William Friedkin: Director and Pacesetter of American Film

From a Washington Post obit by Adam Bernstein headlined “William Friedkin, director and pacesetter of 1970s American film, dies at 87”:

William Friedkin, the Oscar-winning director who brought chilling intensity to two generational touchstones of the 1970s, the gritty police drama “The French Connection” and the demonic-possession freakout “The Exorcist,” died at his home in Los Angeles.

A talent agent at Creative Artists Agency, which represents Mr. Friedkin’s wife, former Paramount studios chief Sherry Lansing, confirmed the death.

Mr. Friedkin — nicknamed Hurricane Billy for his turbulent personality and raging ambition — emerged from the Chicago slums determined to get noticed. He entered show business at age 16 as a TV mailroom gofer. He was soon directing programs, and he grabbed the attention of producers with a documentary that helped save the life of a Black death-row inmate in Illinois.

In a checkered filmmaking career spanning 50 years, Mr. Friedkin was regarded as both a cinematic pacesetter, responsible for two box-office juggernauts, and a director who struggled to replicate the commercial and critical highs of his heyday in the early 1970s.

His commercial breakout was “The French Connection” (1971), a low-budget crime drama starring the relatively unknown Gene Hackman as a New York police detective on the trail of a heroin shipment.

Determined to enhance the routine police procedural he’d been handed, Mr. Friedkin executed one of the most harrowing chase sequences ever filmed as Hackman’s character, driving through actual Brooklyn traffic, chases a suspect aboard an elevated subway train.

Beyond capturing panic in the streets with cinéma-vérité flourishes, the film was an exploration of moral ambiguity: Hackman’s dirty, racist cop, with all his flaws, is contrasted with a debonair and elusive drug kingpin, played by Spanish actor Fernando Rey.

“The French Connection,” which the American Film Institute ranks among the top 100 movies, unexpectedly won five Oscars, including for best picture, best director and best actor (awarded to Hackman).

Mr. Friedkin followed with “The Exorcist” (1973), which broke ground in the horror genre with (literally) head-spinning sacrilege and bloodcurdling violence perpetrated against an innocent child and all who attempt to help her. Film critic Roger Ebert admiringly called it “exploitation of the most fearsome resources of the cinema.”

With a cast headed by Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow and newcomer Linda Blair as the possessed girl, it became one of the highest-earning movies of all time and the first horror drama to earn an Academy Award nomination for best picture. Mr. Friedkin also received a nomination for his directing.

Mr. Friedkin’s back-to-back triumphs afforded him carte blanche in Hollywood.

“I had come from a one-room apartment in Chicago to the finest hotel suites in the world, first-class air travel, the finest tables in the best restaurants, beautiful women who sought my company, top of the line all the way,” he wrote in his 2013 memoir, “The Friedkin Connection.”

But his rapid ascent to the top of Hollywood’s directing ranks was followed by a succession of high-profile flops, including the action film “Sorcerer” (1977) and the murder mystery “Cruising” (1980). Gay rights groups protested the latter, starring Al Pacino as a cop going undercover in same-sex bars, as an offensive portrayal of gay life.

Mr. Friedkin’s diminished reputation was not helped, he conceded, by his bridge-burning attitude toward studio executives and his ruthless treatment of people on set. He said he would do anything — he would belittle or even slap an actor — to achieve greater urgency on-screen. He recalled slapping a real priest who appeared in “The Exorcist” and who failed to come through with convincing tears.

His actions, he explained in his autobiography, were motivated by a drive for artistry and status. “I embody arrogance, insecurity and ambition that spur me on as they hold me back,” he wrote. “My character flaws remain for the most part unhealed. There’s no point in saying I’ll work on them.”

Mr. Friedkin often recounted feeling humiliated as a newcomer to Hollywood in 1965. He was hired to direct an episode of the TV series “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour” and Hitchcock, whom he idolized, arrived on the set, criticized him for not wearing a tie and walked away.

A few years later, Mr. Friedkin won the top prize from the Directors Guild of America for “The French Connection” and made a point of seeking out Hitchcock in the audience.

“I had a rented tux and one of those snap-on bow ties,” he recalled. “I snapped my tie at him and said, ‘How do you like the tie now, Hitch?’ He just stared at me. He didn’t remember at all, but of course I did.”

‘Bad boy’ discovers cinema

William Friedkin was born in Chicago to Jewish immigrants from Ukraine. His father, a clothing salesman, struggled to make a living. His mother, an operating-room nurse, lost an eye in a freak accident involving a tray of surgical instruments.

Mr. Friedkin rarely cracked a book in school and mostly excelled at basketball and shoplifting. (“My only distinction,” he wrote, “was as the high school’s bad boy.”)

He was in his 20s when, after visiting an art house cinema, he became fascinated by Orson Welles and exciting European filmmakers including Ingmar Bergman, Jean-Luc Godard and Henri-Georges Clouzot.

Inspired by their visual inventiveness to become a movie director, he made a bleakly stylish feature-length documentary, “The People vs. Paul Crump” (1962), about an Illinois man charged with killing a security guard during a botched armed robbery.

The film accused the police of beating a confession out of Crump. “I had the idea that if I could pull this off,” it would be a powerful story, a kind of American ‘J’accuse,’” he wrote, referring to the famed open letter by French author Émile Zola in defense of a Jewish soldier unjustly convicted of treason.

The Illinois governor, in part because of the film, agreed to commute Crump’s death sentence to life in prison. The documentary propelled the director to Hollywood when it won the top award at the San Francisco International Film Festival.

Working in movies, Mr. Friedkin proved a capable journeyman with the Sonny and Cher vehicle “Good Times” (1967), the striptease musical “The Night They Raided Minsky’s” (1968) and the landmark gay drama “The Boys in the Band” (1970). He was then offered “The French Connection,” which was not considered a prestige project.

The studio forced him to take Hackman in the central role of Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle, a cop on the brink of burnout. Mr. Friedkin, who faulted the actor for judging the character rather than accepting his darkness, constantly needled Hackman about, perhaps, finding a day job other than acting.

“I would get his anger to a point where he would finish a take filled with rage and then walk off the set for the rest of the day,” Mr. Friedkin once told an interviewer. “That’s exactly what I wanted.”

The film’s producer had an earlier hit with “Bullitt” (1968), in which Steve McQueen’s character raced through the largely emptied streets of San Francisco. Mr. Friedkin decided to up the ante for “The French Connection.”

Mr. Friedkin said it took a bribe (“$40,000 and a one-way ticket to Jamaica”) to get a New York City Transit Authority official to look the other way as stunt coordinator Bill Hickman sat behind the wheel of a Pontiac LeMans and floored it for 26 blocks. Because members of the camera crew were married or had children, Mr. Friedkin got into the back seat to operate the camera during the dangerous stunt.

As the scene plays out, Hackman’s Doyle is seen speeding through the streets, pounding on his horn, bouncing off fenders, barreling through trash cans, almost spinning out of control to a symphony of screeching tires, and nearly striking a pedestrian wheeling a baby carriage.

Aside from the carefully staged baby-carriage scare, much of the dodging and weaving was left to chance, although a flashing police light — not visible in the shot — was placed on the car to warn onlookers.

“The crashes that occurred in the chase were never supposed to occur,” Mr. Friedkin told Variety in 2017. “Human life was in danger, my life was in danger, everybody who’s in that sequence — we could’ve killed somebody. By the grace of God no one was hurt. I would never do something like that ever again.”

Made on a budget of about $2 million, “The French Connection” took in more than $50 million.

‘The Exorcist’ and beyond

While filming “The Exorcist” — based on William Peter Blatty’s best-selling novel — the director was, by most accounts, a dictatorial perfectionist whose frequent reshooting of scenes to refine picayune details led to skyrocketing costs.

He also discharged firearms (with blanks) to provoke startled reactions from actors while filming, and Burstyn’s tailbone was injured in a stunt that required her — playing the possessed girl’s mother — to be pulled violently across a room. As Burstyn screamed in agony, Mr. Friedkin kept the cameras rolling.

“I was furious when he did that, exploiting the pain I was feeling,” Burstyn told Peter Biskind for his book about 1970s American cinema, “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.” “Since then I’ve always had trouble with my back.” Mr. Friedkin downplayed the incident, noting in one interview, “There was no insurance claim, and she’s worked steadily ever since.”

The film — in which the demon possessing the girl sexually assaults her with a crucifix — was steeped in blood, vomit and sacrilege. It repelled some critics and thrilled others.

But the publicity, from ecclesiastical denunciations to stories of viewers fainting in shock, yielded astronomical profit. Nominated for 10 Academy Awards, it won for best adapted screenplay (Blatty’s) and for best sound.

Mr. Friedkin next threw himself into a passion project, “Sorcerer” (1977), a remake of Clouzot’s celebrated 1953 French thriller “The Wages of Fear,” about men driving truckloads of nitroglycerin through a jungle. But Mr. Friedkin went $7 million over its $15 million budget. “Sorcerer” bombed, overshadowed by “Star Wars.”

His other credits include the Chevy Chase arms-dealing comedy misfire “Deal of the Century” (1983); the action film “To Live and Die in L.A.” (1985), which featured a memorable backward-on-the-freeway car chase; and the Joe Eszterhas-penned erotic thriller “Jade” (1995), which reportedly cost $50 million and brought in less than $10 million. He also adapted Tracy Letts’s stage shockers “Bug” (2006) and “Killer Joe” (2011).

His marriages to actresses Jeanne Moreau and Lesley-Anne Down and TV news anchor Kelly Lange ended in divorce. He married Lansing in 1991. He had a son from a relationship with Australian dancer Jennifer Nairn-Smith; and a son from his second marriage. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.

In addition to his films, Mr. Friedkin worked on music videos and staged operas. “Every one of my films, plays and operas has been marked by conflict, sometimes vindictive,” he wrote. “The common denominator is me, so what does that tell you?”

Adam Bernstein has spent his career putting the “post” in The Washington Post, first as an obituary writer and then as editor. The American Society of Newspaper Editors recognized Bernstein’s ability to exhume “the small details and anecdotes that get at the essence of the person.” He joined The Post in 1999.

Speak Your Mind