The Friedkin Connection: A Memoir
“It seems as though William Friedkin never forgot a resentment. . . . The book is full of stuff like that—the opportunity to settle scores with people who were by and large far less successful or powerful.”
Academy Award-winning director William Friedkin combines a storyteller’s eye for keen detail and a seemingly photographic memory in his memoir The Friedkin Connection: A Memoir published in spring 2013.
Friedkin is best remembered today for two early pictures The Exorcist and The French Connection. His description of how he made The French Connection is itself worth the price of the book. He recounts with extraordinary specificity the battles he fought 40 years ago to make the movie happen—battles with practically everyone in Hollywood—and then his struggles to get the film actually shot in New York.
If you go back and watch the chase scene involving a car careening down the streets of New York and an elevated subway train, you see movie magic. Friedkin reveals, however, that he shot those scenes while putting crew, cast members, and even pedestrians at risk of their lives. He comes across as contrite, but there’s definitely the sense that if he had the opportunity today he would have done the same thing all over again.
Friedkin’s career sputtered after the self-admitted hubris following the worldwide success of The Exorcist, one of the most frightening and controversial movies ever made. He is remarkably candid about three astonishing failures of judgment in the mid- to late-1970s.
First, he found the work of a young director named Spielberg less than compelling. Second, he turned down Star Wars thinking it wasn’t that interesting a picture. And third, he passed on the opportunity to buy the Boston Celtics a year before Larry Bird and Magic Johnson entered the league. If he had said yes to any one of those three propositions, he would have owned Hollywood and/or sports for the next 30 years.
The remainder of Friedkin’s career never really lived up to its promise. He writes about how he rejected the love and good wishes of people ostensibly in his corner. But his memoir gives the impression that it wasn’t his lack of people skills but instead his lack of judgment about what projects to tackle that kept him from repeating his earliest successes. He made Cruising and a bunch of other movies that are forgotten by all but the most ardent of ’80s film buffs—if there are any.
In the film industry, they talk about the cutting floor—the place where scenes end up if they don’t make it into the final film. Reading Friedkin’s memoirs, it seems as if the book was written without a cutting room floor. Practically every moment in his life is documented in the book, even lengthy descriptions of films that went nowhere, projects that went sideways, or relationships that went south. It seems as though William Friedkin never forgot a resentment.
Do we really need to know, for example, that when Placido Domingo asked him to direct an opera, he got in a fight with the conductor over the placement of a chorus of singers dressed as nuns? The book is full of stuff like that—the opportunity to settle scores with people who were by and large far less successful or powerful.
That’s what brings down the experience of reading Friedkin’s life: a surprising inability to recognize what’s dramatic and what ought to be omitted—the basic skill of any director or storyteller in other medium. Friedkin laments the fact that time is no longer on his side and that opportunity to direct or produce major motion pictures likely has passed for him. Perhaps if he had chosen better material on the way up he wouldn’t have had to spend the last few years ruminating about all the people who got in his way. The ultimate message of the book is that no one got in William Friedkin’s way more than William Friedkin.
His early years in Chicago live television make for fascinating reading as does his early experiences in filmmaking culminating in the two massive successes of The French Connection and The Exorcist. F. Scott Fitzgerald, whom the author quotes, famously said that American lives don’t have second acts. Friedkin still appears to be searching for his.