Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Sunday, June 8, 2014

The French Connection

Earlier this month I wrote a post on the importance of persistence in pursuing a career in the film and television industry.  A prime example is the career of director William Friedkin, whose recent memoir tells the story of a man who didn't even go to college, much less film school, yet managed to rise to the very top of the Hollywood directorial heap in the early 70's. Starting at the bottom in the world of television, he kept plugging away until everything finally clicked -- at which point his meteoric ascent through Hollywood resulted in two of the most astonishing and successful feature films of their era.*  

Rising from the ashes of a sclerotic studio system came a wave of dynamic young directors determined to make movies their way, and for a few years, none burned any brighter in the Hollywood firmament than William Friedkin.  Propelled into the big time by The French Connection -- a stunning film that electrified audiences across the country, launched the career of Gene Hackman, and won five Oscars -- he followed up with The Exorcist, which made buckets of money while scaring the holy shit out of an entire generation of film goers.  

I saw (and loved) both of these movies when they were released, but The French Connection has always held a special place in my movie-loving heart.  That film blew my young mind at the time, and helped put me on the path to Hollywood.**

Any of you who plan to be "filmmakers" owe it to yourselves to read this book for a number of reasons. The 80-odd page chapter detailing the unbelievably torturous journey that ultimately resulted in The French Connection is worth the jacket price all by itself. That movie could have (and probably should have) been derailed at a dozen different junctures, but Friedkin kept the faith and didn't let up until his film was finally in the can. And with those five Oscars under his arm, he was -- for a while, anyway -- the toast of the town.     

For better and worse, the term "determination" pretty much defined his entire career.  Friedkin was nothing if not stubbornly persistent -- otherwise he'd never have gotten anywhere in this business.  
There are many lessons to be gleaned from his story, not the least of which is that in any endeavor as complex as film-making, mistakes are going to happen -- but a mistake that at first seems disastrous can occasionally work out for the better.  Forces beyond your control will sometimes drop a nugget of pure gold right in your lap, and learning to recognize this and take full advantage -- remaining open to the possibilities while sticking to your creative guns -- is an important part of becoming a good director.  

Another lesson is that despite the astonishing success of The French Connection, in the end, Friedkin could only see the film's flaws.  Such is the curse of following a creative path: for all the hard work you put in on a project, it never seems to turn out quite like you'd hoped.  No matter what anybody else says, your best is seldom good enough to please that harsh critic inside... but once a project is finished, you have to pack up everything you learned and move on to the next. Keep doing that, and by the time you're old and gray -- your career over and done -- you just might have learned something.  

And if that sounds uncomfortably close to the labors of Sisyphus, welcome to Hollywood.  

William Friedkin is not a warm and fuzzy figure intent on mentoring the cinematic dreams of young wannabes, but rather a hard-edged, no-bullshit man who has never suffered fools and often been his own worst enemy.  The ego and steely determination that saw him through so many difficulties was a double-edged sword that often cost him dearly, and he doesn't shy away from that in this book.  He insisted on doing things his way unless and until that proved impossible... only then was he willing to bend with the stronger wind and make the best of it. Maybe that's the kind of person you have go be to make such a mark on Hollywood -- I really don't  know -- but in many ways he seems to have been chiseled from the same block of obdurate stone as so many of the legendary moguls in Hollywood's long and storied history.

"The Friedken Connection" is a fascinating story told by a seminal figure in modern cinema -- but above all else, it's a great read for anybody interested in the film and television industry.  And all you noobs out there fanning the embers of your own Hollywood dreams, this book is essential reading.

It's summer, kids.  You've got the time, so pull your heads out of your cell phones, tablets, Playstations, Xboxes -- or wherever else your head might be stuck -- and beg, borrow, or steal a copy of The Friedkin Connection.  

It'll do you good. 

* A bit too meteoric, by Friedkin's own admission. As he (and so many others have learned), early success can be as much of a curse as a blessing. 

** Some time ago I had the pleasure of viewing a brand new print of "The French Connection" at the American Cinematheque in Hollywood.  After the screening, William Freidkin stood up to take questions and tell some of the stories that eventually made it into this book. That was a great day.

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