US director William Friedkin, who died Monday, will forever be remembered for his Oscar-winning The Exorcist in 1973, one of the most controversial horror films of all time that still chills new generations of moviegoers. The taboo-breaking scene of a 12-year-old girl, believed to be possessed by the devil, foul-mouthed and feverishly masturbating with a crucifix on her bed, provoked frenzy in audiences and sparked a global debate about the occult in the Catholic Church.
“It was shocking,” wrote Rolling Stone in 2018, recalling the first reactions. It “had people lining up at the entrances of movie theatres while the exits were soppy with puke from the previous showing.”
Remarkably for a horror film, it was nominated for 10 Oscars and took home two.
Pact with the devil
William Friedkin, who died in Los Angeles on Monday at the aged of 87, after suffering health issues in recent years, first hit the pinnacle in Hollywood a few years before The Exorcist – with his stomping, stylish 1971 thriller The French Connection.
Starring Gene Hackman as a cop in gritty, corrupt New York City, the film won five Oscars including Best Director and Best Picture. It was a pearl of the “New Hollywood” wave of socially and politically charged filmmaking associated with emerging directors such as Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese.
William Friedkin was asked to direct The Exorcist – based on a novel inspired by a reported case of possession of a 14-year-old boy – after other star directors including Stanley Kubrick had turned it down.
“I thought it was a film about the mystery of faith… but I didn’t set out to make a horror film,” William Friedkin was quoted saying in The Hollywood Reporter in 2015. “But by now, I have accepted that it is.”
His film was followed by four sequels, based on the same novel but without William Friedkin’s participation, together grossing more than $600 million world wide. A television series began in 2016.
William Friedkin was born in Chicago in 1935. His mother was a nurse and his father held several jobs, from merchant seaman and semi-professional softball player to discount-clothes salesman.
He singled out a viewing in his twenties of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) as having a radical impact. “It changed my life,” he said in a 2014 interview published on the website of respected US critic, Roger Ebert. “It made me understand that film was an art form and a unique way of storytelling that I had never considered.”
William Friedkin started working in television as a runner and then directed TV shows before making his own documentary in 1962, The People vs Paul Crimp, about a real-life death row prisoner.
The film would contribute to Crimp’s death sentence being commuted, convincing William Friedkin of “the power of cinema”, he told AFP in an interview in 2017.
In 1967 he made his first feature, Good Times, a musical starring the popular pop duo Sonny and Cher.
Eclipse from the A-List
After his heyday in the 1970s, came a spectacular fall from the Hollywood A-List. It was his ambitious Sorcerer (1977), that would prove William Friedkin’s undoing.
After a difficult shoot that went wildly over budget to cost $22 million, the film bombed at the US box office, grossing just under $6 million.
It was also eclipsed by the first instalment of George Lucas’s Star Wars, released at the same time.
Amongst his other flops from a total of about 20 features was Cruising (1980) with Al Pacino as an undercover cop hunting down a serial killer in New York’s S&M scene.
But Killer Joe in 2011, starring Matthew McConaughey as a man plotting to kill his own mother, brought renewed critical praise.
In 2018, decades after his most famous hit, William Friedkin revisited the themes of The Exorcist with the documentary The Devil and Father Amorth, about a priest performing an exorcism in Italy.
“The life of a film maker is one film to another,” William Friedkin told the LA Times in 1989 about how he picked himself up after his career had taken a tumble.
“There’s a great reward when you connect with the public and people are lining up around the block to see your film. But the real joy is making the film.”
William Friedkin was married four times, the first time to one of France’s top actresses, Jeanne Moreau.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)
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