Published on September 18th, 2013 | by Craig Silliphant
The Friedkin Connection
For a director with a more than 40-year career in film, there are only a handful of William Friedkin movies that have really captured my attention: staples like The French Connection and The Exorcist, and maybe some lesser-known movies like Sorcerer, Cruising, and To Live and Die in LA. In fact, there’s a lot of garbage in his grab bag, forgettable films like Rules of Engagement or The Hunted (which he seems to remember as being better than they really were).
When I came across his recent autobiography, The Friedkin Connection, I wasn’t sure I was chomping at the bit to dive into its pages. Often times, memoirs like this are to be slogged through, until you get the pages where the author talks about the seminal films themselves. But I took a chance on it, not because of his scattershot catalogue, but because I’d grown up hearing such crazy stories about his personality and some of the down and dirty ways he’d committed films like The Exorcist to celluloid. I mean, this is the guy that was responsible for almost crippling Ellen Burstyn, injuring 12-year old Linda Blair’s back, and slapping a priest, all just to get more realistic performances.
For the most part, the book was a payoff. Friedkin is a good storyteller, and he gives us insights in the early sections to things like the history of early live television and working with people like Sonny and Cher. He tells the stories quickly, focusing less on the tedious details and more on an interesting career and life lived.
There are some great anecdotes, like having his car break down on the way to the Oscars, when he was nominated for The Exorcist. Using his wits as he often did, he convinced a random guy at the gas station to drive him to the ceremony, with the promise of a phone call to the man’s wife afterwards to verify that her husband was indeed telling the truth about a famous passenger. There’s also a terrific story about Hitchcock chastising Friedkin for not wearing a tie on the set of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, where he worked as a director.
While there are enjoyable insights to Friedkin’s life, it also feels like the fast pace of writing makes it easier for him to cheap out and gloss over some of the crazier stories, like the before mentioned permanent spinal injury of Ellen Burstyn. It was caused when the crew jerked her backwards violently on a rig; her screams of pain were so realistic (um, because they were real) that they made it into the final film. There are several powerful moments in that film that were famously caused by Friedkin pushing too far, which always lead me to the question — how far should a director go for the right take? Unfortunately, the book shies away from almost all of these stories. And when he does mention certain tales, he neither accepts responsibility, nor even tries to justify his actions. He makes comments about how others have called him volatile, but never really seems to fully own it. Maybe he’s just keeping us at arm’s length? Even the photo galleries are oddly inclusive of certain people that barely feature within the book’s pages, and devoid of some of the iconic photos it could include.
The ending fizzles out a little bit, but then again, besides his foray into opera, his career sort of fizzled out for many years. He does seem to be going back to his grittier aesthetic with more interesting movies like Killer Joe, so perhaps he’s got more piss and vinegar left in him. All in all, The Friedkin Connection is an interesting read, honest at times, dishonest at others. But it’s worth reading for cinefiles, if only to get a bit of an inside scoop about early TV and films like Cruising, The Exorcist, and The French Connection.