Director William Friedkin at the 2017 Stiges Film Festival in Stiges, Spain. (Photo/Wikimedia-GuillemMedina CC BY-SA 4.0)
Director William Friedkin at the 2017 Stiges Film Festival in Stiges, Spain. (Photo/Wikimedia-GuillemMedina CC BY-SA 4.0)

How William Friedkin, a Jewish kid from Chicago, made us fear the Catholic devil

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William Friedkin, the Jewish hand behind one of the most famous explorations of Christian evil, “The Exorcist,” has died at the age of 87. 

Born in Chicago on August 29, 1935 to Jewish refugees from Ukraine, Friedkin was raised in an observant kosher home. Speaking to the Jewish Journal in 2012, he said “ I’m a Jew, and that’s it. In my heart I believe completely in the Ten Commandments, but I also believe we are all imperfect and at times we just can’t cut it.”

Human imperfection was a major theme of Friedkin’s work, which was decidedly eclectic. 

His first narrative film, 1967’s “Good Times,” was a vehicle for Sonny and Cher. He followed it up with another musical comedy, “The Night They Raided Minsky’s” and an adaptation of Harold Pinter’s bleak play “The Birthday Party” in 1968.

Friedkin was prolific through the 1970s, directing another play adaptation, “The Boys in the Band,” about a group of gay friends, in 1970. (He’d return to documenting gay life in a more controversial fashion in 1980’s crime film “Cruising,” which was protested even during its production by gay rights activists for depicting gay men as deviants and murderers. Friedkin defended the film, stating that its content wasn’t meant to be seen as representative of the community.)

In 1972, Friedkin won best picture and director at the Academy Awards for “The French Connection,” about a New York detective uncovering a heroin-smuggling syndicate. The story was informed by Friedkin’s time filming the 1966 documentary “The Thin Blue Line,” about the police force. The film was lauded as much for its performances and gritty realism as its car chase.

Friedkin often managed to take the trappings of genre and elevate them to what critics regarded as art. 1973’s “The Exorcist,” about a young girl possessed by a demon, and the young and old priest working to save her soul, was the first horror film nominated for the Oscar for best picture. He followed it up with 1977’s “Sorcerer,” which he believed to be his best film and perhaps his most jarring confrontation with evil. (Often cited as a remake of the film “Wages of Fear,” Friedkin maintained it was based on the same source material, a novel by “confirmed antisemite” Georges Arnaud, who Friedkin said hated the film for shooting a sequence in Jerusalem.)

When asked how his Jewishness influenced his work, Friedkin was loath to make the connection. Indeed, in several interviews in recent years, Friedkin stated that he “believed in the teachings of Jesus” and, on an episode of Marc Maron’sWTF” podcast, spoke of his wonder at seeing the Shroud of Turin, on which is said to be the face of Jesus.

Known for his quick and often caustic wit in interviews, Friedkin told the Forward‘s A.J. Goldmann in 2016 that he didn’t try to reconcile his directorial brooding with his personal humor.

“I think I’d rather take life with a sense of humor, but I’m more interested in drama that’s dark or that’s about the eternal struggle of good and evil,” Friedkin said. “Those make the best dramas. But personally I have to take things lightly. You’d go absolutely crazy if you didn’t.”

Friedkin continued making films until close to his death. His last announced feature, “The Cane Mutiny Court-Martial,” based on the novel by Jewish writer Herman Wouk, is set to debut at Venice next month. If the film is at all like the novel or play, it will be about what causes men to reject a hierarchy. Its theme returns to the one horror film Friedkin never got to make.

When A.J. Goldmann asked Friedkin if he was ever interested in making a film about the Holocaust, Friedkin said it was hard to do something different with the material, but then considered what he could add to it.

“If I were able to do anything about that it would be about the Germans and the madness that overtook a sophisticated, intelligent population.” Friedkin said. “To me, it was demonic possession on a massive scale.”

This article was originally published on the Forward.

PJ Grisar
PJ Grisar

PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture reporter. He can be reached at [email protected].