Celebrating its 40th anniversary is the brilliantly crafted classic, The Exorcist (1973), a film by William Friedkin (The French Connection, Bug). One of my favorite aspects of The Exorcist is its collection of fascinating characters. While this winner of a Best Screenplay Academy Award is primarily the story of Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), her daughter, Regan (Linda Blair), and Father Damian Karras (Jason Miller), The Exorcist features an impressive pool of supporting roles. The actors in these smaller parts are provided moments to shine brightly, becoming stars of the film for at least a scene or two.
One of the most intriguing and important of these supporting characters is Sharon Spencer, Chris MacNeil’s assistant, played by Kitty Winn. The character is not family – she’s there to do her job. She is the outsider on the inside, finding herself being sucked into the mother/daughter nightmare. In a sense, Winn gives the audience “permission” to witness and become part of the terrifying narrative as well. While it may have seemed one of the more flat characters on the page, Winn expertly brings the character to vibrant life on screen, and succeeds in inviting us aboard for the shocking ride.
Kitty Winn’s first feature film was The Panic In Needle Park (1971). In this movie, directed by Jerry Schatzberg (Scarecrow, Sweet Revenge), Winn plays one of the two leads, sharing the spotlight with fellow newcomer Al Pacino. Again, she is the outsider sucked into a nightmare, her character providing the pathway for the audience entering the film’s universe – this time, the grim world of drug addiction.
Winn’s performance in this film is extraordinary – she even outshines Pacino. In the early scenes, she begins dating Bobby (Pacino), a heroin addict and pusher, though she is not a drug user herself. Through her, we absorb the confusion, frustration, and hopelessness of addiction. Winn’s character goes from being observer to participant, slipping into heroin use herself. The well-written character arc is skillfully milked for maximum drama and tension by Winn. The actress even permitted actual needles to inject her, providing an unnerving level of realism. All of the heroin-use scenes are disconcertingly authentic – but it is Winn who draws the audience into the prison of addition. The role won her the Best Actress award at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival.
Co-star Pacino, primed for superstardom, next landed the role of Michael Corleone in The Godfather (1972) – with some difficulty. Director Francis Ford Coppola would, in fact, use a screening of The Panic In Needle Park to help convince a reluctant Paramount Pictures that this unknown actor could handle the Michael Corleone part. Pacino would go on to become one of the most recognizable names and faces in American film. I wonder, if Kitty Winn had not hit a home run and made The Panic In Needle Park so impactful, would Paramount have gambled on Pacino? If someone else had played Michael Corleone in the now-classic, highly revered The Godfather, Pacino would have experienced a very different career trajectory.
A successful theatre actor, with a secondary emphasis on television roles, Kitty Winn appeared in only six feature films – including two additional horror movies (the disastrous Exorcist II: The Heretic in 1977, and her final film, Mirrors in 1978). She officially retired in her mid-30s, resurfacing only for the rare live theatre performance.
While her feature film body of work is disappointingly small, Kitty Winn most certainly left an impressive footprint in cinema history. If you have never seen it, check out The Panic In Needle Park to witness some top-notch film acting. Also, be sure to revisit The Exorcist soon, and watch it again for Kitty Winn.
Thanks for reading.
- Eric Stanze