Jason Fraley, WTOP film critic
WASHINGTON – Last month, “House of Cards” held its D.C. premiere at the Newseum, looking to change the future of television as the first series produced by Netflix. This weekend, FEARnet is getting in on the action, airing the entire five-film “Exorcist” series On Demand and online starting at 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 17.
“This is an ‘Exorcist’ marathon to draw people’s attention to a cable network that’s taking over by storm,” said Linda Blair, who played the film’s possessed child Regan MacNeil, voted the AFI’s No. 7 Villain of All Time. “For all the people who love horror and psychological thrillers, it’s a new network that people are able to ask their cable providers for. It’s a great tribute to my career, so I’m very grateful to them for doing it.”
The service is a partnership between Sony, Lionsgate and Comcast, showing 300 movie titles a year, including 14 world television and 22 theatrical broadcast premieres. This particular marathon marks the 40th anniversary of “The Exorcist” (1973), directed by William Friedkin and written by William Peter Blatty in an Oscar-winning adaptation of his own 1971 novel.
“Blatty had studied to be a Jesuit priest and went on to have a very big career as a comedy writer,” Blair said. “But he wanted to do something a little more dramatic and was told, ‘Bill, you’re a comedy writer.’ He said, ‘No, I’m gonna do the scariest movie of all time, so he set forth and he did just that.”
The novel’s release came while Blair was a child actor in New York. At the time, she was doing mostly commercials and modeling and was considering quitting acting to become a veterinarian.
“If it had been two months later, it would not have been me,” she said. “They just happened to catch me and find me, probably because I was the most accommodating child actor in New York, so it just worked out. I was the Cinderella Girl, so to be able to take the Cinderella Girl and turn her into the demon-possessed child, it was a dream come true.”
The convulsing, pissing, vomiting, floating, masturbating, head-spinning, spider- stair-climbing performance was all Blair, while the demonic voice was dubbed later by Hollywood legend Mercedes McCambridge (Oscar-winner, “All the King’s Men”), whom Blair said had a “great tenacity to give Billy Friedkin the performance he wanted.”
The McCambridge voice mixing and nightmarish sound effects earned the film an Oscar for Best Sound, one of two wins from 10 nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. How many horror films can claim that?
“It was quite an experience watching them do all of the special effects and the makeup, where nowadays you have all of the CGI, such as ‘Life of Pi,'” Blair said. “We’ve come so far with that, but back then, it was a magic show they had to produce, and it has withstood time. Whenever you do anything in life to the best of your ability, there’s gonna be a payoff.”
The role won Blair the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress, putting her in the same class as Anne Hathaway this year for “Les Miserables” (2012). Blair was also nominated for an Oscar, sending the 15-year-old to the Academy Awards to compete against Candy Clark (“American Graffiti”), Medline Kahn (“Paper Moon”), Sylvia Sidney (“Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams”) and the eventual winner, child actress Tatum O’Neal (“Paper Moon”).
“You always really pull for the older people who have been paying their dues by working for many, many years,” Blair said. “We have extraordinary films out again this year, as we do every year.”
I asked Blair if she knew what 9-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis was going through after her Oscar nomination for Best Actress in “Beasts of the Southern Wild” (2012).
“When you are a child involved in an adult business and entertainment, your perspective on everything is so much different,” Blair said. “Everybody’s giving you great love and accolades, and I think she is just enjoying every minute and has no idea what’s going on. But she was so extraordinary in her role and her performance, along with the other actresses.”
After the Oscar whirlwind, Blair starred in the sequel, “The Exorcist II: The Heretic” (1977), directed by John Boorman (“Deliverance”) and starring Max von Sydow, Louise Fletcher, Richard Burton, James Earl Jones, Ned Beatty and Paul Henreid. She left the franchise as it raged on into “The Exorcist III” (1990), “Exorcist: The Beginning” (2004) and “Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist” (2005), but she did appear in the Leslie Nielsen spoof “Repossessed” (1990) and a cameo as a reporter in Wes Craven’s “Scream” (1996).
Today, Blair continues to act, but she is also getting back to her original love of animals, the same passion that made her want to be a vet before she landed the role of a lifetime.
“I am very involved with charities, because I was raised that way,” Blair said. “We were from Connecticut and I was raised protestant. You’d go to your local church and you would help a family in need during the holidays or whatever the church was giving us guidance on. So I carried that through my life where I would donate my time and services.”
Nearly 14 years ago, she decided to start her own non-profit, the Linda Blair World Heart Foundation. The California-based organization deals with animal and human welfare in what Blair calls “one of the largest dog rescues in America” with “100 dog-kennel licenses from pitbulls to poodles.”
“Everything always goes back to what people do, it’s not the breed. Never was,” Blair says. “You need to be better to children, to others, to animals, and that’s really my goal: to do what I can to change American laws for animal cruelty and child cruelty.”
And so, just like her spinning head, Blair has come full circle, still trying to influence a Washington area that made her a global pop culture icon while filming “The Exorcist” in Georgetown.
“When I was filming ‘The Exorcist,’ we stayed across the way in the Marriott Hotel,” Blair recalls. “I could see from my window that they had lit up a gas station with the stairs, and of course I filmed many of my scenes outside the house that’s there. … I was there the night we did the big stunt with the actor coming down the stairs, and the scene where Bill O’Malley does his last rites.”
The house and stairs are, of course, located next to the Exxon Gas Station where Whitehurst Freeway dead-ends into “M” Street near Georgetown University.
“To find out so many years later that people take their pictures by the stairs and people are remembering constantly about the film, I always just say, look, I believe because it’s a theological thriller, it is meant for us to look at the good and evil that’s right here in front of us, and to treat others more compassionately,” Blair said. “That’s the message of ‘The Exorcist,’ to look at ourselves and be a better person and help those in need, and that’s what the Linda Blair Foundation is all about.”