noel Murray. The result is “one of the ballsiest, most bullshit-free action movies of a bombastic era.”

The standout films of the 1990s and 2000s are what Murray calls “filmed plays.” 12 Angry Men (1997), shot in a style that suggests Friedkin may have been aiming for the polar opposite of Sidney Lumet’s 1957 adaptation of Reginald Rose’s 1954 teleplay, features an outstanding cast led by Jack Lemmon and including Petersen, Ossie Davis, George C. Scott, James Gandolfini, Edward James Olmos, Hume Cronyn, Courtney B. Vance, and Armin Mueller-Stahl.

Bug (2006), starring Michael Shannon and Ashley Judd as a couple descending into paranoia, and Killer Joe (2011), featuring Matthew McConaughey as a Texas hit man for hire, are both based on plays by Tracy Letts. “I think that he is the best drama writer in the United States,” Friedkin told Kaleem Aftab in the Independent in 2012, “and he has a unique way of capturing sides of human nature that you don't often see—honestly portrayed and without any judgement.” Letts “and I are sort of on the same page with our world view. Now, don’t interpret that as meaning we think the world is shit or something like that, we think there is good and evil in everyone.”

Friedkin completed one more “filmed play” before he passed away. Based on Herman Wouk’s adaptation of his own Pulitzer Prize–winning 1952 novel, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial will premiere in a few weeks in Venice. “The original piece was written for WWII, and Wouk included all the pent-up anger in this country over Pearl Harbor,” Friedkin told Deadline’s Mike Fleming Jr. last year. “I’ve updated it so that is no longer Pearl Harbor. I’ve made it contemporary, involving the Gulf of Hormuz and the Straits of Hormuz, leading to Iran.”

“In his final years,” writes Ty Burr, “Friedkin worked hard to remodel himself as a raconteur and a survivor, the New Hollywood’s crazy uncle who has settled down and gives great Q&A. He wrote a memoir, The Friedkin Connection (2013). He made himself available to anyone directing a documentary on his era. He had plenty of stories to tell and dirt to dish, a groaning board from a life whose four marriages themselves seem a form of profligacy: Two years to French screen legend Jeanne Moreau, three to actress Lesley-Anne Down, three to newscaster Kelly Lang, and, finally, a lasting union with studio executive Sherry Lansing, who he married in 1991 and who survives him.”

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