William Friedkin is sorry. In his new memoir of a career in the director's chair, he's sorry he almost got that stunt driver on "The French Connection" killed. He's sorry he fired all those cinematographers, except for the ones who deserved it. He must be sorry he directed "Deal of the Century," or he'd have found someplace in the book to mention it. And he can't be too proud of the three ex-wives, or he'd have given them each their own sentence, instead of making them share.
Friedkin's not sorry he became a director, though — just amazed. "The Friedkin Connection" chronicles his unlikely rise from the child-welfare rolls of Chicago, where nobody handed him anything, to the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, where in 1972 Frank Capra handed him an Oscar for directing "The French Connection" and told him he deserved it.
Friedkin didn't believe him and spent the next decade or more trying to prove Capra wrong. Soon he was blowing millions of Universal's money building one bridge for the movie "Sorcerer" and burning another with every tantrum he threw.
"Hubris had overcome me," Friedkin writes, sounding uncannily like a defendant in a show trial. Too much of "The Friedkin Connection" has that same predigested quality, but staying up late with his new memoir, as with most of his movies, it's hard to look away.
Friedkin's autobiography represents a triumph of irresistible material over slightly pedestrian style, but most of his movies work the opposite way. "The French Connection" looked like just another cop movie until Friedkin floored it, shooting on the fly and cutting it all together like calculated agitprop. "The Exorcist" (1973) had all the makings of a modest, atmospheric, RKO-style horror film — until Friedkin piled on unprecedented visual and, especially, sound effects.
Forty years on, what jumps out at you about these back-to-back blockbusters is their near-hysteria. One's about heroin addiction, the other demonic possession, and Friedkin can definitely relate. He came off like a monster in Peter Biskind's book about Friedkin's '70s filmmaking cohorts, "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls," but these early pictures aren't expressions of his personality so much as denials of it. The stories feel arbitrarily chosen, mere pretexts for the Friedkin treatment. Why this cop? Why this little girl, and not the girl next door? Both movies are based on novels, based in turn on real life, suggesting that Friedkin hadn't yet found stories of his own to tell.
Biskind played up the director's machismo, his megalomania and misogyny. Friedkin himself doesn't dwell on those qualities, but he doesn't disavow them, either. It would be folly to try. Friedkin's nihilism is all over his work, especially "The French Connection" and "The Exorcist." In both films the bad guy gets away, free to deal drugs or steal souls another day.
For all Biskind's addictive anecdotes, that book leaves off before Friedkin may have actually started to grow up. Arguably his best two movies, "To Live and Die in L.A." and "Sorcerer," came midcareer. The first of these takes a daring, vertiginous swerve near the end, promoting its sympathetic sidekick into the protagonist. It's tempting to think that Friedkin's better angels too were finally beginning to supplant his more destructive side.
Some of the best passages in the book pay tribute to a few of Friedkin's mentors and friends: the Chicago news cameraman Bill Butler, who wound up shooting "Jaws"; the documentary producer David Wolper, whose sweatshop also nurtured Friedkin's great screenwriter Walon Green; Sonny Bono (honest!), whom Friedkin fondly makes into an endearing cross between Mozart and P.T. Barnum; and loyal, gnomic Harold Pinter, whose play "The Birthday Party" gave Friedkin his first serious critical success on film.
Belatedly, becomingly, Friedkin's gratitude for a career in movies has only grown. He started out a Jewish dead-end kid. With hard knocks behind him, who can begrudge Friedkin love beyond his wildest deserts with fourth wife Sherry Lansing, the equally memoir-worthy Paramount CEO and beloved den mother to a generation of female executives? Wags had a field day with the one-liners, but Friedkin sounds smitten 22 years later. In more ways than one, Friedkin knows what's good for him.
He once told Biskind he considers most contemporary Hollywood movies "garbage," a line that probably did his career as much harm as any of his early bad behavior. He tries unconvincingly to walk it back here, but his old signature intensity is everywhere today, from bad movies like "Saw" to good ones like "United 93."
Love him or write him off, nobody can say Friedkin doesn't adore movies. Anybody who's listened to his besotted commentary track for the Val Lewton horror classic "The Leopard Man" knows that. An 80-page chapter just on "The French Connection"? Catnip to film hounds and probably more credible than anything Friedkin would say about the ex-wives. Those of us who've done a little ghostwriting have a maxim: May as well leave out the stuff you'd only lie about anyway.
The most heartfelt, dramatic writing here comes when it counts, way back in 1980, as a coronary lands Friedkin in the ER at Cedars.
"Dying," he thinks. "My God, I'm dying. I've wasted my life. I haven't accomplished anything."
The chapter is operatic, but it plays. Friedkin's losing the light, but he gets the shot.
Kipen is a film and book critic and founder of Libros Schmibros, a nonprofit lending library in Boyle Heights.
The Friedkin Connection
HarperCollins: 512 pp., $29.99
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