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William Friedkin

William Friedkin (born August 29, 1935) is an American film director, producer and screenwriter best known for directing ‘The French Connection’ in 1971 and ‘The Exorcist’ in 1973; for the former, he won the Academy Award for Best Director. His most recent film, ‘Bug’ (2006) won the FIPRESCI prize at the Cannes Film Festival. He’s just completed the comedy/drama  Killer Joe which is due for release later this year.

After seeing the movie ‘Citizen Kane’ as a boy, Friedkin became fascinated with movies. He began working for WGN-TV immediately after high school. He eventually started his directorial career doing live television shows and documentaries. As mentioned in Friedkin’s voice-over commentary on the DVD re-release of Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’, Friedkin also directed one of the last episodes of ‘The Alfred Hitchcock Hour’ in 1965, called “Off Season”.

In 1965 Friedkin moved to Hollywood and two years later released his first feature film, ‘Good Times’ starring Sonny and Cher. Several other “art” films followed (including the gay-themed movie ‘The Boys in the Band’), although Friedkin did not necessarily want to be known as an art house director. He wanted to be known for action, serious drama, and for stories about an America turned upside down by crime, hypocrisy, the occult, and amorality, which he mounted up into his films.

In 1971, his ‘The French Connection’ was released to wide critical acclaim. Shot in a gritty style more suited for documentaries than Hollywood features, the film won five Academy Awards, including an Academy Award for Best Picture and of course, Best Director.

Friedkin followed up with 1973’s ‘The Exorcist’, based on William Peter Blatty’s  best-selling novel, which revolutionized the horror genre and is considered by some critics to be one of the greatest horror movies of all time. Friedkin’s directorial ‘ethics’ however, came into serious question when filming the now notorious scene where Linda Blair smacks Ellen Burstyn, causing her to fly backwards into a break-away table. Even after warning Friedkin the stuntman was “pulling her too hard,” Friedkin prompted him to pull her harder, resulting in a permanent back injury for Burstyn. The Exorcist was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. It won the Best Adapted Screenplay Award. Check out my review/reminiscence here

Unfortunately, Friedkin’s later movies did not achieve the same success. ‘Sorcerer’ (1977), a $22 million dollar American remake of the French classic ‘Wages of Fear’, starring Roy Scheider, was overshadowed by the box-office success of Star Wars, which was released around the same time. Friedkin considers it his finest film, and was personally devastated by its financial and critical failure (as mentioned by Friedkin himself in the documentary series The Directors (1999). I had the pleasure of seeing Friedkin present a new printof Sorcerer and perform an excellent Q & A immediately after. He was honest, engaging and a great raconteur… he also signed my Exorcist poster which is now a treasured possession.

Sorcerer was shortly followed by the crime-comedy ‘The Brinks Job’ (1978), based on the real-life Great Brink’s Robbery in Boston, which was also unsuccessful at the box-office. In 1980, he directed the highly controversial gay-themed crime thriller ‘Cruising’, starring Al Pacino, which was protested against even during its making and remains the subject of heated debate to this day.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Friedkin’s films received mostly lackluster reviews and moderate ticket sales. ‘Deal of the Century’ (1983), starring Chevy Chase, Gregory Hines and Sigourney Weaver, was sometimes regarded as a latter-day Dr. Strangelove, though it was generally savaged by critics. However, his action/crime movie ‘To Live and Die in L.A.'(1985), starring William Petersen and Willem Dafoe, was a critical favorite and drew comparisons to Friedkin’s own The French Connection (particularly for its car-chase sequence), while his courtroom-drama/thriller ‘Rampage’ (1987) received a fairly positive review from Roger Ebert. ‘The Guardian’ (1990) and ‘Jade’ (1995), starring Linda Fiorentino, received somewhat favorable response from critics and audiences. Friedkin even said that Jade was the favorite of all the films he had made.

In 2000, The Exorcist was re-released in theaters with extra footage and grossed $40 million in the U.S. alone. Friedkin’s involvement in 2007’s ‘Bug’ resulted from a positive experience watching the stage version in 2004. He was surprised to find that he was, metaphorically, on the same page as the playwright and felt that he could relate well to the story.

Later, Friedkin directed an episode of the hit TV series CSI: Crime Scene Investigations entitled “Cockroaches,” which re-teamed him with To Live and Die In L.A. star William Petersen. He would go on to direct again for CSI’s 200th episode, “Mascara.”

In June 2010, author William Peter Blatty, promoting his latest novel, revealed that Friedkin has committed to direct the feature film adaptation of his thriller, ‘Dimiter’. This would mark almost forty years since their previous collaboration, ‘The Exorcist’, not counting the failed collaboration between the two on ‘The Exorcist III’. The idea for the book itself actually came to Blatty while sitting in Friedkin’s office in 1972 during the first film’s production, as he read an article concerning the then atheist-run state of Albania executing a priest for baptizing a new-born infant. He has been working on it on and off ever since 1974, and, upon its completion, sat down with Friedkin for a one-on-one interview in The Huffington Post a few days after Blatty named Friedkin as attached to direct. According to the author, his friend and director has been eager to adapt the story for the last three years.

12 responses

  1. Eric Orner

    So interesting about the film Dimiter. Do you have any idea of when it is scheduled for release?

    Had no idea that William Friedkin had his start at Chicago’s WGN. The sort of detail that makes me love reading your blog—so much better reporting about the film industry than I read in the mainstream press.

    August 29, 2011 at 11:22 am

    • According to Blatty, in his June 30 audio interview with “Authors on Tour,” director William Friedkin has set out to make Dimiter a feature film, marking their first collaboration in almost 40 years. The two attempted to adapt Blatty’s previous novel, Legion, into a feature film but Friedkin later left that production over creative differences. Blatty went on to direct the picture himself. The two have, nonetheless, remained friends, speaking frequently. In lieu of the publication of Dimiter, Friedkin interviewed Blatty for his blog in the Huffington post, a few days after the author’s announcement of a feature film on July 6, and compared the new novel with their previous collaboration:
      Q. Do you think Dimiter measures up to The Exorcist, as a piece of writing?
      A. Without a doubt, it’s the best writing I’ve produced. I can’t surpass it. I know that.
      You can read the interview here:

      August 29, 2011 at 12:25 pm

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