The Big Picture
- The film ‘Cruising,’ directed by William Friedkin, faced intense backlash and protests from the gay community upon its release in 1980.
- Contrary to popular belief, the film does not demonize homosexuality or the gay BDSM community, but rather critiques law enforcement and internalized homophobia.
- Recent reevaluations of ‘Cruising’ have recognized its value as a subversive and authentic portrayal of a bygone era in the New York City gay scene.
Homophobia and problematic queer representation have been widespread throughout the history of film, so much so that Rob Epstein and Jeffery Friedman’s 1995 documentary on the subject, The Celluloid Closet, won a Peabody Award. To this writer, there always seemed to be one film featured in The Celluloid Closet that was referred to in hushed tones by the queer community and by those considering themselves progressive, as if it were the boogeyman of problematic films, a final boss of hurtful representation that no self-respecting queer person would praise lest they be castigated for their sins. Since before it even wrapped production, William Friedkin’s Cruising has been damned by those in my community, but this divisive and subversive film deserves a re-evaluation.
Released in 1980, Cruising, written and directed by the Academy Award-winning Friedkin (The French Connection, The Exorcist), follows rookie police officer Steve Burns (Al Pacino) as he goes undercover as a gay man to find a serial killer active in New York City’s gay BDSM scene. With its shrouded knife-wielding killer, an outsider attempting to single-handedly discover and stop the killings, and heavy use of stylized lighting, the film functions as something of an American adaptation of the Italian Giallo films of the 1970s. In terms of subject matter, the film is a loose adaptation of New York Times reporter Gerald Walker’s novel of the same name, with Friedkin taking further inspiration from a series of 70s unsolved murders in New York’s gay scene as written about by Arthur Bell in The Villiage Voice.
The War Against ‘Cruising’
Ironically, it was Bell, the man whose reporting helped inspire Cruising, who incited the controversy and protests surrounding the film. Himself a gay man and an active member in the New York gay rights scene, Bell got hold of an early leaked screenplay of Cruising and immediately went to war against the film in his Village Voice column, proclaiming to his readers: “[Cruising] promises to be the most oppressive, ugly, bigoted look at homosexuality ever presented on the screen… [Friedkin is] not only playing with a keg of dynamite, he’s throwing a match to it.” Bell urged his readers to disrupt the production, saying “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.”
To put it mildly, Bell’s suggestion was embraced. As The Village Voice’s own Jason Bailey recounted in 2018, “Pamphlets were distributed, rallies were held, streets were blocked, bottles and bricks were thrown, demonstrators were roughed up, and arrests were made.” Bailey explained further how mounting pressure made gay bars reneged on their agreements to be shooting locations, protestors ruined shots, and some extras quit, with others staying behind to serve as de-facto spies for the film’s critics. The all-out guerrilla war against Cruising was so prevalent that the film, which was almost entirely shot on location, had to have its audio almost completely redubbed in post-production due to protestors armed with airhorns and loud music. On the political action front, gay rights groups petitioned New York City Mayor Ed Koch to cut the film’s tax benefits and deny it filming permits. Koch rejected these demands, citing opposition to censorship and a drive to encourage the film industry of New York. With this rejection from the city, the fight against Cruising’s production came to a head on July 26th of 1979, when 1,000 protestors marched on the film production’s headquarters in Greenwich Village, blocking traffic by enacting a sit-in on the street. In response, one hundred cops were unleashed on the protestors, and two arrests were made, with Ethan Geto, an organizer of the protests, comparing the production of Cruising to “the Ku Klux Klan making a movie about the black community on 125th Street in Harlem.”
Despite the onslaught of adversity and protest, as well as having to cut 40 minutes from the film to get the MPAA to rate the film as R rather than X, Cruising was finally released in 1980. The film was met with negative reviews, predictably from those who had protested against it from the start, but also from film critics. Many criticized the film for seemingly not having a clear vision, with Roger Ebert opining in his two-and-a-half-star review that “it seems to make a conscious decision not to declare itself on its central subject.” The activists who had been against the film from the start saw it as casting the gay community in a harmful light that would only lead to more violence and marginalization. Bell claimed that Cruising would “negate years of positive movement work and may well send gays running back into the closet and precipitate heavy violence against homosexuals.” Bell’s fellow columnist Village Voice columnist Richard Goldstein warned that the film “will endanger the political viability of civil rights legislation without which no homosexual can live a full and candid life.”
‘Cruising’ Isn’t Deserving of Its Homophobic Reputation
However, all of these claims seem to conflict with the text of the film, which intentionally casts police in a negative light, with the gay BDSM scene functioning more as a red herring. One of the film’s first scenes depicts two officers forcing two trans women into their patrol car, then coercing the women, with threats, into sexual acts – in other words, rape. One of the cops in this scene is repeatedly shown as a closeted member of the gay BDSM scene who uses the institution of law enforcement, and the power granted to him by it, to elicit coerced sex. As Anton Bitel wrote about this blending of internalized homophobia, “it is an ambiguity enshrined in the film’s very title, given that ‘cruising’ can equally refer to a police car on patrol, or to a quest for casual gay sex.” Throughout the film, the gay men of this nightclub scene are the victims, be it by the killer’s knife or by the harassment of cops, such as one scene in which a brutal, violent interrogation of an innocent suspect comes to a head when the detectives force the man to strip and masturbate in front of the whole room to provide a semen sample.
In the film’s ambiguous conclusion, we are first led to believe the real killer is a graduate student with repressed gay attraction. The student, unable to escape the disapproval of the same heteronormative status quo the police serve, but here embodied by his late father, kills to relieve the tormented feelings inside him. While this conclusion shows the dangers of repression and homophobia, the film offers further damnation of the status quo when Burns’ girlfriend discovers he possesses the same leather outfit and sunglasses the killer wore, and the audience is shown that Steve’s former gay neighbors have been killed. Here, Cruising presents the possibility that either Steve was the killer all along, or, at the very least, a second killer of his own. In all, the violence of Cruising is ultimately not the violence of a fictional community of psychotic gay degenerates, as the protestors of the time claimed it would be, but rather of those either working directly as enforcers of the status quo, or as victims of said status quo. If anything, the way the film portrays the gay BDSM community is emblematic of common culture at the time, which viewed it as a vessel for harmful, malevolent forces, when in reality it is an innocent community, marginalized and mischaracterized by outsiders. Though Friedkin told Mark Kermode on a recent commentary track for the film that he left the exact conclusion of Burns’ guilt up for the audience to decide, it’s clear that the film is intended as a subversive take on the status quo of its time. As Friedkin himself said in an interview on Cruising, “I’ve got interests in police matters anyway because of the thin line between good and evil that’s in everyone.”
Despite the film showing the gay BDSM scene as dark and mysterious, it never condemns the scene’s members; rather, only the killers and wrong-doers who would invade it. Speaking positively of the film, and against the protests, Bitel wrote: “The irony is that these protests were largely prejudicial, whereas much of Brooklyn’s gay S&M community happily contributed to the film and appeared in the background of the clubbing scenes. Indeed, Cruising does not demonize homosexuality in general, or indeed the leather-clad subculture – rather it exposes the contradictions and potential dangers of any self-loathing gay man who turns his internalized homophobia violently upon himself and his own.” John Devere, editor-in-chief of the gay magazine Mandate, also lent his support after visiting the set of the film, writing, “More than 1,600 gay men participated in the filming of Cruising, while significantly fewer gays protested the filming… the men who frequent the world being depicted were in the movie, and did not object to their world being depicted.” It is also worth noting that Friedkin seems to have an appreciation for telling earnest and sympathetic queer stories, namely in his adaptation of the play The Boys in the Band, which Cruising detractor and author of the original Celluloid Closet book Vito Russo himself claimed was “the best and most potent argument for gay liberation ever offered in a popular art form.”
‘Cruising’ Is More Subversive Than Originally Thought
It seems that the gay community of New York fell into the same trap that Cruising lays for its audience: a mistrust of the dark and intense BDSM community (or of its perceived representation), when the real target was the institution of law enforcement and internalized homophobia all along. Thankfully, the consensus around the film has begun to change in recent years, with even those who still view the crime/serial killer element as weak or flawed lamenting that the film is a valuable, authentic time capsule of a now long-gone scene. As Nathan Lee in The Village Voice explained: “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.” Others see the craft of the tense mystery in the film, like critic Orrin Grey, who said of the film’s Blu-ray release: “There is a taut intensity in almost every aspect of the film that is hard to beat and almost impossible to deny. Whatever else you can say about Cruising, it is absolutely stunning.” And there are those, like Bitel, who view the film with the same lens of subversion that I do.
When I, a trans woman, sat down to watch Cruising several weeks ago, I braced for the worst, having heard of the film’s infamous reputation and divisiveness. However, when I finished watching it, I was somewhat shocked at not only how much I enjoyed the film, but how completely in opposition the film was to its notorious criticisms. This was not a film that demonized the gay community, nor tied murder or psychopathy to it, but a film about a marginalized, stigmatized community at the mercy of bigoted law enforcement and dangerous homophobia, both internal and external. I certainly do not blame Arthur Bell or the New York gay community of 1979 for their harsh and presumptive attacks on Cruising, for they were a community only ten years removed from the Stonewall riots, and still facing heavy prejudice and a lack of rights, which would only increase with the coming AIDS epidemic. For a group so widely hated, it seems understandable that a film, which on the surface seems to connect being gay with being an evil killer, would rouse their temper and prompt retaliation. The situation of Cruising’s production and the ensuing protests is one where neither side was truly at fault. Friedkin wasn’t wrong for making a movie that ultimately tells a subversive and risque story, and the protestors were not wrong for putting up their guards against another perceived attack on their community, an all too real threat at the time. However, it’s time to put aside the prejudices and judgments of the past, and to allow Friedkin’s film to speak for itself. Whether your agree that it’s a subversive statement against police and the status quo; a well-made, engaging thriller; a compelling time capsule of the 70’s/80’s NYC gay BDSM scene; or all of the above, Cruising is worth a whole lot more than reactionary condemnation.