***SPOILER ALERT*** Don’t read this unless you’ve seen ‘Cruising’.
I remember the first time I saw the film Cruising (1980). It was 1996 and I was studying Film at Brunel University in London- a newly ‘out’ 20 year old gay man who was completely comfortable with his sexuality. I had come out on moving to London from the quaint and small-minded town of York. You didn’t come out as being gay in York then- unless you wanted to be regularly beaten up.
There were gay themed films being made at the time but they left me cold and held absolutely no interest for me whatsoever. Watching the film Jeffrey was an experience I certainly never wanted to experience ever again. I saw the cover artwork for Cruising on the video shelf and was instantly intrigued- a mainstream but highly regarded Hollywood actor like Al Pacino in a film about a cop hunting a serial killer by going undercover in the hardcore S&M gay scene of New York. This wasn’t going to be your conventional thriller.
I rented Cruising along with another gay themed film called Querelle by the filmmaker Fassbinder and was blown away by what I saw. Both films changed my life and I finally felt that I was seeing something regarding my sexuality that was interesting and pricked (pun not intended) my interest. Querelle deserves its own article to be written about it which it will have at some point in the future.
Cruising was dark, dirty and gritty. It was clearly the work of an auteur but also had some of the same attributes of the slasher movie genre of the day. Cruising had an air of hedonism about it and unbridled male sexuality that was irresistible. I hadn’t dipped my toe into the London gay scene yet but I wanted it to be more like Cruising than a Madonna fan convention.
I was then amazed when I read that the gay community had been prejudiced against the film before it even started being made. Members of the gay community had acquired a first draft of the screenplay and decided that it wasn’t an entirely positive representation of the gay world that they wanted to be seen by a wider audience. Others who read this draft didn’t perceive anything homophobic about the script at all.
As has been noted-
‘Village Voice writer Arthur Bell was the person who raised a call for full out sabotage on the movie writing that Friedkin’s film “promises to be the most oppressive, ugly, bigoted look at homosexuality ever presented on the screen,” he wrote, “the worst possible nightmare of the most uptight straight. I implore readers . . . to give Friedkin and his production crew a terrible time if you spot them in your neighborhoods.” ‘
Protestors would disrupt filming by blowing whistles, using air horns and using mirrors to mess up any work on the film being made. They would also chant en masse ‘Hey hey, ho ho, the movie Cruisings got to go!’
This actually worked to the film’s advantage- due to the protestor’s sabotage some of the dialogue had to be dubbed again afterwards in a recording studio which gives some of the films pivotal scenes a strange detachment- as if the dialogue was being emphasised.
But the film was completed even though filming was disrupted and Friedkin was now Public Enemy Number 1 to the gay community. An advance screening for the press was held in New York, as documented in Friedkin’s autobiography. One person present was the journalist Arthur Bell who during the Q&A after the film started to shout at Friedkin because he found the film so offensive. Friedkin replied that the film was partially based on the columns Bell had written documenting gay life in The Village Voice. ‘Then why didn’t you pay me?!’ wailed Bell.
The film was finally released but this didn’t mean that the protesting suddenly stopped. Right from the very first screening cinemas were picketed in all of the major cities even though none of those protesting had actually seen the film yet. The film was preceded by a disclaimer that read-
”This film is not intended as an indictment of the homosexual world. It is set in one small segment of that world, which is not meant to be representative of the whole.”
Gay activist Vito Russo who had been in the vanguard of the protesting against the film saw this as an admission of guilt. This couldn’t have been further from the truth- Friedkin already had a reputation as a film director who was completely uncompromising. He took no prisoners yet in this instance he had to place the disclaimer at the start of his film or the studio wouldn’t release it. When the film was later released on DVD the disclaimer was removed.
To be fair you’d have to be very stupid, very homophobic or both (and lets face it being stupid and being homophobic are very closely linked) to think that the nocturnal creatures who frequent the bars depicted in the movie represent all gay people and how they behave.
Russo went on to write The Celluloid Closet- an examination of the depiction of homosexuals in the history of film. Whilst this book and the accompanying documentary are illuminating and the first of their kind they are also very conservative. Cruising is vilified but then again Russo certainly wasn’t going to change his opinion and say ‘Oops- Cruising isn’t as bad as we first thought!’
True, a film that takes place primarily in the gay sex scene of New York was hardly the movie that the gay community wanted to further their acceptance in wider society. But I’ll never understand an oversensitive community trying to sabotage a film as its being made. The gay community’s knee jerk reaction to the film was based on a few privileged people having read a first draft of the screenplay. Its disturbing that this sparked protests that involved hundreds if not thousands of gay people actively trying to stop the film being made or stop people from going to see the movie.
The bars and clubs depicted in the film such as The Hellfire Club, The Anvil and The Mineshaft were all firm staples of New York gay life. Friedkin used these bars as locations in his film to set the action in.
Gay men were now liberated for the first time and wanted to get their rocks off. Whilst Cruising depicted the extreme side of this with its depiction of the S&M niche, sex of all kinds was still a high priority within gay life back then. Maybe the most vocal protestors of Cruising were afraid that the more hedonistic and excessive elements of gay life were going to have to be curtailed due to the film’s release after this aspect of gay life had been perused and scrutinised by audiences. Maybe the anger levelled at the film was because Friedkin had done the unthinkable- he had held up a mirror to gay life at that time and dared to tell the truth.
Theres an amazing documentary that goes into this hedonistic period of New York gay life called Gay Sex in the 70s. Its highly recommended.
A lot of the extras in Cruising were actually people who frequented the leather bars of New York who were employed by Friedkin to add an air of authenticity to proceedings. In fact when the protests threatened to disrupt filming it was the leather bar extras who fought with the protestors. Not everyone who was gay was against Cruising. Again, this chasm between certain factions was highlighted by the making of the movie and the protests and counter protests that ensued. The gay community was being forced to look at itself and some didn’t like what they saw. Instead of discussing these issues it was so much easier to shoot the messenger.
Friedkin inhabited the gay sex clubs after gaining access via some of his mafia contacts to get an idea of what exactly went on there, the strict codes in place and the rules of this niche scene. He saw first hand (sometimes just wearing a jockstrap) what prevailed in the places in question. He then later went back armed with cameras and filmed what he had seen earlier. There is never a sense in the film of the S&M scene being judged or portrayed as morally wrong in any way. The camera records whilst the events unfurl in front of them. Again the mirror was held up by Friedkin.
Cruising really was ahead of its time. It dared to depict gay people as sexual beings- something that to some extent is still taboo today. Certain factions of the gay community were sick of gay people being depicted in movies as either victims or perverts. The last thing they wanted was a thriller using the gay sex club scene as a backdrop. This certainly wasn’t going to help advancement of the gay cause in wider society. But then many wanted these clubs to exist still as they were an emblem of the newly liberated times of gay people in New York. There seems to a contradiction within the gay community of this time- they wanted advancement of gay people and their rights in wider society but they weren’t willing to relinquish the more hedonistic and decadent elements of their lifestyle that wider society might frown upon. They wanted to have their cake and eat it.
But Cruising wasn’t all poppers, Crisco and fisting. In certain sequences Cruising is an extremely humane film. It also brilliantly documents the day to day life of some of the gay characters depicted within it. The character of Ted Bailey is an open gay man who doesn’t cruise or frequent the kind of clubs that the killer goes to. He says he is too afraid to even dip his toe into that world as it scares him to death. Ted is a happy go lucky and thoroughly likable character who is just trying to find a path through life and be happy. This character is crucial to the film and the audience has a great amount of sympathy for him when he speaks of the volatile relationship he has with his roommate.
The film also shows the police hostility to gay and transgender people. This is depicted in the scene in which two transgender prostitutes are forced to give two abusive policemen (one of whom is later seen in one of the gay clubs later on in the film) head in the back of a police car. Whilst police raids of gay bars might have been less frequent after the Stonewall Riots, the treatment of homosexuals and transgender people by the police still left a lot to be desired.
The gay community wanted a depiction of themselves as fully rounded human beings just like the rest of society. In 1982 they got their wish. Making Love depicted two men who fall in love and the film charts this relationship even though one of them has a wife. Whilst the gay community hated Cruising before it was even made they loved this film. And the result is- dull! Whilst Cruising is all leather, hedonism and excitement, Making Love is all beige knitwear and talking about emotions. The film flopped at the box office.
Cruising was however a box office smash and made almost $20 million. Had the protestors helped publicise the film even more? Maybe. By trying to sabotage the film being made, through to picketing the films release the activists had helped generate column inches and headlines in the press regarding the film. People knew about Cruising even before it came out. And this wasn’t a small protest- this was hundreds of people which translated into many news stories in many publications worldwide.
Surprisingly elements of the gay leather S&M scene started to creep into the mainstream after the film’s release. The strict dress code, outsider chic and brutality of the look become evident in the strangest of places. Below is a still from the video for the 1981 (Cruising was released in the UK in mid 1980) Depeche Mode single ‘I Just Can’t Get Enough’
Of course two years after this a new band called Frankie Goes To Hollywood burst into the mainstream with their debut single ‘Relax’. This had the good fortune of being banned by Radio 1 and promptly topped the charts. Whilst Thatcher’s Britain was brutal to gay people, Frankie stuck two lubricated fingers up to the Tory Government of the day and carried on regardless. It would seem that as Cruising was protested which meant success at the box office the same kind of controversy worked for Relax. Did Cruising influence Frankie? Quite possibly.
There is much debate as to the 40 minutes cut from Cruising. This was reimagined as the James Franco film ‘Interior, Leather Bar’. I haven’t seen this film. I haven’t seen any film James Franco is in. I’ve just seen the series of selfies that hes inflicted on the world. That was more than enough for me.
Heres Friedkin talking about this movie and much more-
So how has history judged Cruising? With more depictions of gay people in these enlightened times people can now clearly see that Cruising wasn’t trying to depict the whole of the gay community only the people who frequented the leather bars in the movie. In fact Cruising has now been reappraised as a cult classic especially amongst the gay community who see it not only as a great movie but also as a pre-AIDS time capsule of a gay scene that was hedonistic, decadent and fun. As gay people’s acceptance in wider society has grown the gay scene has diminished in the best possible way. The gay ghetto bubble is shrinking as gay people take their place in the world with the same rights and liberties as everybody else. Why go to just gay bars when we can go to ANY bar?
Before people were blindly judging Cruising as the most homophobic film ever made. Now people have seen it and actually really like it. When the film was released on DVD a few years ago the film had a reappraisal by critics who were almost unanimous in their opinions that it wasn’t the quagmire of homophobia that some would have you believe. Amongst the films staunchest supporters are the film Critic Mark Kermode, the gay scene commentator Paul Burston and Camille Paglia who has this to say-
“I loved Cruising — while everyone else was furiously condemning it. It had an underground decadence that wasn’t that different from The Story of O or other European high porn of the 1960s.” She also praised the soundtrack, and added, “The gay opposition to Cruising prefigured the dismayingly Stalinist gay and feminist picketing of Basic Instinct.”
The overzealous campaigning of the more vocal elements of the gay community continues unabaited. A recent target was the film of Stonewall- a fictionalised account of the Stonewall Riots. Even before the film was released, online protestors were complaining of the omission of the prominent figure Marsha P Johnson from the film (except shes actually in the film), the fact that there is a white lead in the film (white people were present at the Stonewall Riots), the fact that the white lead is the first to throw a brick in the film and start the riots (a person of colour is actually the first to throw a missile in the film and its been documented in literature regarding Stonewall that it was a white male named Jackie Hormona who started the rioting). When asked if any of these internet activists had actually seen the film they would either sheepishly answer ‘No’ or defensively say that they didn’t need to. Reading articles about the new Stonewall film and what people had to say about it made me think time and time again of Cruising and the controversy surrounding it decades before. Nothing has changed.
Maybe the gay community should look inward rather than being so quick to point accusatory fingers at other sources. Just as Friedkin held up a mirror to a small part of 70s gay life, maybe the gay community should hold a mirror up to itself and then ask itself questions if it wants to truly find a place in wider society.