Much like Natalie Portman’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy issue had a predecessor – in the Ingrid Bergman-Roberto Rossellini affair back in 1950 – something similar to the Portman-Sarah Lane-Black Swan Best Actress Academy Award controversy took place several decades ago, but with radically different results.
“Having reaped a huge financial success with The Exorcist, Director William Friedkin and Warner Bros, hope to gather a few Oscars in April as well, notably for Linda Blair’s performance as the demonically possessed heroine,” reported Time magazine in Feb. 25, 1974.
A major blockbuster upon its post-Christmas 1973 release, The Exorcist earned a total of ten Academy Award nominations in early 1974, among them Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay (William Peter Blatty), Best Actress (Ellen Burstyn), Best Supporting Actor (Jason Miller), and Best Supporting Actress (Linda Blair).
In the film, the then thirteen-year-old Blair plays a pre-teen who, after becoming possessed by the demon, develops a bad case of acne, loses control of her neck movements, vomits some poorly digested avocado smoothie, and says stuff like “Let Jesus fuck you, let Jesus fuck you. Let him fuck you!”
Not surprisingly, Blair was touted as a strong contender in her category. Her chief competitors were Tatum O’Neal, actually the female lead in Peter Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon, and film veteran Sylvia Sidney for Gilbert Cates’ psychological drama Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams.
However, problems related to Linda Blair’s performance arose not long after The Exorcist opened. That’s when Mercedes McCambridge (right), a veteran radio performer and winner of the 1949 Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for Robert Rossen’s All the King’s Men, stepped up to claim credit for the voice coming out of Linda Blair’s demon-possessed lips in The Exorcist. McCambridge also stated she had been promised credit for her work, but got none.
“If people had heard [Blair] saying some of those obscenities, they would have fallen over laughing,” McCambridge complained. “Bill Friedkin promised me a special credit and then broke his promise. It’s heartbreaking when a friend does that.”
Decades later, Friedkin, who claimed that McCambridge had turned down credit for her vocal efforts, recalled:
“When I started making The Exorcist, I had no idea how we were going to do the demon voice. Bill Blatty gives you a clue in the novel, saying that it’s something horrific, horrendous, shattering, booming, whatever … but how do you actually achieve what those adjectives suggest? When we were filming those scenes, Linda Blair did all the original dialogue, which Chris Newman recorded. Then we went back and forth with Ken Nordine doing some experimentation, both with Linda’s voice, and with his own voice, fed through a computer, distorted and amplified. When I listened to the result I was extremely disappointed because it just sounded like a man’s voice dubbed onto the face of a child. I just couldn’t figure out how to fix it, because I knew I wanted a voice that was neutral, neither male nor female, but with both male and female characteristics. Who the hell sounds like that? Who has ever sounded like that? In the end I just threw myself on the mercy of the movie god and the name Mercedes McCambridge came into my head.
“… We flew her out to Los Angeles and she watched the picture and said; ‘OK, I’ll have a crack at it. In fact I think I can do most of it with my own voice.’ So then we went into a sound-stage at Warner Bros. where she worked for maybe three weeks doing the demon voice. And she really went for it. She was chain-smoking; swallowing raw eggs; getting me to tie her to a chair; all these painful things just to produce the sound of that demon in torment. And as she did it the most curious things would happen in her throat. Double and triple sounds would emerge at once, wheezing sounds, very much akin to what you can imagine a person inhabited by various demons would sound like.”
“… When she was done, we took the speech that she had dubbed to Linda Blair’s mouth, and occasionally we enhanced it, adding animal noises and sounds. But basically she performed it, under great duress. She knew exactly what was needed to go out and produce this effect, and I was stunned at what she put herself through, and what she allowed me to put her through in order to accomplish this. It was way beyond the call of duty, and if you were going to say that there was a single element that really made the film, then it could well be the sound quality that she achieved. It was pure inspiration.”
Linda Blair in William Friedkin’s The Exorcist
Considering all the work Mercedes McCambridge put into The Exorcist, it’s hard to believe she would have refused credit for it. In any case, Warner Bros. finally gave her on-screen credit after more prints of the film were released to theaters. Even so, McCambridge was given a generic credit line – “And Mercedes McCambridge” – which failed to specify, as the actress had requested, her performance as the voice of the demon.
Linda Blair’s Oscar nomination came after the McCambridge controversy, possibly because enough Academy members were unaware of McCambridge’s crucial assistance to Blair’s on-screen effectiveness. But then came another revelation – technically quite similar to the one currently pitting Black Swan‘s dance double Sarah Lane against the film’s star, Natalie Portman, but more damning in that it directly undermined what had been perceived as Blair’s (physical) dramatic prowess:
“… [I]t seems that the Devil may be claiming his due,” added the February 25 Time report. “Doubts are being raised as to how much of the role was performed by 15-year-old Linda [actually 13 or so when the movie was made]. First, there was Mercedes McCambridge, whose bloodcurdling Devil-in-Linda voice would have gone unrecognized if she had not fought for screen billing.
“Now comes Eileen Dietz Elber, who was Linda’s double. Eileen, who describes herself as ‘over 21,’ charges that Friedkin tried to prevent her from taking credit even on job resumes for her role as Linda’s body in the movie’s major dramatic moments. In the face of Warner’s denial, she insists: ‘I shot several exorcism scenes and played nearly all the vomit scenes.’ Added Eileen: ‘If Linda wins an Oscar, I’ll be the first to cheer.'”
There was no cheering, as the Best Supporting Actress that year went to Paper Moon‘s nine-year-old Tatum O’Neal, who did her own smoking and delivered the line “I need to go to the shithouse” without a voice double.
Mercedes McCambridge quote: Damien Bona and Mason Wiley’s Inside Oscar.