Chasing Brilliance: The Unforgettable Films of Director William Friedkin

Renowned filmmaker William Friedkin, celebrated for his directorial mastery in the 1970s with iconic films like the gritty crime thriller “The French Connection” and the spine-chilling horror classic “The Exorcist,” passed away on August 7 at his residence in Los Angeles. He was 87 years old.

Cinematic Maverick Remembering the Legacy of William Friedkin
Cinematic Maverick Remembering the Legacy of William Friedkin

the Legacy of William Friedkin

A representative from Creative Artists Agency, the talent agency that represents Mr. Friedkin’s wife, former Paramount studios chief Sherry Lansing, confirmed his passing, though specific details were not provided.

Emerging from the tough neighborhoods of Chicago, Mr. Friedkin, often dubbed “Hurricane Billy” due to his passionate temperament and fierce determination, aimed to make his mark in the world. His journey into the entertainment industry commenced at just 16, when he took on the role of a TV mailroom assistant. Swiftly rising through the ranks, he transitioned into directing and garnered attention with a documentary that played a pivotal role in saving the life of a Black death-row inmate in Illinois.

Over his diverse five-decade career in filmmaking, Friedkin stood as a pioneer in cinema, delivering blockbuster hits and demonstrating unmatched directorial prowess. However, he also faced challenges in recreating the commercial and critical triumphs of his prime during the early 1970s.

Cinematic Maverick Remembering the Legacy of William Friedkin
Cinematic Maverick Remembering the Legacy of William Friedkin

One of his ground breaking achievements was “The French Connection” (1971) a low-budget crime drama that starred the relatively unknown Gene Hackman as a New York detective on the trail of a heroin smuggling operation. Going beyond the expectations of a routine police procedural Friedkin executed one of the most nail biting chase sequences ever filmed as Hackman’s character pursued a suspect on an elevated subway train amidst real Brooklyn traffic. Beyond its captivating cinema-verite style the film delved into moral complexities pitting Hackman’s flawed and prejudiced cop against a sophisticated and elusive drug lord portrayed by Spanish actor Fernando Rey.

Notably “The French Connection” earned a place among the American Film Institute’s top 100 movies and defied expectations by securing five Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor for Gene Hackman.

Following this triumph Friedkin embarked on the horror genre with “The Exorcist” (1973) a film that pushed the boundaries with its shocking depiction of sacrilege and terrifying violence inflicted upon an innocent child and those attempting to aid her. Esteemed film critic Roger Ebert praised the movie as a masterful exploration of cinema’s most terrifying resources.

Featuring a cast headlined by Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow and newcomer Linda Blair as the possessed girl the film became a monumental box-office success, earning its place as one of the highest grossing films in history. It was also the first horror drama to secure an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture alongside a nomination for Friedkin’s direction.

These back to back triumphs granted Friedkin immense creative freedom in Hollywood. Reflecting on his meteoric rise he shared his journey from a modest Chicago apartment to the pinnacle of luxury recounting his experiences of first class air travel, lavish hotels, fine dining and sought-after companionship.

Cinematic Maverick Remembering the Legacy of William Friedkin
Cinematic Maverick Remembering the Legacy of William Friedkin

However, Friedkin’s ascent was followed by a series of high profile disappointments including “Sorcerer” (1977) and “Cruising” (1980) which struggled to replicate the success of his earlier works. The latter film starring Al Pacino as an undercover cop in the gay bar scene sparked protests from LGBTQ+ rights groups for its controversial portrayal.

Acknowledging his fall from grace Friedkin admitted his strained relationships with studio executives and his often harsh treatment of those on set contributed to his diminished reputation. He confessed to resorting to extremes even slapping an actor in his pursuit of on screen intensity. A notable incident involved slapping a real priest during the filming of “The Exorcist” when the priest failed to deliver convincing tears.

In his autobiography he attributed these actions to a blend of artistic ambition and personal flaws, acknowledging his arrogance, insecurity and unrelenting ambition. He candidly admitted that these character traits remained largely unaddressed.

Friedkin often recounted a humbling encounter from his early days in Hollywood when he directed an episode of “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.” His idol Alfred Hitchcock reprimanded him for not wearing a tie leaving Friedkin feeling embarrassed. Years later after winning the top prize from the Directors Guild of America for “The French Connection” Friedkin playfully sought out Hitchcock in the audience quipping about his now snapped on bow tie.

In the end William Friedkin’s legacy stands as a blend of cinematic innovation thrilling storytelling and complex characters. His contributions to the world of film from heart pounding chase scenes to spine tingling horror, continue to captivate and inspire audiences leaving an indelible mark on the industry he dedicated his life to.

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