Directed by William Friedkin
Screenplay by William Peter Blatty, based upon his novel
Starring Ellen Burstyn, Jason Miller, Linda Blair, Max Von Sydow, Lee J. Cob and Jack MacGowran
Confession is an appropriate place to start this entry, given the heavily Catholic tone of The Exorcist, so here goes: I’ve seen The Exorcist before.
See, when I started this Project – The Also Ran’s – I had the idea I’d use it to see Best Picture nominees I’d not seen before as a way to force new viewing experiences on myself. Given I’d already seen many of the Best Pictures, that made the Best Picture Project as much about revisiting films as it was about discovery. By definition then, The Also Rans was explicitly meant to be about discovery because it excluded movies I’d already seen. Moreover, it would also give me a unique look at the workings of prior generations, in that by looking at what lost, I might find something very instructive.
But while this is my aim, here I am throwing the rule away and using this project as an excuse to re-visit The Exorcist. Why? Because it’s my Project, so it’s my rules to break. Also, because with The Exorcist, any viewing will be a discovery.
A History Lesson
In the past I’ve called The Exorcist the scariest movie ever made. Twice I’ve seen it – once in my teens, when my bedroom was on the far-side of a partially-finished basement, so you can imagine how that was, and then again in my mid-twenties, when I was old enough to be beyond the impact, but still fell for it. Both times, it wrecked me. Which is curious, because as an atheist, nothing about it should work for me. After all, if I don’t believe in God, how can I believe in possession and demons? Those things seem to go hand-in-hand, so if I don’t believe in one, I should not be frightened by the other. Even so, they work for me. The Exorcist, The Omen, Poltergeist – I’ve lost sleep over those three and many more. I suppose I can blame this on being raised in a largely Judeo-Christian culture and so was always getting a contact buzz from the second-hand Judeo-Christian smoke. That by being exposed to it so fully, I inadvertently took much of it on board, at least subconsciously.
Anyway, while I saw The Exorcist the first time as nothing but a film – as an entertainment – now I would come at it with a different eye. I wouldn’t let the movie work on me merely as any movie would, but would force it to behave under a critical gaze, which meant this time I viewed it at somewhat of a remove, separated from it by a thin layer of ‘criticism’. Better, unlike before, when I saw it at home, by myself – one of those times in the dark, at the far-end of that partially-finished basement – I would watch it in a full movie theater, surrounded by people, and ostensibly safe. Surprisingly, seeing it this way blunted much of its power.
This is not to say that the frightening elements did not work, because they did – the film still felt as frightening as ever. But because I was in critic mode, and also probably because I’m older now, it didn’t suck me in like it once had. What once seemed the scariest movie ever made played much different – if it was horrific it was for different, less-visceral, reasons and, if we’re honest, it was also somewhat tedious and comically-dated.
What’s It About?
The daughter of an actress begins exhibiting strange behavior and, after exhausting all medical and psychological explanations for the behavior without answer, somebody floats the idea that the child might be possessed by a demon. Thereafter, an exorcism is performed.
What’s it Really About?
The obvious theme of the film is the unease of puberty and female sexuality – you don’t have to squint too hard to read that theme between the lines. Another, subtler theme, is the psychological damage wrought on children by divorce and the degradation of the traditional – read: hetero- and financially-normative – family unit. In both ways, it’s an uptight, conservative reaction to an increasingly liberalized society, with the exorcism mean to reinforce ‘traditional’ gender and societal roles.
Then and Now
When I saw The Exorcist for the first time twenty-five years ago, it wrecked me. Even when I saw it for the second time, 15 years ago, it still did the job. Coming back to it now, after having re-read the book, and having seen the movie twice in total, I prepared myself for more of the same experience as before and so was surprised by the movie I found. Here is this – though I’ve seen the movie twice, and read the book twice, somewhere along the line the details of the book/movie dropped from my memory, leaving fragments of it, at best.
In my memory, I remembered the film as being wall-to-wall scares and demons, and I remembered the exorcism lasting nearly the entire movie. Imagine my surprise that, aside from a couple of weird events, the scares don’t really kick in until about the 80-minute mark, and until then, it’s basically a story about a single-mother doing her best to cope with a daughter who’s acting out in strange ways. On the whole it could be unnerving, but was hardly frightening.
And then, when it got frightening, it wasn’t even all that frightening. Yes, the exorcism is harrowing, but not in any way that frightened. If anything, the film is unnerving, owing to the exorcism being a grueling experience and because, ultimately, the movie is about a little girl losing control of her own body, which is a notion everybody fears. In a way, while the film is clearly about puberty and sexuality, it’s as much about any debilitating disease in which a person’s body betrays them.
Nevertheless, unlike before, when the film wrecked me and plagued me at night for days after, now it was benign. Now it was simply a movie. To be fair, it’s a good one, but ultimately it’s only a movie. I suppose if this viewing proved anything, it was the power of confronting one’s fears.
On the whole, the movie is only memorable because of 2 ½ performances: Max Von Sydow as the exorcist, who gives the film weight; Jason Miller as the conflicted priest, who gives voice to our doubts about faith and the supposed possession; and, Mercedes McCambridge as the demon-voice of the possessed girl who proves that, even with nothing more than a voice, a skilled actor can command the screen.
It’s to the movie’s benefit that these three are so good because, overall, the other two legs of this five-legged stool, wobble. Ellen Burstyn overplays it, is shrill and easily prone to hysterics, to the point she is completely off-putting. As she’s supposed to be the audience surrogate – we are to identify with her and she is what brings us into the story – the fact that she’s so broad and off-putting nearly derails the film.
Linda Blair is equally bad as Burstyn, if not worse. About everything she does is flat, has no weight or subtext, and with her as the demon’s victim, I couldn’t have cared-less what happened to her. The only reason she’s watchable at all, ironically, is because when she’s possessed, it’s not her voice in her mouth, but Mercedes McCambridge’s. Don’t believe me how terrible Blair is? Then Youtube one of his possession scenes – ‘Linda Blair Own Voice Exorcist’ should do it – and have yourself a good laugh.
Though the film can feel tedious at time, and overdone, Friedkin gives a master-class in direction. Where another director might’ve made the movie exploitative – what would William Castle have done with this film? – or all about the jump-scares, Friedkin is controlled, playing the film more as a slow-burn than anything else. And, rather than conform his style to the movie, he conforms the film to his style, and it works. If you need look any further to find Friedkin’s influence, consider the opening scene, which is played nearly wordless and creep-inducing, which seems a particular trademark of Friedkin’s. By not reveling in the exploitable elements in the exorcism, he actually makes it memorably horrifying.
The Real Hero
If we’re honest, the real hero of this film are neither the cast, nor the director – it’s the sound crew. The Exorcist is nothing, if not a testament to the value of good sound-design. As of late, this type of movie might be played loud, with a thundering score and other effects, but here the sounds are subtle and effective – they brilliantly compliment the movie, not overpower it. If the movie is a triumph of anything, it’s a triumph of sound design and it’s no wonder it won the Academy Award for Sound Mixing for Robert Knudson and Chris Newman.
Better Than Best?
The Academy Award for Best Picture 1973 was taken by The Sting, a popular bit of filmmaking that is remembered today only as a pale shadow of the film it really wants to be, a Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid sequel. Having taken a look at that film for The Best Picture Project, I can say I am clearly not on The Sting’s side, which means it’s easy to say The Exorcist is better than the best.
That being said, 1973 actually has a good number of other films that would be worthy of the top Oscar: American Graffiti, The Paper Chase, Papillion, Jesus Christ Superstar, and The Day of the Jackal. But if we’re honest, the film that really should have won Best Picture 1973 was the winner of the 1973 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, Day For Night, directed by Francois Truffaut.
Jason Miller is the father of actor Jason Patrick. Moreover, Jason Miller was a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, having written That Championship Season. Incidentally, he apparently turned down the role of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, leading me to wonder what that movie – and Martin Scorsese’s career – would have been like had he taken it.
See the rest of the Also Rans Project here.
Also, don’t be afraid to have a look at the thing that inspired this, The Best Picture Project.
 Funny story – my mom would say the first time I saw The Exorcist was actually the second. For years she insisted I’d seen the movie before then, at my dad’s house when I was six or eight – my parents have been divorced since before I can remember – but I don’t buy it. First, I have no memory of having seen the movie and, given the effect it had on me in my teens and twenties, I think I’d remember seeing it at 6 or 8, because I distinctly remember seeing other movies during that time. Two, by the time I was 6 or 8 the movie was long, long gone from theaters, so I couldn’t have seen it that way and, even if I could, my dad wouldn’t have taken me – at no point in my life do I remember him ever going to a movie theater, even as his only blood-spawn, me, averages about one theater visit a week. Three, my dad had no VCR during that period of time in my life, so I couldn’t possibly have seen it then, even if he would have rented it, which he wouldn’t. Four, my dad did not have cable then, so could not have seen it that way. Five, I’m not even sure the film ever played on cable or broadcast TV at all, so me having seen it is just impossible. And finally, six, my dad did everything he could to prevent me seeing the R-rated The Doors when I was 16, so why would he ever let me see The Exorcist? But seven, I did see Silent Night, Deadly Night with my step-siblings when I was about ten – they lived with my dad – so who knows what happened.
 As an attorney, I will always have a soft-spot for The Paper Chase.
 Jason Patrick is also the grandson of Jackie Gleason.