Making Sense of “Cruising”

With William Friedkin’s long-controversial thriller screening this week at the Quad, we look back at its turbulent legacy


William Friedkin’s Cruising first appears in the Quad Cinema’s exhaustive Al Pacino retrospective this week, unspooling unassumingly on Wednesday night — atypical for a movie that has made, over the course of its history, quite a bit of noise in the Village. Starting with its production in 1979, and on through its release the following year, this sweaty cop thriller, set in the world of waterfront leather bars, would become the focal point of a heated debate that raged throughout New York City, its gay community, and the pages of this very publication.

Friedkin, who also penned the screenplay, based the film on three primary sources: a 1970 novel of the same name by New York Times reporter Gerald Walker, about an undercover cop investigating a serial killer of gay men; Friedkin’s conversations with Randy Jurgensen, a former NYPD detective (and a consultant on Friedkin’s The French Connection) who spent several months undercover in the city’s s&m clubs and proclaimed the experience “messed up his mind”; and a series of Voice articles by Arthur Bell detailing several grisly, unsolved killings of gay men picked up in leather bars. In 1977, Paul Bateson was arrested and charged with those crimes. In the kind of coincidence that wouldn’t make it past your average script’s first draft, Bateson had appeared as an X-ray tech in Friedkin’s 1973 The Exorcist.

The writer-director made several trips to the Mineshaft and the Anvil, two of the most notorious hardcore bars on the scene; introductions and protection were provided by Genovese crime-family member Matty “The Horse” Ianniello. (Those s&m-inviting businesses, like most gay bars and clubs of the era, were under mob ownership.) But Friedkin remained an aloof observer of gay life, and Cruising was undeniably a script written from a straight, Other-ing perspective — a fact that sounded alarms when news of its existence leaked to gay activists just as the film’s production commenced in New York during the summer of ’79.

The first salvo in the battle came, ironically enough, from the same Voice writer whose columns on the gay serial killer had caught Friedkin’s eye. In the July 16 edition of his “Bell Tells” column, Arthur Bell wrote that Cruising “promises to be the most oppressive, ugly, bigoted look at homosexuality ever presented on the screen, the worst possible nightmare of the most uptight straight and a validation of Anita Bryant’s hate campaign.” Bell opined that Friedkin was “not only playing with a keg of dynamite, he’s throwing a match to it,” and offered up a suggestion for action: “I implore readers — gay, straight, liberal, radical, atheist, communist, or whatever — to give Friedkin and his production crew a terrible time if you spot them in your neighborhood.”

Bell’s readers, to put it mildly, took him up on the challenge. In his memoir, The Friedkin Connection, the filmmaker recalls, with against-type understatement, how “attempts to prevent the film from being made became a cause célèbre in New York.” Pamphlets were distributed, rallies were held, streets were blocked, bottles and bricks were thrown, demonstrators were roughed up, and arrests were made. Friedkin, who didn’t like working in the studio, shot the film’s many apartment scenes in real buildings; residents in adjoining units played music so loud it drowned out the dialogue. (Most of it had to be re-recorded after the fact.) People on the streets did their part by blasting air horns and whistles.

Activists also took more official routes to stifle the picture. Appeals were made to Mayor Ed Koch to withdraw the tax incentives provided by the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre, and Broadcasting, or to cut off the support of that organization (which issued permits for shooting in the city). Koch, unsurprisingly, denied the request. “To do otherwise would involve censorship,” he explained. “It is the business of this city’s administration to encourage the return of film making to New York City by cooperating to whatever extent feasible with film makers.”

But the company was inconvenienced in plenty of other ways. Gay bars that had granted Friedkin and his crew permission to shoot withdrew their cooperation. (“I couldn’t blame them,” Friedkin shrugged.) Bell had also called upon gay men the production had hired as extras and background color to “be aware of the consequences” of the picture; about twenty of those men quit, and some who remained served as spies for the community, leaking valuable, confidential information about the company’s movements, which allowed activists to better disrupt location shoots. In a later column, Bell relayed, with relish, the trouble the company had in shooting a simple scene of Pacino’s character leaving a building on Jones Street. Residents refused to leave the stoop, and then ruined each take by making faces at the camera or blocking the actor’s movements. (Bell subsequently reported retaliation against troublemaking residents by the film’s crew.)

The disruptions came to a head on the night of July 26, when (according to the Times) about a thousand protesters gathered at dusk, moved to the film’s production headquarters at Pier 40, and then marched through the Village, chanting “Cruising must go!” The protest ended with a sit-in that stopped traffic in Sheridan Square for a half-hour before the protesters were broken up by about a hundred police officers. Two arrests, per the Times report, were made. “One cop was kicked in the balls,” wrote Richard Goldstein in the Voice’s August 6 issue. “It made page one of the Post.”

“It was a surprise, you know, to me,” Pacino tells the Voice now, of the protests. “You’re an actor, really. You’re going into what the role means, what that means, and you’re not looking around at who you are in relation to the whole thing. You just aren’t. Or at least I wasn’t. I try to do that now. If it taught me anything, it taught me that. You have to know what you represent and what you’re doing and how it affects the world around you. A little bit, you need to know that stuff. Because if you don’t, that kind of thing can happen.”

Reporting on the march for the Voice, Goldstein opined, “Assuming it’s finished, Cruising will go down in history, if only because it marks the first time a citizens’ protest has been mounted against a film before it’s in the can.” Whether one agrees that protesting a work of art sight unseen is a net good, Goldstein’s objections have the kind of nuance and insight badly missing from Friedkin’s script, which, by the maker’s own admission, saw this gay subculture as “just an exotic background for a murder mystery.”

It’s a question, to dip into the current lexicon, of representation. Goldstein explains that the city’s waterfront bars were “designed to resemble a filmmaker’s fantasy of dangerous sex. Illusion — not danger — is the point. The people who go to those bars know they are visiting a Luna Park of the libido; most of the people who patronize Cruising will think they are seeing ordinary life. Billy Friedkin wouldn’t know ordinary gay life if it hit him in the face — which, apparently, it has.”

Yet as the anti-Cruising movement was gaining steam, other voices stepped up with their own objections. Right alongside Goldstein’s extended commentary in the August 6 issue of the Voice, John Rechy made “A Case for ‘Cruising,’ ” as the piece was headlined on the front page. In the article, Rechy granted the foundation of his colleague’s concern, while noting carefully, “It would be naive to deny the special impact of films. It is also risky to predict that impact; and it may prove dangerous, based on such prediction, to move into the quagmire of prior censorship.”

Nat Hentoff did not hedge his bets, or mince his words. The founding Voice columnist and First Amendment absolutist took to the paper on September 24, after the completion of Cruising’s New York photography. Noting that he had “resisted adding a broadside to the sulfurous polemics about Cruising because there has been no scarcity of comment on the matter in this paper,” Hentoff nonetheless granted that “one would have to be an utter dolt not to understand the anger and fear of homosexuals at what they thought it was about (and what it actually may be about, for all I know).” Yet Hentoff, in sharp contrast to his Voice cohort, saw such understanding as doing more harm than good. “There are often extremely honest, powerful motivations for censorship,” he wrote. “And that is precisely why thought control has to be resisted at every point, because once one group does succeed in obliterating expression it considers intolerably threatening, then another group will insist on lighting its own pyre.”

Yet Hentoff’s rhetorical remove, or for that matter our own historical one, cannot downplay the validity of the fears and concerns voiced by gay activists that summer. It wasn’t like mainstream Hollywood movies had a sterling reputation for nuanced characterizations of LGBTQ people. Was there a place for a film that explicitly dramatized gay life as a sordid bacchanalia of rough sex and blood lust? Should there be?

And thus, Cruising became a rallying point, and perhaps one the gay liberation movement needed. It had, after all, just passed merely the tenth anniversary of the Stonewall uprising (also covered legendarily in the Voice), and the movement’s signal cause (AIDS activism) was still on the horizon. Outsiders raising their voices against a potentially incendiary Hollywood production, from a superstar actor and an Oscar-winning director, made for a story, and a sexy one. As Goldstein noted, the picture “brought the gay community its most potent organizing tool since the murder of Harvey Milk.”

Or did it? In a cover story for the February 1980 issue of the gay magazine Mandate, editor in chief John Devere visited the set — as an extra, recruited (as so many were) in New York City gay bars, and without divulging his status as a journalist — and deflated some of the narrative around the production. “More than 1,600 gay men participated in the filming of Cruising,” he wrote, while “significantly fewer gays protested the filming, and the protestors, day after day, were usually the same basic group of people, about 25 in number, who were of course joined by others daily.” And to the concerns of suburban moviegoers viewing the version of gay life depicted in Cruising as disproportionately representative, Devere offered up a counterpoint: “One recurrent observation was that the men who frequent the world being depicted — the Eagle, the Spike, the Mineshaft, the Anvil — were in the movie, and did not object to their world being depicted. Middle-of-the-road gays, they thought, were the ones who didn’t want the leather fringe seen by Middle America, even though the world certainly exists. Many felt that the protests were as much a protest against the leather world itself as they are a protest against Friedkin’s film.”

The elemental questions surrounding Cruising — of who is permitted to tell a culture’s stories and who is not; of the limits of free speech and peaceful protest; of the significance and consequences of representation in popular art — haven’t gone anywhere in the nearly forty years since the film’s release. But they weren’t contemplated much in the original reviews, which mostly dismissed it outright. In the February 11, 1980, issue of the Voice, Geoffrey Stokes summarized it (perhaps accurately) as “a hopelessly garbled film,” while reporting on a post-screening Q&A with members of the media in which Friedkin seemed unable to explain entire swaths of his plot. (He insisted, “The violence in this movie is by a heterosexual killer,” and confessed, “I myself was not sure whether there was one killer or more than one.” Huh?). “That Friedkin has made a tedious movie is too bad, but he has gifts and will make a decent one again,” Stokes wrote. “That he lacks even the courage of his bad convictions is shameful.”

Other critics were even less charitable. New York’s David Denby wrote, “The movie is sordid and depressing because it’s been made without insight or love and from the depths of a soul about the size of a thumbtack.” The Times’ Vincent Canby called it “exceptionally unpleasant, not necessarily because of the subject matter, but because it makes no attempt to comprehend it. It just stares.” And Daily News’ Rex Reed, while insisting Bell’s “hysterical columns have done more harm to his fellow gays than anything in Cruising,” nonetheless wrote that the film “sickens, insults, and distorts.” (And that last one is saying something, considering the source.)

But what of those early, dire warnings that helped sound the alarm for the Cruising protests? Bell predicted Cruising would “negate years of positive movement work and may well send gays running back into the closet and precipitate heavy violence against homosexuals.” Goldstein believed its release “will endanger the political viability of civil rights legislation without which no homosexual can live a full and candid life.” While neither of those predictions is necessarily false, when one looks at the struggle of LGBTQ people in the Eighties and beyond, determining the causality or culpability of Cruising is a complex task. An argument can perhaps be made that because Cruising was so effectively protested, it was denied the commercial success that might have brought dire repercussions for the community to pass.

And yet, in the decades that followed, something curious happened. Critics — particularly gay critics — revisited Cruising, and came to find value in it through the lens of (ironically enough) representation. Several such pieces greeted its long-delayed DVD release in the fall of 2007. Christopher Wallenberg of the New York Blade wrote, “It remains a curious cultural artifact remarkable for its bold, graphic depiction of an underground gay subculture — something you’d be surprised to see in a mainstream movie even today.” The Voice’s Nathan Lee doled out the strongest praise ever seen in these pages: “Cruising is a lurid fever dream of popper fumes, color-coded pocket hankies, hardcore disco frottage, and Crisco-coated forearms. Nowadays, when the naughtiest thing you can do in a New York gay club is light a cigarette, it’s bracing — and, let’s admit, pretty fucking hot — to travel back to a moment when getting your ass plowed in public was as blasé as ordering a Red Bull.”

And in the New York Sun, Grady Hendrix offered up this thought: “With over 72,000 AIDS deaths in New York to date, it stands to reason that a large slice of the men you see in the club scenes are no longer with us. But here in their disco grottoes, behind their mustaches and muttonchops and leather, behind their tough-guy masks, they’re smiling. They’ve found a place in the world where everything finally makes sense.” And maybe, through that prism, Cruising finally does, too.