Perhaps unsurprisingly, William Friedkin’s S&M serial killer thriller caused a storm of controversy upon its release in 1980. If Friedkin had tested the mettle of the general public – and the MPAA – with the crucifix-as-preteen-sex-toy shenanigans of The Exorcist in 1973, it could be argued that he pushed his luck too far with Cruising. In this case, it was a combination of the film’s content (Friedkin reportedly had to make 50 cuts to get an R rating) and the widespread belief that he’d crafted a distasteful work virulent with homophobia, both explicit and implicit, that doomed the film.
In Cruising, Al Pacino plays cop Steve Burns, assigned by his grizzled captain (Paul Sorvino aiming for ‘world weary’, instead achieving ‘quite tired’) to go undercover in New York’s leather bars to hunt down a killer targeting the community. Without further ado, he kisses his girlfriend (Karen Allen) goodbye, dons a set of chaps and enthusiastically sets on his way. Before long however, Burns, simultaneously fascinated and repelled by what he sees (including a hellish fisting session), is in turmoil over his own sexuality and finds himself unable to make much headway on the case. Following a fevered sojourn through an unremittingly seedy landscape, the killer is found, although an ambiguous coda suggests that Burns may have murderous tendencies.
A vast proportion of the New York gay community, outraged in their perception of the film’s attitude toward homosexuality, pilloried the shoot to such an extent that much of the sound was destroyed by vocal protest, resulting in the need for dialogue to be overdubbed.
In addition to public opprobrium, Cruising was widely panned by critics unimpressed by its grim hodgepodge of sex, violence and confusing narrative structure. To add the proverbial icing to the cake, the film secured a Golden Raspberry nomination for worst film of the year (amusingly, it was pipped by Can’t Stop the Music, a bizarre mock-doc about the formation of gay scene legends The Village People, starring Steve Guttenberg!)
Is Cruising homophobic? Well, Friedkin chose to examine the absolute extreme of a particular subculture, insisting that what he portrayed was not representative of the wider gay experience; rather he simply wanted to use the ‘scene’ as a backdrop to a murder mystery. This suggestion certainly carries some merit, however Friedkin’s point is undercut by the film’s proponence of some horribly simplistic psychology which, at root, intimates that “gay = problem”.
The lanky, be-mulleted, leather-clad killer (played by Richard Cox) is revealed to have had a troubled relationship with his father, and his mantra, presumably directed at daddy, is a robotically whispered “You made me do this”. Telegraph columnist (and controversial ex-teacher) Katharine Birbalsingh
A further misstep is the presence of Burns’ chipper gay roommate Ted (Don Scardino) who exhibits, as suggested by the A.V. Club’s Nathan Rabin, “a sitcom perkiness [which] clashes with the brooding intensity of the rest of the film”. The innocent Ted meets the most horrific death of all, a veritable bloodbath. He is punished – presumably for being gay rather than just perky – but we don’t really know who by. If it is Burns, who at one point says to his girlfriend “There’s a lot you don’t know about me”, then Burns is really no more than the stereotype of a gay man so consumed by self-loathing that he is driven to acts of destruction. If it isn’t, then it could have been his petulant, possessive boyfriend (a great turn from The Warriors’ James Remar) or indeed anyone, suggesting a deep malaise within the community. There is no redemption here, just prurience and misery, and thusly Friedkin cannot have been surprised at the negative reaction to his film.
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