Friday, September 6, 2013

The Friedkin Connection: A Memoir

I'll start this review out by being as direct as William Friedkin is in this book - any film lover should take this book home and pore through it. While ostensibly a memoir, the book is actually more of a study in making films. I found myself riveted.

Friedkin is the Chicago-born director of The French Connection (which earned him a Best Director nod), The Exorcist, To Live and Die in L.A. and most recently, the violent little gem Killer Joe. While Friedkin sets the stage for the book with some anecdotes about growing up on the north side of Chicago he quickly moves to his professional career which started with filming documentaries for local television stations, after which he was quickly recruited to Los Angeles to begin a career in film. His rise was fairly quick, as once he got his feet wet directing his first film (a Sonny and Cher movie) it took only 6 years and 4 films before he won his Oscar.

The real meat of the book is the detail that Friedkin provides in his descriptions of creating the films for which he is best known. The section devoted to The French Connection runs 80 pages and that of The Exorcist runs 90 pages, and both parts of the book are fascinating descriptions of the creation of a film, from finding the source material and casting to finally setting it free for the audiences and critics. We learn that Friedkin had doubts about Gene Hackman's Best Actor-winning role in The French Connection as well as the variety of technical problems that plagued The Exorcist. He is also straight-forward about his dealings with the MPAA, studio heads and various underworld connections who were able to aid him in various settings.

Perhaps the most enjoyable part of the book for me was the section on Sorcerer, his follow-up to The Exorcist. Coming on the heels of Star Wars, Sorcerer was unjustly ignored by critics and even now only exists as a poor DVD copy (though Friedkin has supposedly worked through some of the legal ramifications that have stood in the way of his releasing a cleaned up copy). Starring Roy Scheider, Sorcerer is a remake of the French Wages of Fear and is a brilliant and intense film that is just waiting to be rediscovered. The film went way over budget after many problems with its multinational production and was a box office failure, while his next film - Cruising - brought protests from gay activists who felt that the film portrayed the New York gay clubbing community in a negative light. Ironically, one of his first big critical successes was a sensitive adaptation of The Boys in the Band, one of the first films to focus on gay characters and to portray them in a positively.

You could say that Friedkin went into retreat after these two failures, though in reality he has been producing quality films ever since, with highlights of To Live and Die in L.A., Bug and Killer Joe (both based on Tracy Letts plays) and even a number of well-received operas. If you're dying to know every personal detail that makes a man tick, this is probably not your book. But if you're looking for tales from the world of film, written in a hard-boiled no-nonsense voice, then you should definitely put this near the top of your list.

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