One of the greatest American film directors of his generation, William Friedkin, died this week in Los Angeles at the age of 87. Best known for films like The Exorcist, The French Connection, Sorcerer, Cruising, and To Live and Die in L.A., Friedkin was as prolific as he was talented, redefining the horror genre one year, and winning the Oscar for Best Picture and Director the next.
Born in Chicago, Friedkin got his start in filmmaking working for a local TV news station in the 1960s. There, he did many documentaries and news segments before making the jump to Hollywood. He began with a few TV shows, such as The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, and eventually transitioned into features. It took a few years and a few movies but then, in 1971, he made The French Connection starring Gene Hackman. Friedkin’s down-and-dirty vision and unfathomable car chase scenes changed cop movies forever and won him an Oscar for Best Director; Hackman also picked up an Oscar for Best Actor and the film itself won Best Picture.
For most, that’s the pinnacle of a career, but Friedkin only went up. Next he helmed 1973's The Exorcist, a terrifying, bold, adaptation of the William Peter Blatty novel. It went on to gross over $440 million worldwide and became one of the films that made Hollywood change its thinking in terms of blockbuster success. That series, of course, still lives on today with a brand new version coming to theaters soon.
Friedkin made several other movies in the decades since, including a bunch of great documentaries, but never got back to that level of success, at least financially. However, earlier this year in Los Angeles, I attended a sold-out screening of Friedkin’s Exorcist follow-up, 1977's Sorcerer, and everything about the experience spoke to Friedkin’s legend. The film itself is just a master at work. Though Sorcerer wasn’t a huge success at the time, its jaw-dropping action sequences and unimaginable tension have made it increasingly popular over the years. The theater sold out almost a full week of Sorcerer shows, not something that happens for most directors of any age.
But that was a William Friedkin movie. Anytime you saw Friedkin’s name on a film, you expected something special, and he almost always delivered. Even if the movie wasn’t great, there was a certain greatness in it.
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