the exorcist -- 2/9/18

Today's selection -- from Easy Riders, Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind. When it opened in 1973, director William Friedkin's The Exorcist smashed box office records, was the first horror film to be nominated for an Oscar, and set the stage for a new generation of horror movies:

"[When] William Peter Blatty's novel The Exorcist, based on an ostensibly true story, appeared in bookstores [in 1971], Americans were ready for a creepy tale of demonic possession and pure evil, especially after the bloodletting of Vietnam, Kent State, and Manson. It became an instant bestseller.

"Warner [Brother's] was looking for someone to direct The Exorcist. [Warner Brother's John] Calley had lined up the usual suspects, but every one of them had a reason why he didn't want to bring the novel to the screen. He asked Mike Nichols, who said, 'I'm not going to stake my career and the picture's success or failure on the performance of a twelve-year-old girl.' He asked Arthur Penn, who was teaching at Yale and declined. He approached John Boorman, who didn't like the novel, thought it was a story about torturing a child. Blatty, who wrote the script, and was also a producer on the movie, sent a copy to Bogdanovich. Flattering the powerful director, he wrote an inscription on the flyleaf: 'If you don't make this movie, nobody will.' But it wasn't Peter's kind of picture, and he turned it down, naively thinking Blatty meant what he said, that therefore it would never be made. Then Blatty remembered William Friedkin, whom he had met some years earlier when the director had called a TV script of his 'the worst piece of s**t I ever read in my life.' Blatty laughed, thinking, This guy's got balls.

"Since then Friedkin had developed a reputation. As one producer put it, 'Billy was a tough critter. He didn't give a f**k about anybody else that walked the face of the earth. He was a guy, you'd known him for thirty years, saved his ass by putting together the deal, he'd turn to you and say, "Get off the set." ' Blatty didn't know anything about this, just recalled that Friedkin was somehow unfettered by the usual Hollywood inhibitions, and willingly jeopardizing his chances to direct by speaking his mind. I can trust him, he thought. He also recalled that Friedkin was known for his documentaries. 'Someone who could give the film a sense of reality was what the fantasy absolutely needed,' he says.

"Blatty sent Friedkin a copy of the novel with the same inscription he had used for Bogdanovich. Unlike the others, Friedkin jumped. 'A good part of my motivation was to make a better film than Francis [Ford Coppola],' he explains. 'We were ambitious and competitive. Someone would always raise the ante.' At the time, The Exorcist seemed impossible to make, the special effects -- levitation, possession, poltergeists -- were way beyond the state of the art. Blatty says, 'It was all very well for the reader's imagination when it's on the page, but to have it mashed into your face like a custard pie on the big screen and say, "This is it," I mean, it could have been ludicrous. He could have been a laughingstock. But nothing daunted him.' ...

"The Exorcist was trade-screened on December 21, and opened on December 21. Burstyn was in her kitchen, watching the TV. 'There was a shot of people in Montreal standing in line from four o'clock in the morning waiting for the movie theater to open up, and it was like forty degrees below zero or something. I thought, How can a movie have that kind of impact before it even opens? I just couldn't believe it.'

"The Exorcist was strong medicine. People collapsed, fainted, reportedly broke into hysterics. The exhibitors were ready with kitty litter for those who couldn't keep their dinners down. Moviegoers who were convinced that they or loved ones were possessed by the devil besieged the Catholic Church with requests for exorcisms. An official of the Church of Scotland wrote that he'd 'rather take a bath in pig manure than see the film.'

"Reviewers were divided. Kael hated the movie, made fun of Blatty talking about communicating with his dead mother, scoffed at his serious claims for the movie, quoted Friedkin at his most Goebbels-like: 'If it's a film by somebody instead of for somebody, I smell art.' ...

"But for most people, the picture worked. It was terrifying. Like Bonnie and Clyde and other New Hollywood pictures, The Exorcist turned its back on the liberal therapeutic framework of the postwar period. (The psychiatrist in the movie is just befuddled, clearly inadequate to the task, and Burstyn has no choice but to call upon the Church.) In exchange, the picture substituted a kind of born-again medieval ism. Like The Godfather, The Exorcist looked ahead to the coming Manichaean revolution of the right, to Reagan nattering about the godless Evil Empire. Satan is the bad dad who takes up residence in the household of the divorced MacNeil in the stead of the absent father-husband. Families who pray together and stay together don't have unseemly encounters with the devil."



Peter Biskind


Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock 'N' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood




Copyright 1998 by Peter Biskind
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