One area in which The Exorcist was definitely making the news was around the issue of its rating classification. Despite the initial fears of Warner Bros. concerning the necessarily graphic nature of some of the film's scenes, the ratings board of the MPAA had awarded the movie a lenient R rating without a single cut. "There is no confusion about what kind of film The Exorcist is," offered MPAA President Jack Valenti when some concerned parties complained that the film should not have been made available to minors, even if accompanied by their parents. Valenti disagreed, stating, "Much of what might concern some people is not on the screen: it is in the mind and the imagination of the viewer. A film cannot be punished for what people think because all people do not think alike. What might repel and frighten some people might not do the same to others."
As expected, press reactions to The Exorcist were as wildly varied as those of the public who flocked to see it, with some applauding its magical powers, while others decried its visceral force. Tellingly, very few reviewers claimed to be unmoved by the picture; rather, they either loved it or hated it.
Whatever critics say, much of the shock value-fed by almost incredible tales of audiences reactions. "My janitors are going bananas wiping up the vomit," complains Frank Kveton, manager of the United Artists Cinema 150 in Oakbrook. Kenton also has had to replace doors and curtains damaged by unruly crowds, and even relandscape the McDonalds plaza a cross the street where moviegoers park their cars. "Ive never seen anything like it in the 24 years Ive been working in movie theaters," says H. Robert Honahan, division manager at the ABC/Plitt theaters in Berkeley. "Weve had two to five people faint here every day since this picture opened. More men than women pass out, and it usually happens in the evening performance, after the crucifix scene involving masturbation."
Less encouraging was the reaction of the evangelist Billy Graham, who saw The Exorcist as somehow aligned with the forces of darkness, and took to enthusiastically denouncing it in public. "Billy Graham said something like, 'There is a power of evil in that film, in the fabric of the film itself,'"recalls Blatty with a genuine sense of bemusement. "Now I don't know what he was talking about. I mean, I have great respect for Billy Graham, but I thought that was one of the most foolish statements I have ever heard. I would have attributed it to senility except he was only 39 or 40 at the time. But to this day I still have no idea what he meant by that. I mean, obviously there is a power in the film to move you, to have a disturbing effect upon the viewer which is greater than the sum of its parts. It's mysterious, yes. But my God, it's not evilÖ"
Whatever Billy Graham's concerns, Father Thomas Bermingham was a champion of The Exorcist and agreed to fly the flag for the movie when it opened in cinemas in Europe. Here, as in America, reactions to the film were far from subdued.
"I got a call from Warner Bros. asking me to go to Milano," Father Bermingham recalls, "because they were opening there and they heard that the whole city was in uproar. They wanted to have a psychiatrist and myself present to deal with this. So I flew in and met this Italian psychiatrist - we had dinner and established a good relationship - then we had this lecture which was held in one of the great museums. The lecture was meant to last for forty-five minutes, but after that time nobody wanted to leave."
Joe Hyams recalls an equally startling commotion at the movie's opening in Rome. "I had gone there with Tom Bermingham and Billy Friedkin. The film was playing at the Metropolitan Theatre, just off this huge piazza in the heart of Rome which has these two twin Sixteenth Century churches with identical crosses on top. In Italy, of course, the film was an enormous success and I was standing outside the theatre watching the crowd go in, queuing in this rain and lightning, and loving it. And then in the middle of all this I heard some noise or commotion coming from the piazza, so I walk round andÖlightning had struck one of the crosses on top of those churches! That cross was probably four hundred years old, about seven or eight feet long-and it fell right in the middle of the piazza. It was only thanks to the bad weather that it didn't fall on nine Italians because that Piazza was usually very crowded. Well, as soon as the cross fell, the local policeman immediately took charge of the situation - but nobody went near to that cross. Now, I'm skeptical, but I start to think, 'This is getting crazy. OK there's a lightning storm and the lightning hit the cross. But there's been a lot of lightning in Rome over the past four hundred years, and this happens now when our movie is opening just down the street?' We left town about three days later, and even then that cross hadn't been moved from the spot where it fell. The authorities had taped the area off while they investigated what might have happened, and every day crowds would come there to see it. I even sneaked in to see it one more time before we caught our plane. That to me was the spookiest thing that happened."