Want to feel old? The above picture is what the girl from “The Exorcist” looks like today. (Kidding.) William Friedkin’s classic — recently named the fourth-best horror movie of all time by IndieWire — celebrates its 45th anniversary this year, and as part of the festivities, the director and his leading lady Ellen Burstyn recently engaged in a lengthy discussion following a screening presented by the Academy.
The filmmaker, who won the Academy Award for Best Director two years prior to “The Exorcist” for his work on “The French Connection,” is a natural storyteller who does well in the spotlight. It was clear enough from his recent documentary “The Devil and Father Amorth” that he still struggles with his own beliefs (or lack thereof) when it comes to the supernatural in general and demonic possession in particular, and he attempted to clarify those views onstage.
“I think if I was making the film today, I would use a lot less of the supernatural, to be honest with you. A lot less, but some,” he admitted. “None of the greatest philosophers who ever lived know if there’s a heaven or hell or a God or a devil.”
For that matter, neither does Burstyn. “I don’t pretend to know,” she said. “I only know that there’s more to the universe than we have any idea about, and I don’t pin myself down to one belief system that says, ‘OK, this is the way it is.’ I live in a state of awe and gratitude that the universe keeps surprising us and unfolding more and more of its complexity to us in so many different ways. So I don’t rule out anything, and in my life the metaphysical expresses itself through the physical many times and in many different ways — so I’m open to it all, and grateful for every bit of revelation that comes.”
She and Friedkin were also in agreement about something else: their favorite scene. Both cited the sequence in which the detective played by Lee J. Cobb reveals that 12-year-old Regan (Linda Blair) has, in her possessed state, murdered a man. Friedkin went so far as to describe it as “my favorite scene ever of anything I’ve ever worked on — no, seriously — because it is so extremely subtle in a film that might no be known for its subtlety,” he said. “It’s two of the greatest American actors — and I use that word advisedly — working together. To me, it’s like watching a great tennis match or great boxing match, two people at the absolute height of their powers working together.”
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“You understand what he’s saying to her, she understands what he’s saying to her. He doesn’t use the words, but he’s telling her that her daughter killed this guy. And she knows it, but she can’t show it. As simple as it looks, it is so profoundly effective,” Friedkin added. Burstyn agreed, calling the scene “so potent and subtle.”
While fielding questions from the audience, the two were eventually asked whether anything inexplicable occurred during production. Friedkin expressed skepticism on the subject, describing a fire on set that was odd but otherwise dismissing the notion that anything especially strange went on. “There have been more lies and bullshit written about ‘The Exorcist’ than anything I can imagine — outside of the last election,” he said to applause. “I have never seen such horrible crap as what’s been written about this picture and about me and people involved with it.”
(That election reference wasn’t Friedkin’s only political comment: “Warner Bros., by the way, was at 666 5th Avenue, which is an address that still exists — and the building is owned by Jared Kushner, so process that,” he couldn’t help saying earlier in the evening.)
“You said that a lot of people died in the making of this film, and I remember my answer to you last night,” Friedkin said to Burstyn near the end of the conversation, referencing a discussion they’d had the night before. “I quoted to you a Bob Dylan song in which he said, ‘Those not busy being born are busy dying.’ And the fact that some people died, I did not think was unusual.”
“It was a lot,” Burstyn responded. The director added, “How many? I don’t know. People die all the time.”
Their difference of opinion seems telling — and may just account for part of why “The Exorcist” remains so haunting today.