I clearly remember the first time I realized the name of William Friedkin. I was 12 years old.
I used to wander around Manhattan a lot by myself in those days. I loved bookstores and hobby shops and particularly loved dingy places that sold weird collectibles. One Saturday I walked into such a place, in this case a movie memorabilia on Bleecker Street, and saw a huge poster meant to be displayed in tube stations. The image hit me square in the face: a truck in the pouring rain, leaning impossibly to the right on a rickety rope bridge ready to collapse. It simply said: “a William Friedkin film, MAGICIAN.”
What a mysterious and wonderful work of art! I bought it ($10, all I had on it) and posted it on my wall.
Soon after, I learned that this same director had done a screening of a movie at the Hollywood Twin, a Times Square porn theater recently turned into a revival house. The film was called the french connection, and it hit me like a ton of bricks. Nothing about him was like anything she had seen before. The image looked like one of those gritty documentaries one might see on PBS. The cop seemed like a bastard, a crude racist who enjoyed the worst aspects of the job and screwed up a lot. He said things that didn’t make sense (“Have you ever picked your feet in Poughkeepsie?”) and he lived in a pigsty. Was he supposed to support him? I did it anyway. The movie felt cold but combustible, and there was that lunatic car chase.
And what did he say about New York, the city I grew up in, the city that meant everything and nothing to me? It was a vision of hell, the Big Apple imagined as a huge garbage dump, violent, relentless, and hopeless. I loved it for capturing the danger and soul of the city so vividly and truthfully. Later, I came to admire the film for its brilliant acting and deft examination of social class. But at the time, he was simply overwhelmed by the power of his images.
The other images followed. The Exorcist and Cruise and Live and Die in LA and finally Magician itself (caught up in a rights battle, hadn’t been available for years). Each one of them surprised and excited me and subverted my expectations. Sometimes I found myself confused, provoked or angry. Thank heaven for that. The movies were frankly electric. I became an unregenerate Friedkinophile and searched for all the interviews and facts I could about the filmmaker and his work.
His personal history is now well documented, and his autobiography, the highly entertaining The Friedkin Connection, serves as an excellent account of his extraordinary life. First, he was Chicago and a difficult childhood redeemed by a mother who loved him dearly. He found work on local television and soon turned to making documentaries (one of them, The people against Paul Crump, literally saved his subject from the electric chair). California called, but neither of the first two images of him: Sonny and Cher’s vehicle good times and the musical comedy The night Minsky’s was raided —reflected the blunt sensibility of the young man who made them.
An even more ambitious work soon followed: Pinter’s The birthday partyso the boys in the bandand then your progress with the french connection. With The Exorcisthis place in the firmament was assured, and Billy used his status to take risks.
It’s often been said that the New Hollywood gave directors tremendous freedom, but the simple fact is that the films we now revere were made by seriously brave filmmakers who had to fight like hell: Coppola with The Godfather; later, Scorsese with Taxi driver; and Spielberg with jaws, among others. Certainly, with Billy’s work, each film is a testimonial not only to a moment, but also to the artist who made it. In that moment, he paid a price for the chances he took. He became, in industry jargon, “legendary,” though after meeting and marrying his soul mate, the glorious Sherry Lansing, his life seemed to settle into a quieter rhythm.
Later, I was lucky enough to make my own films, and even more lucky to get to know William Friedkin a little bit. He immediately became “Billy” to me (her request of him), and I was always amazed at how kind he was. She wasn’t as close to him as she should have been; he was so warm and welcoming, always inviting me closer. But I confess to being intimidated by his intellect, afraid at times to call. Billy was self-taught, and there seemed to be no subject, artist, detail he wasn’t familiar with. His opinions were her own, and she loved to stir things up. No position, no matter how controversial, did not deserve to be examined. He enjoyed great speeches, and his honesty, something in hindsight that I deeply treasure, might be too much for some.
In fact, he had a reputation for being fierce (his nickname was “Hurricane Billy”), but I didn’t see that side of him. I just met an intellectually curious man who gave a lot of his time. When I went to Paris to put on an opera, my first call was to Billy (who, in addition to his spectacular film career, had become a brilliant opera director). He was very helpful and specific, and we started an ongoing dialogue as I found my way through the production. I often worried that I had tortured him with my panic calls and questions, but he never betrayed the slightest hint of annoyance. Rather, he inspired and encouraged me beyond measure.
As the years passed, he spoke of his mortality more frequently but without a trace of self-pity. He seemed at peace, and his sight of the relentless melting of time had an air of acceptance. He was famously confident—he was said by many to be arrogant—but with me, he often seemed willing to dismiss his own contributions, calling his work a “quick lunch” compared to the “gourmet dinner” of directors he admired. . He tended to dismiss himself as a mere craftsman, but perhaps that was why he was an artist.
The last time I saw him was a few months ago for dinner, at his and Sherry’s beautiful house. It was a characteristically beautiful evening. But perhaps I subconsciously sensed that I might never see him again. At some point during dessert, I blurted out an embarrassingly direct “I love you.” He looked at me for a moment and I thought I might get a sarcastic quip back. Instead, he touched my hand and replied, “I love you too, James.”
It moved me to tears. All the humor and toughness and unsentimental darkness were part of him, yes. But it wasn’t the whole picture and underneath it all was a tremendous wellspring of soul and sensitivity. Of course it had to be, it’s there, at work. he was the man William Friedkin was genuine, sui generis, vital. He was a giant.