Warner Brothers Home Video,

Director/ Screenplay:
William Friedkin

Al Pacino,
Paul Sorvino,
Karen Allen,
Richard Cox,
Don Scardino,
Joe Spinell,
Jay Acovone,
Sonny Grosso.

Rated R, 102 minutes

The Return Of Cruising
by Michael D. Klemm
Posted online, October, 2007


It's baaaack! Newly restored for its debut on DVD, it's time to revisit William Friedkin's Cruising (1980) - a movie with lots of baggage that still manages to polarize the gay community to this day. Is it really as bad as its reputation makes it out to be? Do a Google search and you will find opinions from all over the spectrum. The old guard has mellowed somewhat but, for the most part, still views it as an abomination, and younger writers are calling us a bunch of old farts as they wonder what all the fuss was about.

I am going to assume that most of my readers have seen the film and, if not, are at least familiar with it. For those who haven't, there are spoilers ahead.

is many things: it is a sordid crime thriller, it is a splatter film. And - to most of the gay community almost 30 years ago - a "freak show" that was the culmination of all the negative stereotypes perpetuated by Hollywood for most of the previous decades.

It begins with a severed arm found floating in the Hudson river, a harbinger of the horror to come. Al Pacino plays a young cop named Steve Burns who agrees to go undercover as bait to attract a serial killer who is targeting the gay leather community. He is the same physical type as the victims. As he descends into the Dante's Inferno of the NYC leather bars - populated by hot, sweaty rough trade - he begins to realize that his assignment is "changing" him. The part that still bothers 70s gay activists to this day is the implication that Burns transforms into a queer killer himself just from having been exposed to this "alien" lifestyle.

It is well known that there was intense protesting during the filming. Vito Russo was one of the demonstrators and gives a full report in The Celluloid Closet. Queers were angry about this movie. It might have been different if positive portrayals of gay men and lesbians existed on the Hollywood screen or on television at this time but this was 1979.

Let's revisit the 70s. Diane Keaton was stabbed to death in 1977's Looking For Mr. Goodbar by a closeted man who she called a queer when he couldn't get it up. In 1974, a killer in a dress was repeatedly shot over and over by James Caan in Freebie and the Bean. 1976's Ode To Billy Joe gave us the REAL reason why Billy Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahachee bridge - he was queer. Hollywood had a "great" track record when it came to portraying us onscreen. Cruising was the last straw for my generation. They had good reason to protest the movie and today's generation, who grew up with Will and Grace and Ellen on television, seems to have a problem understanding this.

All we wanted was some balance. One protester wrote, perhaps melodramatically, that "People will die because of this film." Another famously wrote that "Cruising wasn't a film about how we live, it was a film about how we should be killed." Demonstrators did everything they could to sabotage the filming. There was an unsuccessful attempt to get Friedkin's location permits in the Village revoked. When that didn't work, people honked horns and blasted stereos out of windows to interfere with the sound recording. Others sat on rooftops with large reflectors to disrupt the lighting. Regulars of the meat packing district's leather bars participated in the filming but several of the bars backed out when they saw the script.

The naysayers weren't wrong. Gay bashings did go up after Cruising hit the movie theaters in 1980. Screenwriter Ron Nyswaner, (Philadelphia, Soldier's Girl), reports in the HBO film of The Celluloid Closet that he and his boyfriend narrowly escaped being beaten by a group of college jocks who had just seen Cruising and told them that this was what they deserved. My partner, Andy, counseled gays at the college where he taught, and he got panicky calls from many young men asking if that is going to be what their lives would be - wondering if they would be killed or wind up as someone's bitch. Remember too that the S&M world is a lot more accepted and recognized now than it was then by gays and straights alike.


Both director Friedkin's commentary, and the documentaries on the DVD, go to great pains to defend the movie. We are told that it was based on a novel by Gerald Walker which was, in turn, based on real events. An actual cop who went undercover in the "gay world" (and also appears in Cruising as a detective) is interviewed. Apologies over and over.

The DVD's extras are very informative, but one of the problems that I am having is the way that everyone involved with the film is trying to present Cruising as a misunderstood classic that was years ahead of its time. Hardly. I am willing to concede that director Friedkin did not set out to deliberately make a homophobic film. He repeatedly states, in the disc's documentaries and commentary, that he just thought the gay leather scene would make "an interesting backdrop" for a crime thriller. He shares anecdotes about hanging out in the leather clubs, right down to arriving in the proper attire for "Underwear Night," so that we will believe that he was just one of the guys and wasn't out to be exploitative. But methinks the director doth protest too much; he had to know that those scenes would be shocking to the audiences of the time. This is the man who directed The Exorcist for crying out loud!

Speaking of The Exorcist, there is a rather creepy connection between it and Cruising that is revealed in the extras (and was reported in The Celluloid Closet as well). A hospital technician who appeared in one of the lab scenes of The Exorcist committed a series of gay murders a few years later. Friedkin's interview with the man in prison inspired him to make Cruising.

Friedkin claims to understand why the protests happened but he never makes it clear if he is finally figuring that out now or if he knew what he was doing in 1979. It is also telling that not a single gay person was interviewed for the DVD. Maybe the filmmakers think they have answered the controversy by acknowledging the protests but their attempts at being politically correct seem suspect when the gay viewpoint is conspicuously absent from the disc. And what should we make of the fact that Al Pacino is nowhere to be found in the extras either?

Friedkin must have "got" the protests to some extent because he inserted the line of dialogue about the S&M scene not being "the mainstream of gay life" and that it was "a world onto itself." For this, he is to be commended. He also inserted a disclaimer at the beginning of the film that stated that this was not meant to represent all gay life (this disclaimer, however, is curiously missing on the new DVD. Hmm....). Vito Russo called the disclaimer an "admission of guilt." That might be going too far but Friedkin certainly included it in the original release for a reason. He (or the studio's lawyers) must have realized that he had struck a nerve and had to take some responsibility for how his film would be misinterpreted by impressionable and homophobic moviegoers.

Has the time come to re-evaluate Cruising? IS the film as bad as some make it out to be? Looking at it today, it might seem rather tame to those who have never seen it before. Should we be treating it the same way that the African American community reacted to D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation in 1915?

This analogy might be unfair because Griffith did, in fact, intentionally portray the Ku Klux Klan as being the good guys in Birth of a Nation. (It is one of the great tragedies of our filmic history that the milestone silent film that invented most of our cinematic language is also remembered for being one of the most racist films ever made.) Friedkin's film does not, at any point, openly condemn the gay community or take the side of the killer. It does a nice job, in fact, when portraying the police as being homophobic. Two misogynist cops harass a pair of tranny leather hookers in one of the opening scenes and it is pretty ugly. But this doesn't mean the audience got the point. This attitude was par for the course in cop films of the 70s (Joseph Wambaugh and The Choir Boys anyone?) and audiences at the time would have probably found the scene funny. And what is one to make of that interrogation scene where the big muscular black cop, wearing only a jock strap and a cowboy hat, comes in and bitch-slaps a suspect?

To be quite frank, the film is a mess. Because we don't know the victims, there is no suspense in any of the killings. When the film concentrates on the cat and mouse game between Pacino and the killer in the third act, it loses steam and often grinds to a halt. It is deliberately vague on many points - a plus in foreign art films like L'Avventura or Blow-Up but totally wrong for a police thriller. Friedkin suggests that there is more than one killer, again fueling the flames that the gay lifestyle is inheritantly violent. One of the most damning arguments to support this is a series of subliminal shots - each lasting only a frame or two - of gay pornography (close-ups of anal penetration to be exact) that flash on the screen during the first murder scene - linking gay sex with the stabbing of the knife. Cruising oozes with queer self loathing. The killer tells each of his victims that "you made me do that." The suspect that Pacino eventually pursues is a college student who is writing a thesis on musical theatre and has an overbearing father - all of the usual cliches. Pacino, too, has a dysfunctional relationship with his father. Give Oedipus a rest.

Okay, there is some balance. We have the disclaimers. And we also have this nice "normal" gay man named Ted who lives down the hall from Pacino and admits that he is afraid to cruise. Pacino uses him to learn information but also becomes his friend. When the wrong man is arrested, Pacino tells his superior, played by Paul Sorvino, that he didn't sign on for this so that they can arrest anyone just because he is gay. There are positive things in this film. It's just that there is so much emphasis on the "sordid" details that these bits get lost in the shuffle.

And then we get to the implied premise that our lifestyle is not only violent but contagious! Pacino is transformed by his exposure to the leather world. We see this in his relationship with his girl friend, played by Karen Allen. They are first seen together in bed making love gently while soft chamber music plays on the stereo. The next time we see them together, he is ramming her like a machine while he hears loud club music in his head. Pacino grows more violent as the film goes on. Which brings us to the moment that still angers many of us to this day: Spoiler alert! Skip the next two paragraphs if you don't want to know how the film ends.

Pacino catches the killer. Or does he? Then Ted, the nice gay guy whom Pacino befriended is found brutally murdered. We then see Pacino shaving and his ambiguous stare into the mirror implies that he is the one who killed Ted. Meanwhile, his girl friend tries on all of his leather gear, emphasizing again the leather scene's seductive lure. Pacino stares blankly at the mirror and the image dissolves to the Hudson River where the severed arm was found in the opening. What are we supposed to think?

Call me an old queer who is stuck in the past, but the premise that Pacino could become a leather killer himself from his exposure to the scene is homophobic to the core. Is he a killer? Who knows, but why even suggest it? In Friedkin's defense, he only implies this. The book that Cruising was based on did, in fact, end with the cop turning into a killer himself. Friedkin may have toned this ugly theme down, but he also added the leather bars which did not appear in the book. I'm sorry, but even if his intentions were good, they were certainly misguided and it doesn't get him off the hook. (Is it a coincidence that Friedkin also directed The Boys in the Band ten years earlier - that paean to queer self loathing that many today regard as a gay minstrel show?)

Movies supposedly are entertainment and it is thus unfair to hold them responsible for cultural mores. But it is a fact that much of what people believe is derived from the movies and television. Bigots in 1980 who thought that queers were degenerates watched Cruising and had their worst fears confirmed. Young gay men who were just stepping out of the closet, and were unsure of themselves, were terrified by what they saw in Cruising. I didn't see the film on its first release for that very reason. In order to deepen my knowledge and understanding of our cinematic past, I first viewed it on VHS in 1996 and thought it was a sloppy film. It was also painfully obvious to me why this film would have been considered dangerous in 1980.

And now?

My reaction to watching Cruising today is very complicated. Again, I think it is a mess but I can enjoy parts of it as a guilty pleasure - especially for the sequences filmed in the leather clubs. Watching Michael Corleone in leather (and sniffing poppers) is not without its humorous aspects. The scenes where Pacino misconstrues hanky codes, or shows up wearing leather on "Precinct Night" (and is immediately presumed to be a real cop) are both hilarious. And who can forget that classic moment when Pacino asks the killer "Hips or lips?" Cruising, for all its faults, is a great time capsule of the actual pre-AIDS leather scene in all its rough and tumble glory. The men couldn't be hotter to this queer writer who came of age in the 70s - hairy chests and moustaches and muscles and leather vests, oh my! The image clarity compared to the murky VHS tape I saw over ten years ago brings out every detail. Even Pacino looks good as rough trade - despite that horrible 70s perm. These scenes are great to watch because the men were not extras, they were the actual patrons of the bars, giving it a nice documentary sheen when seen today.

But, after the hormones wear off, even this documentary look is suspect. It has been enhanced. By the sheer nature of this being a performance many of the patrons may have acted out more for the cameras (I can't remember ever seeing a man fellate a billyclub on Leather Night at the old Buddies) and there is also, of course, the punk rock music in the background that was not the music of those clubs back then - giving the scenes a much more sinister feel than if Donna Summer was playing. But as hot as these scenes are, one gets uncomfortable in the realization of how shocking these images would have been to the general public in 1980. Hell, during one of the long camera pans we see a man in a sling about to be fisted! Okay, it was a gutsy scene for 1980, but do you honestly think that these images engendered warm and fuzzy feelings about gays from the audiences who first saw Cruising? To them, this was a freak show just like the orgy scenes were in Bob Guccione's dreadful Caligula the year before. To top it off, Ronald Reagan had just been elected President. The country was shifting to the Right. And in another year we would start hearing about AIDS.

Which is why homosexuality being seen as a disease that can be caught is such an offensive idea and this remains Cruising's greatest transgression. I don't hate this film, but I don't think it is a "misunderstood classic ahead of its time" either. It should be seen by every student of queer cinema.


A note on the restored DVD: There are a few subtle differences between the film on the DVD and the one that played in movie theaters in 1980. There was no opening title in the original release; it began with 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." This disclaimer is curiously missing now and a horizontal crawl of the film's title now slides by to reveal the opening shot. The scene where Al Pacino snorts poppers and dances is enhanced by a glow effect that lights up the entire bar as he inhales the drug. A review on claims that there is a short scene added near the end between the police and the killer's roommate but my memories can neither confirm or deny this.


More on William Friedkin:
The Boys In the Band

Al Pacino also appears in:
Angels in America