Two movies, made four decades ago, have overwhelmed the oeuvre of Hollywood director William Friedkin: The French Connection, which won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, came out in 1971; The Exorcist, one of the highest-grossing movies of all time, was released in 1973.
As the eminent auteur acknowledges in his new memoir, The Friedkin Connection, none of his other movies—21 so far—have matched the acclaim and commercial success of those two career-making blockbusters.
At least, not yet.
“I don’t think in terms of ‘topping them,’” Friedkin tells me when I ask if that’s his goal. “I can’t really define what ‘topping them’ means. But I can tell you this: What I think of as success, in terms of a film that I’ve made, is how close I’ve come to my vision of it when I made it. Sometimes I have fallen short. Often I’ve fallen short.”
But not into inactivity.
These days Friedkin—whose two most recent films, Bug and Killer Joe, both hyperviolent satires of white-trash America, came out in 2007 and 2012, respectively—is working on two new movies and “as I get closer with them, God willing, I will commit to one or both of them,” he says. Bug features a frequently naked Ashley Judd, who recently decided not to run against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in the 2014 campaign in Kentucky. "Let me put it this way," Friedkin says. "She made the right decision."
Meanwhile, this autodidact who barely graduated high school has been staging grand operas since the late 1990s (agreeing to direct his first, at the invitation of Israel Philharmonic director Zubin Mehta, without ever having actually seen one), and now is considering offers to direct three more. In 2015, Friedkin’s old friend Kent Nagano, the Japanese conductor for whom he staged Richard Strauss’s Salome at the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich, will take over as music director of the Hamburg State Opera, and has invited Friedkin to direct his opening production—surely an epic way for this native son of Chicago to celebrate his 80th year on the planet.
“Yeah, but I don’t count my birthdays, I leave that to others,” the director demurs. “I don’t celebrate my birthday. I don’t know why people do.”
Friedkin’s cinematic sensibility is admittedly dark. He is fascinated by the demimonde and charmed by Mafia hit men. His movies teem with murderous criminals, rogue cops, discontented women and their thuggish abusers, and, yes, evil demons. Some of his filmmaking is so grisly that many viewers, me included, find it hard not to avert their eyes (or, as in the case of The Exorcist, literally faint in their seats). When meddling studio executives counsel prudence, he can be ornery and uncompromising, even when he knows that, as he tells me, “I’m attracted to stories like Bug and Killer Joe [both written by Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Tracy Letts] that can in no way achieve the financial success or even the adulatory success that films like The Exorcist and The French Connection achieved.”
And here Friedkin offers a shocking revelation: “If I had my own way,” he says, “I would’ve loved to direct the MGM musicals—films like American in Paris, Gigi, Singin’ in the Rain, The Band Wagon. These are really among my favorite films that I watch over and over again.” But, he laments: “The fact is that, in my time, that music is not being written or performed. There is no Fred Astaire, there is no Gene Kelly or Ann Miller or Cyd Charisse. That's a bygone era. But that's the one I am most attracted to. If I have any misgivings, it is that I wasn't able to do films like the ones I've just mentioned.”
Who knew? Yet maybe it shouldn’t be such a surprise. As his memoir recounts, Friedkin’s first Hollywood feature, in 1967, was Good Times, a silly spoof starring Sonny and Cher; the director describes the late Sonny Bono, who was a Republican congressman from Palm Springs, California, when he died in a 1998 skiing accident, as one of the world’s rare “geniuses.”
“You could not do it with a movie star today unless they asked you to.”
Friedkin roundly rejects the argument—advanced by the National Rifle Association and other opponents of restricting firearms in the wake of the Newtown massacre—that Hollywood movies and graphic video games, not gun ownership, are responsible for the bloodlust in American society.
“I've seen no authoritative studies that show that. None,” he insists. “Loeb and Leopold [wealthy Chicago law students Robert Loeb and Nathan Leopold, who were convicted of kidnapping 14-year-old Bobby Franks and bludgeoning him to death with a chisel in 1924] never saw violent movies. They were in their late teens, early 20s, students at the University of Chicago, when they committed what was called ‘the crime of the century.’ The Manson Family was influenced by the Beatles song “Helter Skelter,” which they wrote in blood on the walls of the people they killed. Does that mean the Beatles’ recordings should’ve been banned? The people that are out committing violent acts all over the world, or threatening them like North Korea, have not been raised on violent movies.” (By the way, Friedkin approvingly cites a young South Korean filmmaker who recently told him that his countrymen don’t worry about getting nuked because Kim Jong-un is considered a clown.)
Somewhat mischievously, Friedkin argues that Albert DeSalvo, better known as “The Boston Strangler,” didn’t watch violent movies either, but honed his homicidal skills on a 1950s television sitcom starring the mild-mannered Robert Cummings.
“Robert Cummings played a photographer who was using his tape measure and touching the breasts and the hips of the models, and he was turning them on, and it was all very innocent,” Friedkin says. “That's what gave Albert DeSalvo the idea to become what he was first known as around Boston, ‘the Measuring Man.’ He would ring a doorbell, a woman would answer, and he'd say, ‘I understand that you are a possible candidate to do some modeling. Would you be interested?’ Invariably these women would let him into their apartments, he would whip out his tape measure, and a great many of them got turned on by DeSalvo, his tape measure, and his camera … He had done hundreds of these before committing a murder, so it was the Bob Cummings Show that caused it.”
On the other hand, Friedkin confides, “I was raised on violent movies!”
And Friedkin is not known as a violent man.
In his book, however, he does confess to instances where he felt it necessary to slap a performer’s face in order to obtain the obligatory on-camera passion. Two beneficiaries of this directorial technique were a real-life Jesuit priest named Walter O’Malley, a nonprofessional who was having trouble producing tears while giving the last rites to Father Damien Karras in The Exorcist, and, for similar reasons, convicted murderer Paul Crump, an African-American death-row inmate about whom young Friedkin made a much-admired 1962 television documentary arguing for Crump’s innocence (although Friedkin decided years later, after Crump was freed on parole, that he was probably guilty).
“I didn’t invent that,” Friedkin says about slapping his actors, which he figures he has done maybe four times in all. “There are many other directors that have used that—often with the total acquiescence of the actor.” He adds: “One of the people who did that is Sidney Lumet … John Ford had done it, a number of directors had done it—not out of any malice or to hurt someone, but to bring back the sense-memory of being emotionally hurt, really to produce tears when tears were called for but hard to come by.”
Could a director get away with that in these litigious times?
“It depends on the relationship that you have with whoever’s doing it,” Friedkin says. “I have only done that when the person in front of the camera said, ‘Billy, what can I do? I don’t know what to do or how to get at this.’ And you always work on an emotional scene as a director with an actor from sense-memory. That was a very shortcut way of doing it. But you could not do it with a movie star today unless they asked you to.”
Surprisingly for a memoir running to nearly 500 pages, Friedkin omits, as he warns readers, “most of the intimate details of my private life, lest the book be slapped with an NC17 rating.” He credits former Paramount Pictures and 20th Century Fox chief Sherry Lansing, his fourth wife for the past two decades, for helping him decide to leave out what surely must have been the steamy escapades of a hot director.
“I wrote all that stuff,” Friedkin says, adding that he spent the past three years summoning up memories (he didn’t keep a diary) and writing them out in longhand. “I wrote about ex-wives and affairs and all that stuff … but I wasn't interested in engaging anyone from my past in debate," he says. "Sherry gave me a lot of comments and notes, but she never said, ‘You should take that stuff out.’ Her comments were mostly in the way of saying, ‘Look, if you’re talking about somebody and you’re going to say some negative things, you should try and reflect their positions as well.’”
Or maybe they'll just have to publish their own Hollywood memoirs.