The collective mind of the film world may be squarely on Cannes right now, but the Venice Film Festival — which runs this year from August 28 to 7 September — has taken this moment to remind us of its existence by announcing the winner of its annual Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement: Oscar-winning director William Friedkin.
The festival, which is celebrating its 70th edition this year, will honor the 77-year-old American not just with the award, but by premiering a restoration of his 1977 thriller “Sorcerer” — something of a rehabilitated classic in cinephile circles. Friedkin won the the 1971 Best Director Oscar for the influential police thriller “The French Connection” (which also took Best Picture), though his most enduring contribution to popular cultural remains 1973’s head-spinning horror film “The Exorcist,” a box-office monster that defied genre bias to receive 10 Oscar nominations. (It lost the top prizes to a signficantly more comforting hit, “The Sting.”)
Friedkin has never won anything before at Venice, though two of his films have premiered at the festival. The less said about 1995’s catastrophic erotic thriller “Jade,” which played out of competition, the better — though Venice festival director Alberto Barbera groups it with “Sorcerer,” “Cruising” and “To Live and Die in L.A.” as “films far ahead of their time.” Hmm. Anyway, he had more luck on the Lido two years ago with his ribald black comedy “Killer Joe,” which went down a storm with the Venice crowd, even if the jury passed it by. In explaining the selection of Friedkin, Barbera states:
“[He] contributed in a prominent way – the revolutionary impact of which has not always been recognized – to the profound renewal of American cinema regarded as ‘the New Hollywood”. Friedkin exploded the rules of documentary filmmaking in several works for television that were seminal for their dry, harsh and unpredictable point of view, and later revolutionized the popular genres of the crime film and the horror film, basically inventing the modern blockbuster.”
Friedkin, meanwhile, offered these words of thanks: “Venice, especially during the Film Festival, is a spiritual home to me. The Golden Lion is something I never expected but am proud to accept with gratitude and love.”
Some may choose the “never expected” line as stock modesty, but Friedkin’s career has been more uneven than most of his New Hollywood peers: the highs have been very high indeed, but his CV is speckled with unsightly misfires (“The Guardian,” the aforementioned “Jade”) and rote potboilers (hey, remember “Rules of Engagement?”) that are unlikely to be featured prominently in any lifetime achievement montage. In recent years, however, he’s regained relevance with his two spiky Tracy Letts adaptations (“Killer Joe” and “Bug”) and his active media presence — he’s a vocal Twitterer.
If anything, however, Friedkin seems even more enthused about the new lease of life given to “Sorcerer,” his striking reinterpretation of French classic “The Wages of Fear” — he confirmed on Twitter that the Venice premiere of the restoration will be followed by a DVD and Blu-ray rerelease. Rarely screened in a theatrical environment these days, it’s the film the director holds dearest within his oeuvre:
“I consider Sorcerer my most personal film and the most difficult to achieve. To realize that it”s going to have a new life in cinema is something for which I”m deeply grateful. To have its world premiere at the Venice Festival is something I look forward to with great joy. It is truly a Lazarus moment.”