A decade after the Oscar-winning success of The French Connection—maybe the definitive NYC cop movie?—William Friedkin returned to NYC cops with an edgy tale of sweaty sex and sweaty serial murders. And a lot of sweaty LGBTQ+ protests. Yes, today we’re discussing the scandalous production of Friedkin’s 1980 movie Cruising, starring Al Pacino.
So why would an Oscar-winning director’s latest movie, starring a genuine NYC icon, be so reviled before it was even finished? The answer is complicated. Even before the movie started production in NYC the summer of 1979, people were rankled that a straight man was writing and directing an adaptation of a novel about a gay serial killer targeting men in the S&M leather community. Not to mention the fact that Friedkin eventually was more inspired by real life gay scene murders for his story about a straight cop (Pacino) going undercover in the leather bar scene to sniff out the poppers. I mean, the killer.
Critics were worried that Friedkin would frame the guys on the scene as “Other,” making middle America terrified of the gay agenda—fisting! Public sex! Murder!—by representing… well, here’s where things get tricky. It was just 10 years after Stonewall, and the gay rights movement was looking for an issue to coalesce around. AIDS wouldn’t be first diagnosed until a few months after the release of Cruising, so for a while the movie was their focal point.
Their stated concern was that the movie was represent a skewed perspective of the gay community and set back gay rights who knew how many years. Arthur Bell of the Village Voice led the charge—sometimes literally, since the shoot was besieged by protests. Bell was the journalist whose coverage of the gay serial killer had prompted Friedkin to move away from the source novel. In a July 16, 1979, column, 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 even wrote, “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.”
So here’s the thing, and it was said even at the time: Cruising is no more a comprehensive look at the gay community than The Godfather is of the Italian-American community. Not all Italian-Americans are mafia, and not all gay men are wearing color-coded hankies in their back pockets. For many men who were part of the Ramrod, Mineshaft, Anvil scene, Cruising was exactly representative of their culture. Certainly going to leather bars was for a period a naughty pastime of the famous. Nureyev took Jackie O and Princess Lee to one of them one night!
But at the time, it was decided that the leather guys could wait for their liberation and mainstream validation. More important was that middle-of-the-road homosexuals didn’t do anything to rock the boat of acceptance by seeming “deviant” or “other.” So Bell’s campaign to disrupt filming went full throttle for the duration of production. Many businesses refused to allow production to film there; citizens throughout the Village routinely ruined takes by blowing air horns, blasting music, or generally making faces at the camera as they walked by. The entire thing was so bad that most of the movie was re-recorded in ADR. Even interior scenes weren’t exempt; neighbors, in true New York “I’m walkin’ here!” fashion, went about their lives quite as if film production wasn’t happening at all. This pissed off the crew, who were perhaps already a little one edge, and they started behaving like assholes, supergluing one recalcitrant woman’s lock while she was out.
No one’s mood was improved by the actual filming, either. Friedkin had wanted 20something Richard Gere for the lead, but when Pacino expressed interest, Friedkin went with the bigger name. So instead of a sexually ambivalent man wandering into the dimly lit, intoxicating world of leather bars, we get Pacino—with enormous hair—sauntering in. Friedkin at the time felt that Pacino’s performance failed the movie; I think it actually works because this case is maybe his lost chance to move up in the department, and he goes into the whole thing deep. We have to believe that this man won’t shy away from homosexual touch because his job depends on it; when we find him hogtied with a stranger, furiously hissing at the police for breaking into the motel room too soon, we wonder just how far he was about to go for the job. Increasingly, he seems out of place in his real life, with girlfriend Karen Allen and a spacious Manhattan loft, and keeps seeking out the down and dirty world he’s infiltrated. He even makes friends with his neighbor, and then attacks that neighbor’s overbearing boyfriend. Why? It’s telling that neither of them are leather guys; Pacino’s closest friend is someone who can’t really be of any help to him in his mission.
So filming kept going, even as gay groups demanded that Mayor Ed Koch rescind filming permits. Think about this for a second: No one has seen the film, few have read the script (and who knows what will end up being cut in post production), and yet they’re demanding that the film be as difficult to make as possible. Koch refused; at the time, NYC couldn’t afford to turn down movie production. So 1,000 people marched in protest, starting at the movie’s headquarters at Pier 40 then moving through the Village until they reached 4th Street and 6th Avenue at midnight, where they blocked traffic for 30 minutes.
The purpose was not for the Mayor’s Office to block production, but to “stop allocating taxpayer resources to this particular project” according to Ethan Geto, “a spokesman for an ad hoc group of homosexual activists opposed to the film.”
He went on to compare the filming of “Cruising” to “the Ku Klux Klan making a movie about the black community on 125th Street in Harlem.” He charged that the film would portray homosexuals as “psychopathic murderers or pathetic victims who invite victimization.”
The producer of the film, Jerry Weintraub, said: “We are showing only a segment” of the homosexual community. “But it is a true segment. We are depicting what is really there.”
Somehow, filming ended. Then Friedkin submitted his first cut of the movie to the MPAA for rating. “There aren’t enough X’s,” one MPAA member sniffed. Friedkin ended up cutting 40 minutes from the film, mostly set in the leather bars and many scenes of actual sex. That footage has been lost, so we’re left with a mysteriously vague detective movie that morphs into something weirder and darker by the end.
So where did all of this end? In a movie that elicited critical shrugs to pans, more protests upon release, and then mostly faded into obscurity as just another misbegotten movie. For years, Pacino wouldn’t talk about it. But then gradually, thanks to VHS and DVD, the film’s reputation grew. Eventually, it played at Quad Cinema, not far from where protestors had marched against the film a few decades before, and critical appraisal shifted to praise for its evoking of a long-lost Manhattan milieu. The things about it that had elicited protests now became cherished artifacts of a time that will never return.