Just got word that William Peter Blatty has passed away (at age 89) and it’s astounding to me that I don’t have ANYTHING on my blog about him. I know that I must have written something about him somewhere, just not here. Blatty’s best known for a single smash hit (The Exorcist), and we’ll talk about it, but I happen to know about a bunch of his other work as well, and that stuff is also worth celebrating.
The main thing you should know about Blatty is that he initially built his reputation as a writer of comedy, and that he was indeed a brilliantly funny and original comedy writer. My pathway in to all this was the fact that in 2007 my friend Jeff Lewonczyk directed a theatrical/musical version of Blatty’s 1963 novel and 1965 movie John Goldfarb, Please Come Home.
Now, I often regret things that I have done….but this production was one of the few occasions when I regretted something I didn’t do. Unless I’m delusional, I was virtually assured of a role in the production but (it being a musical) I found myself uncharacteristically timid about doing what it took to secure myself the role. Then, when I attended the opening performance, I instantly saw that: a) it would have been a great deal of fun; b) it would have been exciting as hell; c) it would have been an excellent and necessary growth experience for me as a performer, and d) I could have held my own with most of the performers (except Jay Klaitz, holy cats, that guy is a dynamo!)
C’est la guerre. At any rate, I swear that there’s a Gilligan’s Island episode that riffs on the plot of John Goldfarb, which concerns a pilot and football player who always goes the wrong way. And that should give you an indication of what most of Blatty’s writing is like. Kinda Borscht Belt wacka-wacka.
(Luckily, the following year, I did get a more low-key chance to act in a Blatty script, when Jeff organized a private reading of a play Blatty had adapted from his 1996 novel Demons Five, Exorcists Nothing at the Brick Theater. I remember little about it except it was extremely long, had a cast of thousands, and Mr. Blatty wouldn’t concede the need for cutting any of his brilliant words and ideas, so it never got past the first reading.)
But anyway this was how I learned Blatty was primarily about humor. Throughought the 60s, he wrote several comedy screenplays, including The Man from the Diner’s Club (1963) for Danny Kaye, and several collaborations with Blake Edwards, including A Shot in the Dark (1964); What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? (1966); and Darling Lili (1970).
If Blatty has a masterpiece of his own — (apart from The Exorcist, which is a masterpiece he shares with William Friedkin) it is an AMAZING film called The Ninth Configuration (1980), which Blatty used his Exorcist prestige to leverage a rare chance to helm as writer, director and producer. It is based on his 1966 novel Twinkle, Twinkle, “Killer” Kane — it’s a brilliant piece of absurdist theatre in which the inmates literally run the asylum, looping in the Vietnam War, existentialism, and much else. It reminds me a bit of Kurt Vonnegut, and, because of its military setting and a large cast of familiar faces (Stacey Keach, Scott Wilson, Ed Flanders, Neville Brand, Moses Gunn, Robert Loggia and The Exorcist’s Jason Miller), Catch-22. It is of course self-indulgent in the extreme, and completely uncommercial. It might have enjoyed much greater success a decade earlier, but the tide was turning by 1980 — several similar anti-war, anti-establishment films bombed at around the same time. But the film is funny, thought-provoking and kind of jaw-dropping. I highly recommend it. (Also there’s more than a little Marx Brothers influence in it — it’s very Duck Soup. Blatty’s admiration for Groucho shouldn’t be surprising given that it was as a contestant on You Bet Your Life that Blatty earned the dough that finally allowed him to quit his day job and become a full time writer).
Another interesting film that deserves greater props is the unfortunately titled The Exorcist III (1990), also, written, directed and produced by Blatty and based on one of his novels. Of course he got this rare second chance strictly on the the connection to The Exorcist….but ironically that forced connection is the film’s greatest weakness. The novel was called Legion , and if the film had stuck closer to the original conception it would have retained much more integrity and enjoyed wider circulation. As it is, I think audiences today write it off as a terrible sequel (which it is not) and don’t bother with it. The good news is that in October of last year a director’s-cut version came out; I’m eager to see it. The common thread between this “sequel” and the original Exorcist film is the detective character, originally played by Lee J. Cobb, here played by George C. Scott. Most of the rest of the cast is made up of what might be called the Blatty stock company — Ed Flanders, Jason Miller, Scott Wilson and George Dicenzo, all from Ninth Configuration. And a million other interesting people : Brad Dourif, who’s made a CAREER out of weird movies just like this, as well as the old western star Harry Carey Jr, and Zohra Lampert from Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, and a very young Samuel L. Jackson, and — wait for it — Fabio.
As for his best known child, The Exorcist (novel, 1971, film 1973): Just a few words here today — it deserves a post of its own, at least the film version does. I was 8 when the film came out; it’s difficult to convey the scale of its cultural impact. I was too young to see it upon its initial release but I vividly recall the excited conversations of all the grown-ups — everyone, it seemed — who’d gone to see it. It was revolutionary in numerous ways: graphic language and imagery, groundbreaking special effects. But these were all largely what Friedkin brought to the table. Have you ever read Blatty’s novel? We had it on our house when I was a kid — I’m quite certain that I read it before ever seeing the actual film. (Here’s the order of how things went with such movies when I was a kid: you read the Mad Magazine parody version first; then maybe the original novel or novelization; then the chopped-up and sanitized and edited version on network television, THEN, years later, the complete film version).
At any rate, I’ve probably read Blatty’s novel The Exorcist 3 or 4 times. And the most notable takeaway? It’s funny. Or at least funnier. The main comic element is that Lieutenant (played by Cobb in the film) who rambles on about Hollywood movies and so forth. Blatty had satirical intentions in the novel, and there’s something there, something about the tension between secular culture and the spiritual realm. But, like we say, we’ll save it for another day.
(Just remembered a typical Blatty comic touch that filtered into The Exorcist. When the demon starts talking to the little girl he first uses the name “Captain Howdy”. I’ve always found that name hilarious, and its an example of his satirical instincts trickling in and maybe going unnoticed by most readers. That’s what Blatty’s usual writing voice was like).
R.I.P., Blatty! I hope the Devil didn’t getcha. (I bet I’m the one millionth customer to make that joke today.)