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Cruising Out Of Control: Revisiting William Friedkin’s Cruising

“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.”

Arthur Bell

1980 saw the release of William Friedkin’s Cruising; which to many was a film that didn’t just cross the line, it spat and trampled on the line with very little regard to respect or care for the gay community. Members of the LGBT community were so disgusted and horrified about what the films was about (a serial killer who preyed on homosexuals) and how it depicted those who belonged to the community, that during filming hundreds of protestors arrived on a location where Al Pacino’s undercover cop is approached by the potential killer. The protestors proceeded to throw rocks at the cast and crew, while shouting threats (according to director William Friedkin). In an interview, the director himself stated that ”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.”

The film was a box office flop, the age of New Hollywood was beginning to fizzle out with many of Friedkin’s peers (such as Scorsese, Spielberg and Cimino) suffering from their own flops. In the White House, the Conservative and ex-film star Ronald Reagan had recently been elected president, and he supported strongly supporting family values, Cruising was far from those values, and featured graphic sex scenes which still shock today 38 years later.

cruising poster

Of course, nowadays the norms and values have changed, with LGBT issues regularly being discussed in the open, and with the community being bigger and stronger than ever before. Cruising would have a harder chance to get made today then in 1980, because the gay scene is no longer portrayed in such a negative light nor is it an underground, taboo secret society, gay people are not longer simply portrayed as either ‘victims’ or ‘mentally disturbed individuals’. The plot struck a nerve in the community as prolific serial killers such as John Wayne Gacy, Patrick Kearney, aka “The Freeway Killer,” and Jeffrey Dahmer, had preyed on vulnerable gay men, and the press in morbid glee had reported on these murders, in graphic detail. Some of these killers were still at large at the time that the film was being made, and perhaps it was just too sensitive a subject and too fresh in the minds of the LGBT community, to be discussing about, let alone make entertainment about it.

And when asked whether Cruising could get made today, Friedkin replied that he seriously doubts that it would, “I wouldn’t get into their office [the studio executives] even if I had a worldwide hit like ‘The Exorcist’ recently behind me, 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. 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.”

cruising paper

Cruising follows a detective’s investigation of a serial killer who murders members of the gay S/M leather community.  The detective is asked to go undercover, but is drawn deeper and deeper into this world, and as a result his own sexuality as well as sanity begin to change as a result. Before production had even began, the film’s script was leaked, giving gay advocacy groups ample time to organize.  Of course,  this was pre internet and social media, therefore pamphlets were created as a calling card requesting people to arms against the film.  One pamphlet noted that violence against homosexuals is rooted in “feelings of hatred and fear” and films like Cruising “not only reinforce and foster these feelings, they exploit them for profit.” Although director Friedkin maintains that the film is not homophobic in nature but rather “just a murder mystery, with the gay leather scene as a backdrop.”

By the time filming began, Cruising had created intense criticism and resentment. Protestors interfered with the production in a number of ways, including crowding shooting locations, unhooking or even cutting cables, and blowing whistles so that shots had to be reshot, all of which cost the production time and money. 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. Koch, denied the request to the dismay of many protesters, stating that “To do otherwise would involve censorship.” However, this didn’t stop the protestors and Gay bars that had granted Friedkin and his crew permission to shoot suddenly withdrew their cooperation. (“I couldn’t blame them,” Friedkin exclaimed during an interview.) Gay men who had hired as extras were warned “be aware of the consequences” of the picture; many actually quit the film, but there were some who remained in order to spy for the community, leaking valuable, confidential information about the company’s movements, which allowed activists to disrupt shooting.

al cruising

In the end, the film still manged to get made, although as I stated earlier in this piece Cruising failed to find an audience at the box office. Perhaps this was partly down to the reaction from the critics? Geoffrey Stokes of the Voice summarized it as “a hopelessly garbled film.” Even the film’s own director struggled to make sense of his film’s plot, and while reporting on a post-screening Q&A with members of the media in which Friedkin  stated that “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.” New York’s David Denby was less kind about Cruising compared to Strokes and 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.” A little harsh, to say the least, but proves that the protesting and negative press had managed to be successful, and people had become alienated from the film.

Over the years some critics (particularly gay critics) have revisited Cruising, and have reevaluated the film. Critics like The New York Blade’s Christopher Wallenberg have called Cruising, “a curious cultural artifact” which Wallenberg declares is ”remarkable for its bold, graphic depiction of an underground gay subculture — something you’d be surprised to see in a mainstream movie even today.” Regardless of whether you believe Cruising is an underrated masterpiece or a film that should have never been made, it allows us to see a world that no longer exists, and it is worth watching to see just how far we have come as a society.


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