Let’s time travel back to 1980 when William Friedkin and Al Pacino made Cruising. The controversial film gave audiences an inside look into the fascinating underground world of gay leather and S&M clubs while Pacino was hot on the trail of a vicious serial killer.
It’s not quite the kind of movie that you would expect from the director of films like The Exorcist and The French Connection or from the star of the Godfather films and Scarface – but that certainly shows you how versatile those two men actually are.
Cruising painted a grim portrait of what gay life was like at the conclusion of the disco epoch. The film drew the scathing criticism of moral conservatives who thought that it was a sign of the end of days while simultaneously drawing the ire of gay rights activists who felt as if the film depicted LGBT life in a negative lens – as if homosexuality could somehow be summed up as a bunch of perverted deviants hanging out in a leather BDSM dungeon.
Like so many other misconstrued films of the era, Cruising has become a bit of a cult classic despite the fact that it suffers from some pretty obvious failings. Plot holes abound, pointless characters that add nothing to the story are introduced never to be seen again, and an entire forty-minute slice of the film had to be cut out just so it could retain an R rating.
For the next couple of minutes, we’re going to put Al Pacino’s ‘gayest’ film under the microscope. Producing this provocative film was no easy task. Stay tuned to find out just what made Cruising such a headache for William Friedkin and his production team, but first, let’s take a look at it’s plotline. .
It Was Loosely Based Upon A True Story
Friedkin’s Cruising was based upon a 1970 novel by Gerald Walker who previously worked as a reporter for the New York Times. The book centered around an NYPD undercover officer that was working the gay club scene on the lookout for clues about a serial killer that was terrorizing the community.
Friedkin then took the basic plot from the book and fused it together with conversations that he had with Randy Jurgensen, a detective for the New York Police Department, and with a series of articles published in the mid-70s in The Village Voice written by journalist and gay rights activist Arthur Bell.
The articles raised awareness of a string of unsolved brutal murders that all centered around leather bars in the New York area.
Jurgensen, the real-life undercover detective that spent time undercover in the New York leather clubs told Friedkin that his work ‘messed up his mind’ and the series of murders that the Village Voice had discussed were later attributed to Paul. F. Bateson, who had played a radiographer in Friedkin’s film The Exorcist.
To have something so close to his research material actually manifest in his life was downright spooky, but before Friedkin was ready to start producing his movie he would feel compelled to go experience what the New York City leather community was all about first hand.
Friedkin Goes Down Into The Mineshaft
Friedkin wasn’t satisfied with merely reading about the gay leather clubs or interviewing people that had been a part of the community, he wanted to immerse himself in that world to get an accurate idea of what it was all about.
In those days, all the gay clubs on the west side of Manhattan were owned and operated by the Genovese Mafia family. Friedkin turned to a made-man by the name of Matty ‘The Horse’ Ianniello to gain access to two hardcore S&M nightclubs, Mineshaft and Anvil.
While visiting the clubs and doing his research, one of Matty the Horses henchman kept a close watch on him. He kept a handgun tucked into his sock at all times – just in case. Wally Wallace, the manager of the Mineshaft was actually a pretty big fan of Friedkin and went to NYU’s film school, so that gave him an in on being able to film there.
While Friedkin researched his film, he remained an observer to the community and not a participant – which is something that is pretty clear from watching the film. It can be deduced that he depicts being queer as some kind of spectacle – something to gawk at only because it exists outside of heterosexual social norms.
On the other hand, Cruising can be interpreted as being some kind of cautionary moral tale – where gay people are the targets of violence purely because of their orientation and lifestyle choices. The message being “see what happens if you’re gay!” That later interpretation is exactly why LGBT activists like Arthur Bell from the Village Voice condemned the film and called upon people to protest it.
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And keep watching to find out all of the hoops Friedkin and his crew had to jump through just to see their film released. It was no easy task. In fact, you could say that…..
Production Was Hell
Friedkin initially wanted Richard Geer to play undercover officer Steve Burns, but as soon as Al Pacino got his mitts on a copy of the script he managed to use his Hollywood repute to weasel the part right out of Gere’s hands.
Pacino’s performance is distinguished by his nervousness. You can see the fear in his eyes when he’s waking through the gay club. Pacino had never stepped foot in a gay club before, so the fear that he seamed to exude was in fact genuine.
Pacino had to act like he was a detective who was undercover as a gay man – which is hard enough on its own – but on top of that, there were constant protests girdling the film from the get-go.
The gay community was justifiably peeved that Friedkin was depicting a part of their culture as being somewhat iniquitous. Agitators would show up to the set and blast loud music, throw things at the cast and crew, and would shout constantly during shooting – which meant that most of the dialogue would have to be re-dubbed later on.
Arthur Bell, the journalist who wrote The Village Voice articles that Friedkin drew from for inspiration, encouraged his readers to do everything in their power to disrupt the film’s production and since Friedkin prefers to film on location as opposed to on a soundstage all of that disruption made filming a major headache.
An R-Rating Came At A Cost
Despite being subjected to so many production problems and hang-ups, Friedkin was eventually able to complete his film. When Cruising was finally submitted to the MPAA it initially received an X rating.
There are only a few films to ever be critically or financially successful that have received this rating. Last Tango in Paris, A Clockwork Orange, and Midnight Cowboy are the only films that have received this rating and still managed to find commercial success. A Clockwork Orange and Midnight Cowboy both have R-rated edited versions that aired in certain theaters as well. Generally speaking, an X rating or NC-17 as it is known today is essentially an omen of financial doom and gloom in Hollywood.
Friedkin spent $50,000 to make numerous cuts to his film. He had to resubmit it multiple times and cut nearly 40 minutes out of it to get an R rating.
Friedkin Hated Disco
During the late 70s when the film was in production clubs were playing mostly disco music from artists like Giorgio Moroder, Donna Summer, Chic, The Village People, and KC and the Sunshine Band.
Friedkin can’t stand that kind of music, so instead of compiling a soundtrack of what was actually heard in those clubs at the time, he put together a mix of early proto-punk from bands like The Germs, The Cripples, Rough Trade and John Hiatt
The soundtrack sounds seedy, dark, and dirty and while it might not match the film’s setting, it does fit the aesthetic.
What Happened To The Missing Footage?
So, forty minutes of the movie had to be cut in order to get that R rating, right? What exactly was on that film that was so graphic or disturbing that it had to be cut? Depending on the interview that you watch, Friedkin has given some very different answers to that question.
It is possible that the 40 minutes contained hardcore depictions of sex or perhaps it was violence that needed to be cut. According to one interview, Friedkin implies that the missing footage implicated that there are multiple killers and that Al Pacino is in fact one of them – but it could be argued that Friedkin is just trolling us a bit with that explanation.
When Friedkin was compiling material for the DVD release of Cruising back in 2007 he went to United Artist in search of the footage but after his hunt, he concluded that the studio must have destroyed the unused footage.
An anonymous man did come forward at one point claiming that he had a copy of the footage but he was too nervous to hand it over fear that he’d face prosecution for piracy. Friedkin tried to reassure him that he wouldn’t be prosecuted but in the end it wasn’t worth the trouble for Friedkin to get ahold of the missing film and he gave up.
Cruising Was A Financial Success – Somehow
Cruising premiered in February 1980 and ran with a disclaimer that informed audiences that the film was not meant to be an indictment of the gay community. It clarified that it was set in just a small segment of the community and wasn’t meant to be representative of the whole.
Cruising had a budget of $11 million and went on to make $19 million. It would have never even hit theaters if Friedkin hadn’t heavily edited his film and toned down some of the sexual content.
Even though Cruising is a bit polarizing both for the straight and LGBT communities, it had achieved some degree of cult classic status over the years. In part, this is because of the dark subject material that it deals with but the most important thing that it was able to accomplish was supplying audiences with an insider look at a nitty-gritty underground lifestyle years before it entered the mainstream.
Well, here we are again at the end of another facts-packed video. You got to give Al Pacino props for his work in Cruising. Not many straight people could play a straight cop that is pretending to be a gay man at a leather club. That’s truly quite a feat.
Have you seen Cruising? How do you think it compares to William Friedkin’s other films like The Exorcist? Let us know what you think in the comments section
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