By • Oct 28th, 2010 •

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It’s been thirty-six years since I sat in the Warner Bros Screening Room in NYC and watched, with a packed house, one of the first press screenings of THE EXORCIST. Andrew Sarris was behind me and to the right. I recognized several other prominent critics in the room.

During the unspooling of the film, the crowd was hushed. During the end credits, blood red titles against a black background that kept the room in ominous darkness, no one said a word. No one stood up to leave during the credits. They sat in silence. They were scared. I could feel it all around me. The film was unlike anything any of us had ever seen before, and we were all unsettled.

In the months that followed, the film went through a transformation. At first people were traumatized. Lights and radios were kept on for the rest of some viewers’ lives, so that they wouldn’t be alone in the dark at night, or panic when they heard strange noises in the ceiling. Religious viewers felt like they’d been in the presence of evil.

Then the backlash came, too much advance word had spread, and audiences began to laugh at the horror sequences.

And there was another backlash as well, though I didn’t realize it until a few weeks ago when I attended a press junket promoting the BluRay release of the film. I’d been sent a DVD of the only new supplement to grace the BluRay – a collection of footage shot by Director of Photography Owen Roizman back on the set of the film, showing how the physical effects were achieved. It’s a lovely and informative half hour. But there was something else going on in those frames, which wasn’t addressed by the voice-overs that accompanied the footage.

Linda Blair & Owen Roizman

IMDB sums up Linda Blair’s career thusly: “From the age of six, Linda Blair had to get used to the spotlight, both as a model and in motion pictures, when out of 600 applicants she got picked for the role of Regan, the possessed child, in THE EXORCIST (1973). Linda seemed to be set to take the Academy Award for that role, but when it leaked how little of the possessed child she actually had been (dubbed voice by Mercedes McCambridge and liberal use of a dummy) that dream broke, and with that disappointment probably came the first blow to what should have been a sure road to stardom. Over the next few years she had no trouble finding leading roles in a number of pictures, mostly as some kind of abused child (13-year-old alcoholic, rape victim, to mention a few), but the early attention brought with it life in the fast lane and Linda, as quite a few others in recent years, hadn’t had the time to learn how to handle it, and drugs, a stream of unsteady relationships and other factors almost brought her career to an end.”

I, too, had heard all those mitigating allegations about her performance, or lack thereof. But in the new Roizman footage, I could clearly see that she was there throughout, that she was doing the voice, that she was spewing the green vomit, not just a dummy or a stand-in, that she was taking the needle in the throat appliance, and that she was suffering hours of difficult make-up applications. So what was up with that? Would this footage have vindicated her had it come out back then?

Amidst the plentiful luncheon smorgasbord and animated chat with fellow press members, our table was visited first by Chris Newman, then William Peter Blatty, and finally by Roizman and Linda Blair, each generously responding to our questions, and I had questions to ask.

Chris Newman

I got my biggest jolt from Chris Newman, the sound recordist, who won the Academy Award several times, but never more deservedly so than for THE EXORCIST, one of the greatest sound designs of all time. I asked him first if he was on the film for the whole shoot, and afterward, during post production. “Everything,” he said, “except for the one-month mid-eastern shoot.” I then asked “How much of Regan’s dialogue was done by Mercedes McCambridge?” He looked at me with a slight smile, as if he were confirming my suspicions, and replied, “About ten seconds.” I was taken aback.

“Then how much was Linda Blair?”

“Quite a lot. Quite a lot.”

You should all check out that new documentary footage. I personally think there may have been a campaign to undermine her chances. It’s clear now that she deserved the award. Scant justice thirty-seven years later, but there it is.

William Friedkin & William Peter Blatty

Blatty was glad to talk about all the brouhaha surrounding the shoot, and praised William Friedkin’s unrelenting dedication to making it a great work of art. He also, as did a few of the others in attendance, promote the film as a more positive, spiritual experience, and less of a pure ‘horror’ film, than it was sold as back in ’73. The term ‘theological thriller’ was used. And Father Karris’ sacrifice was being interpreted as a generous, godly act. But if I were the devil, I’d leap the chance to snare some faltering priest’s soul over that of an innocent, unformed twelve-year-old. The new slant was interesting, but I couldn’t help feeling that there was a little revisionist history going on.

I would like to have gotten Max von Sydow’s take on all this, but I’d had my interview with him, long ago, and hadn’t thought to bring the subject up at the time. I had, at the time, somehow prompted him to express his feeling that it would have made more sense to cast John Wayne as Father Merrin.

Max Von Sydow, at age 45, explains to FIR's editor (in 1974) why John Wayne should have played Merrin in THE EXORCIST.

Back to the luncheon. Suddenly, out of nowhere, and quite unexpectedly, Friedkin appeared, and this was while Blatty was visiting our table. It was a surprise highlight of the event. The old cohorts hugged, chatted briefly, and then Friedkin was gone.

Finally Linda Blair and Owen Roizman sat at our table, and we all talked. I didn’t find the opening to confront her about my suspicions, and she seemed equally interested in talking about saving animals, which is what she devotes much of her time to nowadays, but when the two of them got up to leave, I stopped Mr. Roizman and told him I’d been in the subway the day he shot Robert Shaw’s death scene for the original THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE back in ’74. He was happy to be reminded of that shoot, and told me that Shaw had requested that a ping-pong table be brought into the subway for the duration of the shoot, and that he and Shaw played every day.

“He was very competitive‚Ķbut he never beat me.”

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