Is it any secret that older Hollywood directors (and some recent ones) are abusive to cast and crew? Not really, and it was even more rampant than today back in the late decades of the 20th century. An especially notable offender? William Friedkin, director of The Exorcist and The French Connection.
Friedkin has been known to slap actors around on sets, claiming it helps nudge them where they need to go with their acting. The most famous example though was while directing Walter O’Malley on The Exorcist during one of the pivotal final scenes.
The Scenario and The Smack
After beating the possessed Reagan and begging the demon to take him over instead, Father Karras has a moment of clarity after begging the demon Pazuzu to possess him instead, making a desperate run through the window before the demon fully takes over. He takes a flying leap through and lands on the pavement below, splattering a little on impact.
To which William O’Malley’s priest character comes in and starts giving last rites over the dead body as he cries. The tears he’s crying though, were from director William Friedkin pulling him to the side and slapping the holy ghost right out of him. Those were real tears in that scene because William O’Malley just got one-hit KO’d in real life.
Now, stopping here to note that yes, while it leads to a great performance and is in no way worse than treatment by other directors such as Stanley Kubrick or Victor Salva, I think we can all agree it’s still pretty shitty to do.
A Priest Walks Into A Hand…
That said, what are the ethical implications of slapping the hell out of a priest for cinema? William O’Malley is an ordained priest and a technical consultant on the film who was a friend of author William Peter Blatty. Though he was fired from one of his teaching jobs and has had allegations of assault so ethically maybe it balances out?
Either way, it worked. Friedkin got the shot he needed, they finished up The Exorcist, and the film is in the history books still fifty years later, with a sequel due to come out in 2023 as well. A direct sequel at that, with Ellen Burstyn returning as Chris and David Gordon Greene of the recent Halloween trilogy directing.
It’s still not enough to make up for the show’s cancellation though. The new film is said to take the same approach as Halloween 2018, ignoring everything outside the original movie. This is a damn shame because the two seasons of 2016’s The Exorcist were not nearly enough. Seriously, watch it, its cancellation was criminal.
How Not To Be Cool
The two involved in the holy-slappening are still alive today, with Friedkin is still working today, with two projects currently in development and his last film being the 2017 “documentary” The Devil and Father Amorth, which details Friedkin observing a real-life exorcism that’s a little played up at best.
O’Malley meanwhile is still involved in a lawsuit by a former student over sexual assault allegations, and has been removed from pretty much every teaching position and stripped of every honor since.
Anyway, it’s important not to idolize people like these, and push for a kinder, more collaborative production experience. A lot of the people doing the bulk of these jobs are tired and overworked without dealing with directors smacking actors around. Be kind to staff and don’t be like these two jerks.