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Reconsidering Friedkin's ''Cruising''

More than a quarter century after its controversial release, William Friedkin’s dark tour of New York’s gay S&M scene arrives on DVD in a special collector’s edition. Does the film deserve a reputation rehab?

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Everett Collection

Reconsidering Friedkin’s ”Cruising”

Movies get lost, overlooked, and forgotten all the time, but how many actually go into exile? William Friedkin’s 1980 murder mystery Cruising is one of those rarities. A VHS version appeared with no fanfare in 1996, but the film’s Sept. 18th arrival on DVD, 27 years after its opening sparked the wrath of the gay community (and the scorn of just about every working critic) marks the first real attempt to escort it through Reputation Rehab.

On this ”collector’s edition,” producer Jerry Weintraub and writer-director Friedkin try to reposition Cruising, their horrorstruck heterosexual gawkers’ tour through the dank grottos of New York’s gay S&M scene, as both a victim of its era and a work of art ahead of its time, a movie born too soon to be fully understood. Not so fast, fellas. While this landmark-for-all-the-wrong-reasons deserves to be available for reexamination, the true history of Cruising isn’t quite the version that its makers are selling on this disc.

First, some background. In 1979, when Cruising was shot in the streets and clubs and SROs of the Big Apple in all its seedy garbage-strike, recession-era splendor, Friedkin and star Al Pacino were both heavyweight players coming off of major disasters (Friedkin’s 1977 movie Sorcerer had bombed, as had Pacino’s racecar melodrama Bobby Deerfield). Friedkin wasn’t a homophobe — ten years earlier, he had directed the film version of Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band — but when he began Cruising, he remained a somewhat agog tourist in gay culture, staring in fascination at its otherness and then reporting the creepy news from the front.

Working from a 1970 novel by journalist Gerald Walker that the director says was badly dated, Friedkin decided to add leather and lube, concocting a nihilistic thriller in which Pacino would play Steve Burns, a cop assigned to go undercover as a homosexual to catch a killer preying on the gay men who frequent the roughest underground sex clubs in New York’s permanently rainsoaked meat district. The film literally darkens as Steve abandons the sunsplashed, airy apartment of his girlfriend Nancy (Karen Allen) to descend into a nightcrawler’s realm of facemasks and jockstraps, color-coded hankies and poppers, handcuffs and ominously greased-up fists and forearms, all displayed amid an angry, scratchy-industrial musical thrum. (There’s no sissyboy disco for the badass, stone-faced thrillseekers in these gay armies of the night.)

In no time flat, Steve has become one of the undead, drained of color, life and expression. ”Why don’t you want me anymore?” asks Nancy. ”Nance, what I’m doing is affecting me,” replies the newly bitten zombie. ”I don’t understand what’s happening to you!” she cries. ”Neither do I,” he murmurs before returning to the land of the lost.

NEXT PAGE: Gay activists fight back

When the movie began production, gay activists were incensed by a portrayal that even Friedkin admits was ”not the best foot forward?as an argument for the acceptance by heterosexual people of the gay lifestyle,” and raised holy hell. They protested by the hundreds at the sites of location shoots. They rented apartments next to rooms where Cruising was filming, making so much noise that much of its dialogue had to be rerecorded after production (a fact that only seems to have enhanced the deliberately disembodied quality of the performances). They stood on rooftops, wielding huge reflectors to spoil the cinematography. In short, says Friedkin, gay activists decided ”to shut down free speech.”

Ah, Hollywood. The facts are accurate, but the conclusion isn’t. It takes chutzpah to cook up a countermyth in which New York’s homosexual population, a mere decade after the Stonewall riots, is remembered as a massive politically correct Goliath determined to stifle the plucky little movie that dared to show things as they really were. Even leaving aside Friedkin’s dubious recollection that ”more thousands” of gay men rallied to the film’s defense than against it, this neo-spin on Cruising does a disservice to reality. Far from trying to shut down free speech, the gay community organizers who protested Cruising were exercising their right to it, issuing a surprisingly loud collective holler against a movie that was maddeningly behind its time, not, as Weintraub asserts, ”way, way ahead” of it. While the film’s explicitness was new, its take on gay life was merely a raunchier version of the dioramas of sour, ugly misery that Hollywood had retailed for twenty years, an esthetic in which gay sex and self-destructive-unto-suicidal impulses always seemed to walk hand in hand. The stereotype had been peddled in any number of movies, notably 1962’s Advise and Consent and 1968’s noxious Frank Sinatra cop drama The Detective. But by the late 1970s, gay moviegoers were mad as hell and not going to take it anymore — and for the first time, they got heard.

Cruising earns its place in film lore only for being an historically important last straw, not, heaven knows, for anything on screen, which remains appalling even when unintentionally hilarious. Early on, Pacino’s boss (Paul Sorvino) tells him, in what sounds like a negotiated-at-gunpoint post-production overdub, that the murder victims ”were not in the mainstream of gay life” but were, rather, aficionados of bondage, ”a world unto itself.” The catch, of course, is that ”the mainstream of gay life” (whatever that meant in 1979) was almost invisible in pop culture except for the occasional sitcom smirk, and is seen nowhere in Cruising. On the DVD, Friedkin says that when he visited clubs like New York’s Ramrod for research, he was fascinated by the ”dress-up” element — the thought that gay lawyers and stockbrokers and businessmen would get into studded wristcuffs and combat boots and cut loose every night. That’s an intriguing and legitimate idea, but Cruising never explores it — there’s barely a daylight gay world in the movie at all. The one gay character who isn’t trawling, hollow-eyed, for his next anonymous encounter ends up slain next to a toilet, a shot for which Friedkin requested as much blood as possible.

As for the murderers, one turns out to be a gay Columbia musical-theater major whose daddy didn’t love him enough (did you just hear ten bowling pins crash in the alley of cultural stereotypes?) Another turns out to be…possibly Steve himself, whom viewers are encouraged to believe is so deep in his assignment that he may be on his way to becoming gay and a killer, both of which seem like diseases that can be contracted by proximity to carriers, despite occasional booster-inoculations of sex with his girlfriend while he’s on furlough. Audiences watching the movie could hardly be blamed for imagining that homosexuality was some kind of gateway drug that leads to homicide, especially since Friedkin avers that in his lensing of the film’s many stabbings, he wanted ”the knife penetrating flesh” to be ”similar to the act of sexual penetration.”

Yeah, thanks for that — I get the picture. This concept wouldn’t be redeemable under any circumstances, but especially not in the hands of a director best known for the clinical horror of The Exorcist. It’s this quasi-psychological aspect of Cruising that remains most pernicious. The movie was shot just a couple of years before the press carried the first reports of a mysterious illness killing gay men in some of the very neighborhoods shown on screen, and it’s prescient, but in all the wrong ways. Cruising doesn’t anticipate AIDS, but it does offer a remarkably accurate blueprint for the way the very existence of homosexuality would be treated as a virus by people who were determined to demonize gay men over the next decade. ”The monster in Friedkin’s horror film,” wrote Vito Russo in The Celluloid Closet, ”is homosexuality itself.”

NEXT PAGE: Cruising gets some things right

There’s no question that Cruising nails the look of the era — the sweat, the black leather and red bandannas, the long sideburns and plushly hairy chests — right down to the last pair of mirrored aviator shades. (If you doubt me, go cross-check it against the more lucid documentary Gay Sex in the ’70s.) The movie’s milieu, at least, was something real, even if Pacino, looking every one of his 39 years in an unfortunate scoop-necked black sleeveless T-shirt and a mutating perm that’s as frightening as anything in the script, seems wildly uncomfortable as a cop meant to be a hot piece of sexbait in his late twenties. In a very intelligent and spirited semi-defense of the movie in The Village Voice, Nathan Lee finds something to cheer in what he calls the ”archival” honesty of the visuals, as well as what he sees as the ”atmosphere of uninhibited sexual cameraderie” and ”palpable sense of fun” depicted in the clubs. (The fun looks more palpable to him than it does to me, but this is something about which gay moviegoers can reasonably differ.)

Lee also doubts that anyone viewing the movie in 1980 would ”automatically equate” the world of the film with ”gay culture at large.” Fair enough, but in that case, count me among the duped: In 1980, I was a years-from-coming-out 16-year-old growing up in New York City, and Cruising scared the crap out of me. In fairness to Cruising, it wasn’t conceived in order to make me comfortable; in fairness to me, there wasn’t exactly a multiplex full of gay-friendly options back then. It’s easy to forget that ”gay culture at large” wasn’t so large in the pre-cable, pre-indie, pre-Ellen/Rosie/Will/Grace era — Cruising‘s window on gay life couldn’t be easily contextualized by most moviegoers, because available context was so scant. It would be two years until Hollywood’s next extended glimpse of homosexuals, Making Love, which is, in a way, the polite, progressive Jekyll to Cruising‘s raw Hyde (the two movies are poles apart, but they both treat man-on-man sex with a kind of fearsomely hushed solemnity).

One of the documentaries on the new DVD is titled ”Exorcising Cruising,” the idea presumably being that if the movie could just be purged of the toxicity of its initial reception, its virtues might emerge. But the devil in Cruising is in the details of the film itself, not in the justifiable complaints about it. Cruising‘s second gasp of life can’t help but call to mind the thousands of gay men who protested the film — not a single one of whom, remarkably, is allowed to speak for himself on the DVD. (One of the grass-roots leaders of the protests, Ethan Geto, is now Hillary Clinton’s senior policy adviser on LGBT issues.)

I’ll grudgingly celebrate the movie’s return to visibility, since it represents the flashpoint at which gay people learned to fight homophobic stereotypes in pop culture with everything in their arsenal — to be out, loud, proud, pissed-off, and media-savvy. If the film, now frozen in its historical moment, scarcely seems worth the anger it generated, that’s only because we’ve come a long way, not because anybody judging the movie got it wrong the first time. The Cruising protesters were not anti-First Amendment fascists, nor were they (as some younger gay moviegoers might imagine) sex-phobic prudes who wanted to hush up anything that might make us look bad to straight folks. They were fighters — and some were also non-fighters who suddenly discovered the fighter within. Cruising‘s technical adviser Sonny Grosso claims, somewhat incredibly, that he had ”never seen?ferociousness” like that expressed by the film’s picketers (really? This from the NYPD detective on whose life The French Connection was based?) If that’s true, bravo to the haters. Over the decade that followed, that ferocity ended up mattering far more than anything in Cruising. ”What you’ve done in New York,” a Paramount executive told the late journalist Arthur Bell, who helped to spur the protests, ”is raise consciousness.” That’s worth commemorating, even if Cruising isn’t.