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MASTERS OF CINEMA

William Friedkin, acclaimed director of The Exorcist and The French Connection, dies at 87

William Friedkin speaks onstage at the screening of The Exorcist during the 2023 TCM Classic Film Festival on 15 April 2023 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo: Jon Kopaloff / Getty Images for TCM)

William Friedkin, who achieved cinematic immortality by directing the bleak, gritty 1971 drug-smuggling thriller The French Connection and the terrifying 1973 demon-possession blockbuster The Exorcist, died on Monday at the age of 87.

He died at his home from heart failure and pneumonia, said a spokesperson for Creative Artists Agency.

Friedkin got his start as a director with the mild 1967 musical comedy “Good Times” with the pop duo Sonny and Cher, then spent the rest of his career creating some of the most disturbing, violent and controversial images in film history.

“The French Connection” won five Academy Awards, including best picture, best director for Friedkin and best actor for Gene Hackman, who Friedkin initially did not want in the memorable role of New York narcotics detective Popeye Doyle.

“The Exorcist” shocked moviegoers and offended some people with its unflinching tale of an innocent 12-year-old girl, played by Linda Blair, who undergoes a harrowing Roman Catholic exorcism to free her from possession by a demon. A cultural phenomenon and one of the highest-grossing movies of all time adjusted for inflation, it was hailed by some as the greatest horror movie ever made.

“The Exorcist” was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including best picture and best director for Friedkin.

“My films have always been a study of human behavior at its extremes,” Friedkin told interviewer Tom Huddleston in 2012. “They’re not aimed at young people, they’re aimed at adults. Is there a line I wouldn’t cross? … I don’t know.”

Friedkin went on to make other movies but none achieved the level of success of his two big triumphs.

Other noteworthy efforts included the 1985 crime thriller “To Live and Die in L.A.” starring William Petersen and Willem Dafoe, the 2006 mental disintegration chiller “Bug” with Ashley Judd, and the twisted 2011 black comedy “Killer Joe” starring Matthew McConaughey.

Detractors considered him a hot-tempered, arrogant bully and dubbed him “Hurricane Billy.” Friedkin admitted he had a sense of entitlement and hubris after making two of the defining movies of the 1970s.

In “The French Connection,” cops played by Hackman and Roy Scheider in the decaying New York City of the early 1970s track a French heroin smuggler. The film, shot almost in a documentary style, was raw, violent, and cynical, with brutal cops barely distinguishable from the bad guys.

It also contained one of the greatest chase sequences in cinema, involving Hackman’s character and an elevated train line.

GHASTLY ACTS

Friedkin went to great lengths to infuse “The Exorcist” – based on William Peter Blatty’s novel – with a desolate mood. To get genuine reactions on film, he slapped an actor and startled another by unexpectedly firing a gun. He also refrigerated the set to chill the actors and make their breath visible on film.

Friedkin had Blair, who was nominated for a Oscar for her astonishing turn as the possessed girl, perform ghastly acts.

Her character urinates and vomits. She levitates and her head spins around. She masturbates with a crucifix. With deep-voiced actress Mercedes McCambridge recording the demon’s lines emanating from the girl, she mouths appalling profanities.

“I personally believe that within each of us there are these forces of good and evil constantly battling for our souls,” Friedkin said in 2012. “We all have a dark side and we all have a better side. ‘The Exorcist’ is a metaphor for that.”

Friedkin had a losing streak after “The Exorcist.” The Roy Scheider action-thriller “Sorcerer,” his next film, bombed in 1977, as did the comedy “The Brink’s Job” in 1978.

His next film was the spectacular 1980 “Cruising” with Al Pacino as a cop who wades into New York’s gay subculture on the trail of a serial killer. Gay activists called the film homophobic and it sank in a storm of bad press.

William David Friedkin was born on Aug. 29, 1935, and grew up in Chicago, the son of poor Ukrainian immigrants. Unable to afford college, the young film buff worked in the mail room of a Chicago TV station after high school and soon began directing live shows.

He honed his skills making documentaries. One in 1965 helped lead to the commutation of a convicted killer’s death sentence. It also opened the door to Friedkin’s first job in Hollywood.

Friedkin suffered a heart attack in 1981 that he later blamed on his fondness for deep-dish pizza and hot dogs.

Friedkin married actress-turned–studio boss Sherry Lansing in 1991 after failed marriages to actresses Jeanne Moreau and Lesley-Anne Down and newscaster Kelly Lange.

(Reporting and writing by Will Dunham in Washington; Additional reporting by Danielle Broadway in Los Angeles; Editing by Bill Trott and Rosalba O’Brien.)

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