MERCEDES MCCAMBRIDGE: HELL BENT ON HONING HER CRAFT

Mercedes McCambridge was an Oscar winning actress of early radio, stage and later on in her career – film and television. The distinctive raspy voice that made her a star on the airwaves amazed audiences when she hit the big screen. Her ability to personalize a role and make it her own made the ordinary, extraordinary. Legendary filmmaker Orson Welles once called her “the world’s greatest living radio actress.”

McCambridge lived a life filled with tragedy and melodrama and on this day, the anniversary of her death back in 2004, I’ll try to keep it on the lighter side. In one of her more unconventional roles McCambridge provided the voice talent for the role of Pazuzu, the demonic entity from The Exorcist who possesses Regan (played by Linda Blair.) In order to prepare herself for the throaty, hellish vocalizations McCambridge employed several techniques. For example, she credited accentuating her chronic bronchitis with the wheezing sounds that emanate from Regan during possession sequences in the film. To achieve the groaning sounds, she pulled a scarf tightly around her neck, almost to the point of strangulation. The wailing of Pazuzu, just before the Demon is driven out, was based on Mercedes emulating a keening sound she had once heard at a wake in Ireland. To prepare for the scene in which Regan “offers up” the green vomit, McCambridge said to assist her in making the ugly sounds of violent expectoration, she swallowed 18 raw eggs, with a pulpy apple. It was part of her process to convey the feeling of the Devil being trapped inside her. I can imagine that would do the trick. But Mercedes didn’t stop there; she took it a step further by having the crew tear up a sheet into strips and bind her, both hands and feet. She recounted how she felt after shooting that scene saying in an interview:

“Sometimes I was so exhausted and my circulation was so sluggish that I wasn’t able to drive home; I stayed in a motel near the Burbank Studios.… My voice was ruined. For weeks, I couldn’t talk above a whisper.”

This was a lady who really threw herself into a role.

Despite all of her hard work and being promised a prominent mention in the credits, McCambridge’s name was left out of the credits during the film’s premiere. After weeks of what she called the hardest work in her life she attends the premiere and was stunned to see her name was missing entirely. Turns out William Friedkin, the director of The Exorcist, had omitted her name fearing a mere mention of the veteran actress would distract from Linda Blair’s breakthrough performance. Mercedes left the theater in tears and media coverage followed. Later, Friedkin attempted a Hail Mary and explained that there had been no time to insert her credit. McCambridge was duly upset and after a bit of legal wrangling ensued between her and Friedkin over the obvious omission, The Screen Actors Guild intervened and forced her inclusion in the credits of the film. Mercedes McCambridge, the actress who had been to Hell and back for the role of Pazuzu. Literally.

SOURCE CITATIONS

Blackman, Ron. Mercedes McCambridge: A Biography and Career Record. 2005

Friedkin, William.The Friedkin Connection: A Memoir. 2013. Harper Collins, New York, NY.

Higham, Charles “Movies; Will the Real Devil Speak Up? Yes!” January 27, 1974. The New York Times. New York, NY.

Murphy, Mary Dispute delays release of Exorcist Soundtrack. June 14, 1974. The Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles, California.

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