Willful, anxious William Friedkin knew his movies—and completed twenty provocative features—but looked back to two iconic texts, Jean Renoir’s “The Rules Of The Game” and especially Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane.” He aimed high: to movie heaven, and even to heaven itself. (With detours to hell.)
“I saw it when I was twenty years old,” he retold in one of the variations of his bright, shining moment, his core cinematic epiphany. “I had no idea what I wanted to do. And somebody told me there was this really interesting old film, playing at the Surf Theatre in Chicago on Dearborn and Division [later the Playboy, and finally, The Sandburg]. And I trusted this guy’s opinion. So I went there on a Saturday at noon, and I left the theater at midnight! I saw it five straight times, and it continues to influence me. It made me want to do that.
“Whatever that was, that’s what I wanted to do. I think it’s hard to categorize films, but to me, it’s the greatest film ever made: it synthesizes everything that was found in the past and it points the way toward the future. There’s almost no filmmaker working today, has ever seen that film that isn’t in some way influenced by it. ‘Citizen Kane.'”
A maker of hard-to categorize films, Friedkin took up the mantel of Orson Welles, that twenty-four-year-old Midwestern titan, forging a career in his own way, fueled by arrogance, boastfulness, bravado, confidence, self-assurance and moral questioning, a Chicago working-class autodidact who grew up poor in Uptown, who could still call up riding his tricycle as a child along Sheridan Road.
In “The Friedkin Connection” (2013), he writes that after a career-stalling heart attack, he was swept up by “A sudden image of myself pumping a little three-wheeler bike as fast as the wind along Sheridan Road in Chicago when my world was filled with promise.”
He was an only child. “Our neighbors were Jewish, German, Irish and Polish, descendants of the Europeans who settled in Chicago in the early part of the twentieth century. We used to sleep in Gunnison Park just off Sheridan with thousands of other families on a summer’s night. [But] it wasn’t as though I was deprived of anything. We were poor, but I never knew it. All my friends lived the same way.”
Although none of his films recollect that story, the Friedkin sensibility is pure Chicago: curious, proud, pugnacious. In his later decades, he might have been known more for his mouth than his mind, suffering neither fools nor slights to film history, as seen by someone who came up in the heyday of the studio system and European cinema. (He liked Fellini’s “8 1/2” an awful lot.) But the unstoppable movie writer-producer-director, dubbed “Hurricane Billy” for the force of that combative personality as well as his breakthrough features “The French Connection” (1971) and “The Exorcist” (1973), worked for over six decades, starting with television documentaries in Chicago in the 1960s. The acts, the artifacts on film remain, and as strong, if not stronger, then his opinions.
He would have turned eighty-eight at the end of August—and proved his endurance by manning a mobility scooter, accompanied by his insurance standby director Guillermo del Toro, and finished a final feature film, an Iraq War-set update of “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial,” featuring Lance Reddick, Kiefer Sutherland, Jason Clarke and Griffin Dunne, which debuts early in September at the Venice Film Festival. (It will play on Showtime soon.)
Del Toro placed a picture of himself and Friedkin on the set on Twitter, writing, “The world has lost one of the Gods of Cinema. Cinema has lost a true Scholar and I have lost a dear, loyal and true friend. William Friedkin has left us. We were blessed to have him.” Francis Coppola, who has become a regular user of Instagram the way Friedkin used Twitter for several years, posted that Friedkin “is the only colleague I knew whose work actually saved a man’s life (“The People Vs. Paul Crump,” 1962). Billy’s work represents true milestones in Cinema, a list which will never be forgotten… all of his films are alive with his genius. Pick any of them out of a hat and you’ll be dazzled. His lovable, irascible personality was cover for a beautiful, brilliant, deep-feeling giant of a man.”
Friedkin again turned toward Chicago with his muscular adaptations of two plays by Tracy Letts, “Bug” (2006, starring Michael Shannon) and “Killer Joe.” Vital and obstinate, the pair are timelessly irritating, their own hot-and-cold creatures. The world’s two biggest hits right now, “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer,” are nervous breakdowns of the highest order, and like Friedkin’s films partake both of precision and of manic release. Is there direct influence? There’s certainly kinship.
“The kind of films I once loved and still do are rarely made now. The action sequences for which my colleagues and I were celebrated now seem relics of another age,” Friedkin wrote. “The world explodes every day on a movie screen. After total destruction and annihilation, what’s left? And yet cinema is about illusion…”
“It seems to me a lot of those guys from his generation, they either learned to play the game and work within that system, or they didn’t,” Tracy Letts told me when “Killer Joe” came out in 2011. “If they didn’t, chances are, they went away. A lot of those guys couldn’t work within the system. So they went away. Billy is that rare bird who has managed to not work within the system, sometimes work in the system, go away, come back, and like you say, batshit-crazy, it’s hard to put an arc on him. The reason that Bill doesn’t make more movies isn’t that he can’t get hired, he genuinely doesn’t like the scripts he sees.”
In that indispensable memoir, published when he was seventy-eight, Friedkin wrote of the ups, downs, pauses and rekindlings of his long career. Of the bruising of “Cruising” (1980), “Had I done ‘Cruising’ simply to stir up controversy? I thought not. I knew it would be controversial, but not to this extent, nor did I believe it would trigger violence against gays. And it didn’t. I made it because it was a fresh take on the detective film against a background that had never been seen by a mainstream audience. And it encompassed the themes that continue to fascinate me: good and evil in everyone; our conflicting desires.”
But Friedkin knew that his timeless themes didn’t always suit the times: “My timing was off. It was the beginning of the Reagan era, a feel-good period, morning in America. The ambiguous films I revered and the ones I made were passing out of vogue. It happened quickly. ‘Rocky’ and ‘Star Wars,’ followed by ‘Close Encounters’ and ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ formed the new Hollywood template. Audiences wanted reassurance and superheroes, not ambiguity.”
And so “Cruising” was another defeat, on a par with the majestically bleak “Sorcerer.” Writes Friedkin, “Flaubert was asked how he could write a novel from the perspective of a woman. ‘Madame Bovary, c’est moi,’ was his famous answer: ‘Madame Bovary is me.’ I began to realize that my films came from deep within my psyche. My films are who I am, or at least, they are what fascinates and obsesses me.”
He was still the same insecure kid he was in high school, he wrote. “My emotions are flammable and can be set off by a random spark… I embody arrogance, insecurity, and ambition that spur me on as they hold me back. And while I’ve been healed of physical wounds, my character flaws remain for the most part unhealed. There’s no point in saying I’ll work on them. I spend part of each day acting out my worst instincts while I try to conceal them from those I care about. Every one of my films, plays, and operas has been marked by conflict, sometimes vindictive… Good and evil co-exist in me as in all of us, and I believe it’s a constant struggle for our better angels to prevail. This is a theme in all my films and remains a personal struggle… In spite of all the gifts God has given me, I still occasionally harbor anger and resentment. My salvation is to channel them into my work.”