She was raised a Roman Catholic in Joliet, Illinois, and made the most of a naturally raspy voice highlighted by frequent bouts of bronchitis and professionally refined on radio, earning Orson Welles’ designation as “the greatest radio actress ever.”
She won a best supporting actress Oscar for her 1949 movie debut in a memorable film about a populist political blowhard (All The King’s Men) , and successfully worked in a wide range of tv programs from the 1950’s through the late 1980’s.
Among her movie credits is a costarring stint in 1954’s Johnny Guitar, which left her with an abiding distaste for Joan Crawford.
She said she regretted playing “the worst harridans” onscreen so often, but played one — as a nasty gang leader outfitted in a menacing leather jacket directing the motel assault of Janet Leigh in Welles’ unforgettable noir classic, 1958’s Touch of Evil — without an onscreen credit.
Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your classic movie guys, here today to focus today on Mercedes McCambridge and the issue of onscreen credit relating to the actress’ most memorable VOCAL performance — as the satanic voice of the possessed 12-year-old girl (played by Linda Blair) in director William Friedkin’s by-now classic horror movie, 1973’s The Exorcist.
In his excellent new book, The Friedkin Connection: A Memoir (HarperCollins), the director recalls his desperate search to find the correct “course and powerful voice…thick with menace and power” that would have to emanate from the demonically possessed girl before and during her exorcism.
I started to think about the 1940’s radio dramas that had a lasting effect on my imagination: Orson Welles, Jack Webb, William Conrad, Peter Lorre, and one particular woman. Mercedes McCambridge.
Upon approaching the then 57-year-old actress, Friedkin writes that she told him: I’m Catholic. I was also in A.A., and I smoked for thirty years…To get the sound you want, I’ll have to drink bourbon, smoke, and do other things I haven’t done to my body for years…you want me to find my inner demon. I’ll have to unleash things in myself I’ve kept hidden for years.
Well, unleash she did. McCambridge turned in one of the most spectacular vocal performances in film history. At her request, wrote Friedkin, she sat with her hands and feet bound to a chair. She wanted the bonds tightened when it appeared that Regan (the young girl possessed) was suffering or being punished. She would sip Jack Daniel’s throughout the day, while swallowing raw eggs and smoking cigarettes.
McCambridge’s vocal performance was “wonderful,” Friedkin wrote, “beyond my wildest hopes.” It also came with a condition. McCambridge told the director that because she didn’t want people to think about who did the voice…I don’t want screen credit. I’m not asking for it contractually, and I won’t accept it if it’s offered.
Friedkin complied, he wrote, despite his wish to have McCambridge fully credited for her performance.
Flash forward — The Exorcist first previewed in Los Angeles on Dec. 23, 1973, at the National Theater in Westwood. It was obvious by now that the film had the makings of a huge commercial hit.
McCambridge attended the preview, and approached Friedkin in the theater parking lot after the screening. The director writes, She was crying, shouting,and pulling at my arm: “You screwed me! How could you do that? Why would you do that to me?,” she yelled.
“You promised me a credit, she screamed. “Where’s my screen credit? You Lied to me.” I was stunned….I walked away, her voice trailing after me: “I’m gonna get you for this, Bill Friedkin!”
The studio quickly decided to redo the film’s last reel, and insert a credit for McCambridge.