Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The West Hollywood Connection: How I Kibbitzed with William Friedkin

 You never know who you’ll bump into at the West Hollywood Book Fair. It all started in the green room, where speakers hang out, enjoying the free food. My panelist Dwayne Epstein, author of Lee Marvin: Point Blank, was chatting with a friendly gentleman, and I asked to be introduced. That’s how I found myself trading opinions with William Friedkin, who shot to fame with such landmark Seventies films as The French Connection and The Exorcist.

Friedkin, author of a brand-new memoir (The Friedkin Connection, natch!), was in a reflective mood. I asked whether he’d crossed paths, early in his career, with Roger Corman, and discovered he was the rare director of that era who did not start out with the King of the Bs. When I remarked on the challenges I had faced in writing a biography of my old boss, he was not overly sympathetic. Most people who hear that Roger demanded of me the right to read my book in manuscript and remove anything he considered “derogatory” are flabbergasted by the man's chutzpah. Friedkin, though, pointed out that most Hollywood figures would be equally demanding. His own wife, former studio chief Sherry Lansing, sought to impose similar conditions on a biography now being written by a talented and sympathetic journalist. But Friedkin prides himself on never reading the various books (like Peter Biskind’s bestselling Easy Writers and Raging Bulls) that touch on his own checkered career.

Friedkin clearly has no great regard for the Corman brand of low-rent filmmaking. But he admires Roger for never laying claim to being an artist. In fact, Friedkin is reluctant to tout himself or any other Hollywood filmmaker as anything more than an entertainer. Art, he feels, is what happens when someone stares at a blank page or a blank canvas (or today a blank computer screen) and then produces something of value. He regards movies as much too collaborative to really bear the stamp of an individual artist, unless we’re talking about a filmmaker on the level of Bergman, Fellini, or Kurosawa. (Hey, Roger Corman distributed masterworks by all three! But I digress.)

My Hollywood Biography panel was less about artists than about the intricate dance between stars and their fans. Michael Stern, whose I Had a Ball is a memoir of his friendship with the immortal Lucy, described how Lucille Ball cherished her fan base, consistently remaining gracious about photos and autographs. Both Dwayne Epstein and B. James Gladstone (The Man Who Seduced Hollywood) waxed eloquent about star power. We learned from Gladstone that legendary Hollywood lawyer Greg Bautzer parlayed his good looks, athletic skills, splendid wardrobe, and suave moves on the dance floor into a life studded with celebrity romance. (Among the glamour girls he squired were Lana Turner, Joan Crawford, and Ava Gardner.)  Lee Marvin, too, was known for his sex appeal. But Epstein insists Marvin pooh-poohed his own attractiveness, comparing himself unfavorably to a real star like Clark Gable, whose mere presence in a studio hallway could cause women to faint dead away. Ageless Milt Larsen paid tribute to the incomparable Cary Grant, who once took it on himself to personally welcome visitors into the famous magicians’ club known as the Magic Castle. The guests were dazzled, wondering how Larsen, the Castle’s founder, had managed to conjure up that particular illusion.  

Personally I’m paying tribute to the booksellers who helped make the fair possible. Kudos to Book Soup, which hosted Friedkin, Sally Kellerman, and other celebs, and also to Traveler’s Bookcase, where fans of my panel could buy books and make their authors feel like stars.    

Beverly at the West Hollywood Book Fair (with thanks to Barbara Troeller)


  1. Wow - now THAT'S a book fair. I've admired William Friedkin forever and a day - and he sounds like his personality matches the best of his movies - challenging and smart. It sounds like your panel went well - wish I could have been there!