May 6, 2014

Read the Movie - THE FRIEDKIN CONNECTION: A MEMOIR by William Friedkin (Review)

William Friedkin
Published: April, 2013
HarperCollins / 512 Pages
Available in Hardcover, Paperback and Kindle Editions (Hardcover edition reviewed)

* * *  (out of 4)

The first thing that struck me when I began reading Director William Friedkin's memoir The Friedkin Connection was just how quickly the man gets down to business.  Less interested in telling his personal life - and can you blame him - Mr. Friedkin jumps right in with where his love for movies came from, the beginnings of his career working for various TV stations in Chicago and then segueing into his long and more-often-than-not successful Hollywood career. Sure, there are a couple of moments of his private life revealed like who his parents were, a snapshot of his upbringing and then later in life his meeting and marriage to former CEO of Paramount Pictures Sherry Lansing.  However it's Mr. Friedkin's memories from the development and production of his biggest films such as The French Connection, The Exorcist, Sorcerer and To Live and Die in L.A. are where you get a sense that making movies is when he is truly in his element.

I wasn't really all that surprised by this approach given that I have had the pleasure of seeing Mr. Friedkin in person talk about his films before screenings at the Academy and American Cinematheque.  He knows how to tell a story and knows the strong points about the process and his films that Cinephiles want to hear.  I once saw him openly scold a patron who questioned how the drug dealer's car in The French Connection could be disassembled and re-assembled so perfectly in such a short period of time.  Mr. Friedkin had no problem dressing the guy down, but did it in such a way that it was entertaining and you were more embarrassed that he had to answer such a ludicrous question (It's a movie, time is condensed was his reply).

When it comes to his films, Mr. Friedkin leaves no stone unturned taking each movie one-by-one and focusing on the struggles to get the film made as well as being straight-forward concerning missteps he took along the way that sent him into a late career downward spiral where it seemed he couldn't hired to go on a movie set let alone direct one.  It's this detailed behind-the-scenes approach that truly makes The Friedkin Connection well worth reading, especially when the titles in question are as memorable as the ones I listed above.

As you can imagine, The French Connection, The Exorcist and Sorcerer - which has just recently been released on Blu-ray Disc from Warner Home Video - take up the most space for various reasons and acts as the backbone of his entire career.  The French Connection sent Mr. Friedkin's career into the stratosphere, especially when it took home the Academy Award for Best Picture and he won for Best Director.  The stories behind the scenes make for great reading, especially the ones that cover Mr. Friedkin's reluctance to hire Gene Hackman who looking back now is so integral to the strength of that movie as Popeye Doyle (and he too took home an Oscar that year) that you can't imagine the movie without him.  There is also great detail given to the classic car chase through the streets of New York, some of which will have you cringing as you read and imagine the danger it presented when some short cuts are taken to get it right with actions that he laments in hindsight.

The Exorcist finds Mr. Friedkin at the top of the Hollywood food chain making a movie that for me (and most others) stands as one of - if not THE - scariest horror films ever made.  Unlike The French Connection which is told in one long chapter, The Exorcist takes up 3 full chapters covering every tiny detail.  Especially intriguing is his description of how Mercedes McCambridge came to be hired and the process by which she performed Regan's Demon voice.  I don't want to spoil any of it here, but this section in particular was one of the strongest and most jaw-dropping tales of a Hollywood movie-making process that I have ever read.

By the time Mr. Friedkin gets to making Sorcerer, he openly admits that his ego was raging which resulted in excessive cost overruns on the picture as well as personal antics which alienated him with the execs, who abandon him completely when it bombed badly at the box office.  The result left him virtually in career ruin, unable to find work and he became almost a catch-phrase as to how not to make movies among those in the industry at the time.

It's a career that has had many ups-and-downs and is a great example of how Hollywood success can be a person's own worst demon (no pun intended) which Mr. Friedkin openly admits was one of his. While the chapters concerning later and more recent movies such as Killer Joe and Bug don't get the same attention as The French Connection or The Exorcist, they're still just as intriguing reading and the book left me wanting to revisit almost all of the titles (I had already purchased the new Sorcerer Blu-ray before reading, but ended up ordering a Blu-ray of The Exorcist almost immediately following those chapters).

As far as Hollywood memoirs go, Mr. Friedkin knows what the readers want - detailed behind-the-scenes stories about movies that are firmly cemented as classics in the history of cinema by a man who truly loves what he does.