Christopher Street Magazine. September 1979. Page 9.
William Friedkin’s Cruising (1980) was not warmly received by gay activists. He was already on their shitlist due to directing The Boys in the Band (1970), and they weren’t about to let him repeat the offense sitting down. The issue with both films was what Friedkin, as a metonym for the film industry in general, chose to prioritize in his representation of gays. With The Boys in the Band, it was the high-pathos, distinctly unliberated attitudes of its principal characters, and with Cruising, it was serial murders and leather bars.
Vito Russo’s Celluloid Closet gets at why people would object to the movie even during its filming. First there’s the source material:
The novel, while exploiting the socially instilled self-hatred of an unstable character, is homophobic in spirit and in fact; it sees all its gay characters as having been “recruited,” condemned to the sad gay life like modern vampires who must create new victims in order to survive.
Then there are the circumstances of filming:
Yet he used the Greenwich Village ghetto and scores of gay extras… to make a film about a series of grisly murders patterned not on Walker’s book but on the killings of gay men that had been reported widely in the press in the late 1970s. Friedkin’s screenplay incorporated the locales and the modus operandi of several real-life Greenwich Village murders, and Friedkin consulted in prison with Paul Bateson, who was convicted of killing Variety critic Addison Verrill and had once had a bit part as a medic in Friedkin’s film The Exorcist.
These ripped-from-the-headlines details and real world settings then lend false verisimilitude to a bullshit story that imagines the gay demimonde as inherently violent. Or at least it would, if the movie were coherent enough to get its bad ideas across. The mini-documentaries that come with the film show that these ideas did inform the making of the film. In a featurette titled “Exorcising Cruising,” the actor who played one of the murderers, Richard Cox, says, “I think one of the things that Billy [William Friedkin] was saying is that there’s this X factor out there. That there’s a violent killer always lurking. It goes on. There’ll always be another.”
This and the indeterminate identity of the killer(s) is played up in the featurette as a spooky commentary on the human condition or a horror movie device to get you jumping at shadows when you’re back at home. It might have been, if the killers and victims had come from all segments of society. Instead, it targeted just one that happened to routinely be imagined as tragic, evil or both in the sparse representation it actually ever got.
Both films have since been reappraised and rehabilitated, but neither film was quickly or completely forgiven. In the May 25th, 1992 issue of Christopher Street, critic Bob Satuloff said that Cruising “has got to be the most homophobic movie ever made.”
But would you believe I had a mostly positive impression of the movie before writing it up? It’s only the source material, social context at the time of release, and stated intentions of the creators that are damning! You know, only those little things. The leather bar scenes are absolute catnip to me and likely most people reading this. The scene where Pacino, an undercover cop, visits a bar filled with writhing, eroticized simulacra of his co-workers is one of the most amazing moments in any gay-themed movie I’ve seen. The killer’s “You made me do that” catchphrase sounds in 2014 hilariously close to Urkel’s “Did I do that?” It now fits Susan Sontag’s formulation of camp: passionate, failed seriousness, rendered lovable by distance in time.