James Gray on William Friedkin: “Beneath the Unsentimental Toughness, a Wellspring of Soul and Sensitivity”

James Gray on William Friedkin: “Beneath the Unsentimental Toughness, a Wellspring of Soul and Sensitivity”

I remember clearly the first time I became aware of the name 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 in particular I loved dingy places that sold strange collectibles.  One Saturday, I entered such a spot — in this case, a movie memorabilia joint on Bleecker Street — and saw an enormous poster meant for display in subway stations. The image slapped me across the face: a truck in the pouring rain, leaning impossibly to the right on a rickety rope bridge ready for collapse. It said merely: “a William Friedkin Film, SORCERER.”

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What a mysterious and wonderful piece of art! I bought it (10 dollars, all I had on me) and posted it on my wall. 

Soon after, I learned that this very same director had made a film showing at the Hollywood Twin, a Times Square porn theater newly converted into a revival house. The movie was called The French Connection, and it hit me like a ton of bricks. Nothing about it resembled anything I’d seen before. The picture looked like one of those raw documentaries one might catch on PBS. The cop seemed like a bastard, a crude racist who relished the worst aspects of the job and screwed up a lot. He said things that made no sense (“Ever pick your feet in Poughkeepsie?”) and lived in a pigsty. Was I supposed to root for him? I did anyway. The movie felt cold yet combustible, and there was that lunatic car chase.  

And what did it say about New York, the city in which I was raised, the city that meant everything and nothing to me? It was a vision from hell, the Big Apple imagined as an enormous garbage dump — violent and unforgiving and beyond hope. I loved it for capturing the city’s danger and soul so vividly and truthfully. Later, I came to admire the film for its brilliant acting and its deft examination of social class. But at the time, I was simply overwhelmed by the power of its imagery.

The other pictures followed. The Exorcist and Cruising and To Live and Die in L.A. and finally Sorcerer itself (caught in a rights battle, it had been unavailable for years). Each one of them shocked and thrilled me and subverted my expectations. Sometimes I found myself confounded or provoked or angered. Thank heavens for that. The movies were downright electric. I became an unregenerate Friedkinophile and hunted down every interview and fact I could about the filmmaker and his work.

His personal history is well-documented now, and his autobiography, the vastly entertaining The Friedkin Connection, serves as a fine recounting of his extraordinary life. First, it was Chicago and a hardscrabble childhood redeemed by a mother who loved him dearly. He found work at the local television station and soon fell into making documentaries (one of them, The People vs. Paul Crump, literally saved its subject from the electric chair). California came calling, but neither of his first two pictures — the Sonny and Cher vehicle Good Times and the musical comedy The Night They Raided Minsky’s — reflected the hard-hitting sensibility of the young man who made them.  

Yet more ambitious work soon followed: Pinter’s The Birthday Party, then The Boys in the Band, and then his breakthrough with The French Connection. With The Exorcist, his place in the firmament was secured, and Billy used his status to take risks.

It’s often been repeated that the New Hollywood bestowed upon directors a tremendous amount of freedom, but the simple fact is that the pictures we revere now were made by seriously courageous filmmakers who had to fight like hell: Coppola with The Godfather; later, Scorsese with Taxi Driver; and Spielberg with Jaws, among others. Certainly Billy with his work, each movie a testament not only to a moment but to the artist who made it. At the time, he paid a price for the chances he took. He became, in industry parlance, “legendary,” though after he met and married his soulmate, the glorious Sherry Lansing, his life appeared to settle into a calmer rhythm. 

Later on, I became fortunate enough to make my own films, and even more fortunate to get to know William Friedkin a little. He immediately became “Billy” to me (his request), and I was always surprised by his kindness. I wasn’t as close to him as I should have been; he was so warm and welcoming, always inviting me to reach out. But I confess to being intimidated by his intellect, afraid at times to call. Billy was an autodidact, and it seemed there was no subject, artist, detail with which he was not familiar. His opinions were his, and he loved to stir things up. No position, however controversial, was unworthy of examination. He relished big discourse, and his honesty — something in retrospect I deeply treasure — could be too much for some.

Indeed, he had a reputation for ferocity — “Hurricane Billy” was the nickname — but I didn’t see that side of him. I knew only an intellectually curious man who gave extensively of his time. When I went off to Paris to mount an opera, my first call was to Billy (who, in addition to his spectacular movie career, had become a brilliant opera director). He was enormously helpful and specific, and we began an ongoing dialogue as I found my way through the production. I often worried that I might have tortured him with my panicked 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 with greater frequency yet without a trace of self-pity. He seemed at peace, and his view of time’s relentless melt had the air of acceptance about it. He was famously confident — many said arrogant — but with me, he often seemed willing to discount his own contributions, calling his work a “quick lunch” compared with the “gourmet dinner” of the directors he admired. He tended to dismiss himself as a mere craftsman, but maybe that’s why he was an artist. 

The last time I saw him was a few months ago for dinner, at his and Sherry’s beautiful home. It was a characteristically lovely evening. But maybe I sensed unconsciously that I might not 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 joke in response. Instead, he touched my hand and replied, “I love you too, James.”

I was moved to tears. All of the humor and unsentimental toughness and darkness was part of him, yes. But it wasn’t the whole picture and beneath it all was a tremendous wellspring of soul and sensitivity. Of course it had to be — it’s there, in the work. It was the man. William Friedkin was genuine, sui generis, vital. He was a giant.