TCM Classic Film Festival: Jeff Bridges and William Friedkin recall Oscar-winning films at 9th annual gala

Here is the third part of Gold Derby’s coverage of the 9th Annual TCM Classic Film Festival where Oscar winners and film fans gathered at Hollywood’s famous Chinese Theater. (Also check out Part 1 and Part 2 of our report.) Each day was filled with Oscar winners sharing stories and here are some of the best.

William Friedkin (1972 Best Director for “The French Connection”) gave one of the most enthusiastic and engaging presentations of the festival for “The Exorcist.” At 82 he clearly still loves talking about one of his biggest successes. Friedkin discussed how a lot of bigger stars were approached before the role of the mother was eventually given to Ellen Burstyn (who was a relative newcomer to film at this point.) Audrey Hepburn agreed to take the role but only if it would be shot in Italy. Anne Bancroft was interested but then found out she was pregnant. Jane Fonda responded to Friedkin’s offer with “why would I want to do capitalist rip off bullshit like this?” Hard to see how a child possessed by a demon is “capitalistic” but Fonda had some strong ideas of her own back then. Friedkin discussed how he didn’t want a star in the role of Father Karras even though Paul Newman wanted the part.

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Jack Nicholson was also interested in the role but Friedkin feared audiences would laugh thinking Nicholson was being funny. He eventually hired Stacey Keach but bought out Keach’s contract when playwright Jason Miller aggressively pursued him for the part. He paired Miller with Burstyn and let Burstyn interview him thinking he’d be more comfortable with her. Friedkin said that the camera just loved Miller and you could feel all the pain and anguish the conflicted priest was going through so he went ahead with the unusual step of having to buy out Keach’s contract.

Friedkin spoke at length of how the film terrified audiences when first released and joked that film has become so graphic that nobody was going to go home and have nightmares from “The Exorcist” nowadays. It was interesting to notice how the TCM audience (most of whom had likely seen the film before) got through most of the big shocking sequences without much reaction but a moment where Jason Miller is quietly listening to tapes of the possessed Linda Blair and the phone rings unexpectedly produced loud gasps from the crowd followed by nervous laughter.

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Another interesting moment was how the film remains open to different interpretations. A TCM audience member asked Friedkin if the scene where Ellen Burstyn is walking home from work and passes two nuns whose habits are flapping in the breeze and the famous music “Tubular Bells” starts playing was supposed to be the moment when evil entered the film. This reporter had always thought that was the case but shockingly Friedkin said this was the first time he had ever heard this interpretation.

And then there was The Dude. Well this wasn’t quite what you’d expect from a TCM event both with the selection of “The Big Lebowski” as a featured film and Jeff Bridges (2009 Best Actor for “Crazy Heart”) seeming to be feeling no pain when he arrived on stage! Host Ben Manikewicz apparently anticipated a rocky interview after meeting Bridges backstage since the first thing he did after arriving onstage was throw away his notes saying I doubt we’ll need these! Bridges then joined him but first needed the plastic water bottles provided replaced with glasses for environmental purposes. He then sent a slightly befuddled TCM employee into the audience to ask for questions from the crowd (she wandered up the aisle a bit then quietly sat on the floor not knowing how to proceed.) He then led the audience in chanting “ooooom.”

At one point a member of the audience shouted out “Great interview, Ben” to which Mankiewicz laughed and threw up his hands indicating he had pretty much lost control of the event. Bridges did seem to enjoy his time onstage reminiscing about the film though his confusing story of the sequel to the film that he seemed to think John Turturro had made had as many holes in it as Bridges well-worn sweater did.

All in all it was a fascinating four days spent in the heart of Hollywood with some of film’s greatest artists and the immensely welcoming TCM staff.

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