In 1980 William Friedkin’s movie Cruising starring Al Pacino created a firestorm in the gay community. Gays protested the film not only during it’s release but also during filming.
Demonstrators did everything they could to sabotage the filming. There was an unsuccessful attempt to get Friedkin’s location permits in the Village revoked. When that didn’t work, people honked horns and blasted stereos out of windows to interfere with the sound recording. Others sat on rooftops with large reflectors to disrupt the lighting. Regulars of the meat packing district’s leather bars participated in the filming but several of the bars backed out when they saw the script.
What in fact many of those who protested were worried about was once the film was released gay bashings would increase and it would lump all gays into a common sterotype at a time when being gay was far from being accepted by mainstream America.
Screenwriter Ron Nyswaner, (Philadelphia, Soldier’s Girl), reports in the HBO film of The Celluloid Closet that he and his boyfriend narrowly escaped being beaten by a group of college jocks who had just seen Cruising and told them that this was what they deserved. My partner, Andy, counseled gays at the college where he taught, and he got panicky calls from many young men asking if that is going to be what their lives would be – wondering if they would be killed or wind up as someone’s bitch. Remember too that the S&M world is a lot more accepted and recognized now than it was then by gays and straights alike.
As Michael D. Klemm continued in his writeup in October 2007 about the release of the film on DVD , It begins with a severed arm found floating in the Hudson river, a harbinger of the horror to come. Al Pacino plays a young cop named Steve Burns who agrees to go undercover as bait to attract a serial killer who is targeting the gay leather community. He is the same physical type as the victims. As he descends into the Dante’s Inferno of the NYC leather bars – populated by hot, sweaty rough trade – he begins to realize that his assignment is “changing” him. The part that still bothers 70s gay activists to this day is the implication that Burns transforms into a queer killer himself just from having been exposed to this “alien” lifestyle.
In a Reuters article written by Craig Modderno at about the same time as Klemm’s about the DVD release, Modderno wrote, In a recent discussion, (William) Friedkin said he was still shocked at the backlash he received while filming in New York City.
“I was amazed at the violent response. It got so bad that we literally gave the crew the call sheets at the last possible moment and reminded them every day not to tell anyone where we’d be shooting,” Friedkin said.
“For example, we had an early morning shoot on an isolated street featuring Pacino being approached by a gay man he’s met earlier in the evening who may or may not be the killer of several gay victims in the East Village,” Friedkin said.
“Suddenly hundreds of protesters showed up at 3 a.m. throwing rocks and shouting threats at us, which we didn’t help by responding in kind. From the experience I had making ‘Cruising’ I learned people don’t get upset when you push the boundaries of violence in films but when you do so in sexual areas you’re going to make a lot of people angry.”
If he tried to make the movie today, he would be laughed at by Hollywood’s bosses, he said.
“I wouldn’t get into their office even if I had a worldwide hit like ‘The Exorcist’ recently behind me,” he said. Despite gays being a major economic force, today’s Hollywood elite are scared to make a movie that examines the dark side of sexuality, gay or straight, he said.
“Besides which, no agent at any major agency would let his client play the lead today, in fear he might be typecast as being gay or gossiped about in the tabloid or Internet press.”
Brian Juergons writing for the website AfterElton in 2007 wrote an excellent extended article about Cruising, Friedkin remembers, “The reviews vilified the picture. To me as a filmmaker I felt like a war criminal. It was completely unexpected, the extent or the depth or how it carried on for almost a generation, until the film was re-released early in 1990. Then I began to see reviews in the same publications that had vilified the picture before now praising it – but these were different reviewers from a different generation with different attitudes about lifestyles.”
Cruising was criticized both for its content and its narrative, which puzzled some and frustrated others with its seemingly ambiguous ending. Friedkin maintains, “I think there’s no ambiguity. There’s no solution – that’s different. The killings were unsolved, there’s no one killer. (There are) many killers … I grant you that that’s not easy for audiences, who are used to a killing, for example, on television, taking place at 9 o’clock and the murderer going off to prison at ten o’clock. But the cruising murders are still unsolved, and there was no one killer.”
Given the setting, the crimes and the nature of the killers (sadists who are remarkably similar and share the common goal of punishing gay men for being sexual), the film is naturally packed wall-to-wall with gay references, images and characters of all sorts.
In fact, perhaps the best thing that can possibly be said for Cruising is that it at least has the guts to go all the way.
The sexual content in Cruising is still shocking today, when mainstream films that dare to show male nudity and men in any sort of sexual situations with one another are still a cause for intense controversy. Sure, many elements of gay sexuality such as public orgies and other practices are presented clearly in the interest of horrifying a straight audience, but you can’t accuse the film of not getting its hands dirty in the process.
It’s worth noting that the version of Cruising that finally made it to screens in 1980 (the same version being released on DVD, albeit with a remastered picture and stereo soundtrack) is a full 40 minutes shorter than the film Friedkin shot, and that nearly all 40 minutes that were cut were of sex acts in the clubs.
Says the director, “Warner Brothers would have put everything back into Cruising if we could have found it – we could not find a frame. We didn’t add anything and I didn’t subtract anything. It was just, for the most part, more footage of the clubs. For example, I shot every one of the sexual activities that occurred in the clubs, which you now see pieces of in the film, like the fist-f**king and the golden shower – those were all shot for real.”
I remember the protests when the film came out and given the time period it was released (as described in my posting about the closing of The Brook in Westport, CT) several of us drove from Danbury down to Stamford to see the film amid protesters and for myself at least it was a bit disconcerting in the depiction of the S&M segment of our community because not too long before seeing the film several of us had gone into New York City on one of our bath house trips and decided to check out the ”notorious” club The Anvil where I saw things I didn’t know at the time could be done or wanted to be done to the human body and all the “aspects” that go with that culture. What ever floats your boat I always say, but it wasn’t and still isn’t my cup of tea. However the several hours spent there were entertaining and enlightening to say the least and, ahem … I’ll leave it at that. Somethings you just don’t discuss.
I believe director William Fredkin is correct that today the film would never be made or even if done so as an independent venture, Fredkin would be hard pressed in finding a distributor. So all these years later, like the film or not for its “portrayal” of gays and a paticular segment, credit must be given for the fact the film was made and is now a part of “gay cinema” history and for Al Pacino to have even embraced the idea of participating in the movie after his many box office successes starting with the movie The Godfather. Unfortunately that is something rarely discussed nor giving Pacino his due when he could have easily been “outcast” for being part of the film.
This is one writer who says thanks to Al Pacino for having, dare I say, the balls for taking a role others no doubt turned down.
Lyndon Evans http://focusontherainbowopine.outloudblogs.com