In the freewheeling 1970s, William Friedkin was famous for scaring moviegoers half to death, for directing culture-changing, widely debated blockbusters and for breaking all the rules of the Hollywood establishment.
Now, at 77 and having suffered health problems and a prolonged creative dry spell, the maverick filmmaker seems as brash and grandiose as ever in “The Friedkin Connection: A Memoir” (Harpers, $29.99), the brutally confessional recounting of his life on and off screen.
In a frank, entertainingly written narrative the book ranges from his movie-besotted youth in Chicago to early days directing live television drama and his heyday in the early ’70s when he scored his greatest hits in “The French Connection” (earning him a directing Oscar) and “The Excorist,” through the downturn in his career marked by risky work such as “Cruising” and the costly misfire of “Sorcerer” that knocked him off the A-list.
Of his earliest influences in filmmaking, Friedkin credits Orson Welles and “Citizen Kane” with setting the course for his future.
“I watched it five times a day,” he writes. “And I couldn’t believe it. When I came out, it was like standing in front of a Vermeer or a Rembrandt. That’s the effect it had on me.”
Among the juiciest passages of the book are behind-the-scenes revelations about the conception and execution of signature moments in his best-known films. He talks about brainstorming and walking the streets of New York to come up with ideas for the breakneck car chase scene in “The French Connection” (which put lives at risk and involved a $40,000 bribe to an MTA official). And he writes vividly about actress Mercedes McCambridge voicing the demon’s lines in “The Exorcist.” It was a grueling, month-long process in which the actress, a stern Catholic who’d quit smoking and belonged to AA, employed the counseling of two priests and ample quantities of cigarettes and Jack Daniels to achieve the desired effect.
Friedkin’s confessions of poor judgment and bad behavior come grudgingly but honestly – the harshest relating to his breakthrough documentary “The People vs. Paul Crump,” which exonerated a guilty man, and the transgressions of three failed marriages. “I embody arrogance, insecurity and ambition that spur me on as they hold me back,” he writes candidly.
With much how-to detail and hard-won wisdom on the ins and outs of making films his way, Friedkin’s book works not only as a vibrant memoir but also as treasure trove of insights and information that should inspire young filmmakers for decades to come.
Written with the rich particularity and driving narrative force that have marked his movies – including such recent comeback successes as “Bug” and “Killer Joe” (based on Oklahoman Tracey Letts’ stage plays) – “The Friedkin Connection” is the work of a natural storyteller who has now deftly transferred his considerable gifts from the big screen to the printed page.
- Dennis King