The people at Warner Home Video must be giddy. Months ago, they decided to finally release Cruising on DVD and picked a Sept. 18 street date. The movie, directed by William Friedkin (The Exorcist, The French Connection), stars Al Pacino as a cop investigating a string of murders in New York City’s gay underworld. It touched off impassioned protests from the gay community when it appeared in 1980, and Warner perhaps hoped that memories of the controversy would stoke curiosity in the DVD. But never in their wildest imaginations could they have dreamed that just as the disc was hitting store shelves, the senator from Idaho would make cruising front-page news. Maybe now, thanks to Larry Craig, Cruising will at long last get its due.
Pacino plays Steve Burns, a rookie cop who goes undercover to attract a psychopath who has been butchering gay men in their late 20s. Burns rents an apartment in the Village and ducks into a gritty shop along the crowded Village strip, where he nods at a display of handkerchiefs. “What are these for?” he asks the store clerk. “Light blue hankie in the left back pocket means you want a blow job,” the guy answers. “Right pocket means you give one. Green one: Left side says you’re a hustler; right side, a buyer. Yellow one: Left side means you give golden showers; right side, you receive … See anything you want?” “I’m gonna go home and think about it,” Burns stammers.
Before long, however, Burns perfects the Tom of Finland look and becomes a regular on the scene, cruising Central Park and the Village bars. But as the corpse count keeps rising, Burns is forced to find more suspects and seek out more intimate, and more dangerous, sexual encounters. In one bungled sting, his fellow cops discover him trussed up and nude on a hotel bed.
The last third of the film squanders some of the intensity the first two acts build up, as the final act is given over to a prolonged cat-and-mouse game between Burns and a killer with some serious daddy issues. But the ending is surprising, and haunting. Latent homosexual tendencies, the movie suggests, may lead to homicidal ones.
Activists took offense at that message. The movie appeared barely a decade after the 1969 Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village, generally credited with sparking the modern gay rights movement. At the time, television and movies offered few images of gay men, and when they did show up, they often didn’t make it to the end credits alive. By the time Cruising was in production, the gay community seems to have had enough. While Friedkin was filming in 1979, Village Voice columnist Arthur Bell predicted that the film would be “the most oppressive, ugly, bigoted look at homosexuality ever presented on the screen.” Bell seems to have assumed the film would hew closely to the 1970 book Cruising, a more incendiary tale told partially from a bigoted cop’s point of view. (Friedkin abandoned that device.) Bell implored his readers to “give Friedkin and his production a terrible time if you spot them in your neighborhood.”
They did just that. As production executive Mark Johnson recounts on the commentary track of the new DVD, protesters sounded whistles and sirens during filming. They perched on rooftops near the set and used reflectors to shine spots of light onto the scenes, ruining the takes. Eventually, thousands marched in the streets of Greenwich Village in protest. (Though, it should be noted, other segments of the gay community also showed up, to protest the protesters.)
When the film finally arrived in theaters, the National Gay Task Force likened it to Birth of a Nation. According to The Lavender Screen, Boze Hadleigh’s book about gay film, 20,000 fliers appeared on the New York gay scene, with a warning: “This is not a film about how we live, it’s a film about why we should be killed.”
Cruising is at times a violent, brutal picture. In the opening scene, ominous synth chords portend the discovery of a severed limb floating in the East River. Moments later, punk rock washes over a crowded bar as an ill-fated hookup transpires against a backdrop of sweating, mustachioed men—a scandalous netherworld Friedkin paints with a dark palette of black leather and Levi’s blue. And with its depiction of countercultural, homo hedonism, Cruising was understandably not the first impression a burgeoning gay rights movement wanted to project to mainstream America. Nor did the movie offer a comforting welcome to anyone apprehensive about coming out.
Yet watching the movie today, it’s a bit hard to understand what everyone was so upset about. Friedkin worked to ground his film in reality. Before shooting began, he befriended patrons of bars like the Anvil, Mine Shaft, and Ramrod, and even paid them as extras, lending the movie an admirable authenticity. Some real leather daddies—granddaddies today—will no doubt complain that Friedkin exaggerated the barroom bacchanalia for dramatic effect. In one memorable scene, Burns and an admirer huff ethyl chloride on the dance floor as a fantasia of debauchery transpires around them—disco lights illuminate an orgy in one corner of the bar, and an ingenious use of Crisco in another.
Yet from the outset, the film makes clear that this scene is on the fringe. Burns’ boss, Capt. Edelson (Paul Sorvino), describes the world the murder victims inhabit as “not the mainstream of gay life. They were into heavy leather, S&M, a world unto itself.” And once Burns becomes immersed in that world, he never comments on its morality. That decision is left to the viewer.
Perhaps as a result, neither the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, as it is called today, nor the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, a media watchdog organization, plan to issue statements this month denouncing Cruising, which in addition to being released on DVD is also being revived in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.
“Today we have other movies, other representations, other media to help counter negative images,” says Damon Romine, GLAAD’s entertainment media director. “We know now that not all gay men are bad guys.”
We also now know that some gay men are bad guys. We can explore the idea, as Cruising does, that sexual confusion can push a disturbed person over the edge. Friedkin believes this was the motivation for some of the real-life murders the film was based on: “A lot of dirty, sick people questioned their own sexuality and found a lot of question marks—and took it out on gay people,” he told me recently.
Such an exploration is incongruous with the upbeat “gay” entertainment (Will & Grace, Queer Eye, etc.) we’re consistently fed today. Even gay thugs and murderers—Vito Spatafore on The Sopranos, or Bree’s son Andrew on Desperate Housewives—are somehow likable these days. Cruising, on the other hand, never serves up any witty brunch banter or fabulous shopping sprees. It also avoids the emotional heartbreak of a Brokeback Mountain or just about any AIDS drama. The leather men in Friedkin’s movie don’t complain that they’re victims of a prejudiced society, but they also make no apologies for their “lifestyle.”
It’s strange that such a portrayal so offended gay activists at the time. But it’s reassuring to see that that community seems to have learned something over the last generation. When the Larry Craig story broke, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force quickly worked to steer the discussion toward the hypocrisy of the family values set. Closeted, self-loathing men still pose a danger to the gay community. But the ones in William Friedkin’s movie aren’t the ones we need to worry about.