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Reconsidering William Friedkin’s “Cruising”

August 29, 2012

A confluence of events—the news that James Franco is doing a quasi-remake of Cruising, the original director William Friedkin’s creative resurgence with the underrated (and NC-17 rated) Killer Joe and the filmmaker’s 77th birthday today—inspired me to give the controversial 1980 gay-themed thriller another look. While it was dismissed at the time by gay-rights activists (who protested the film’s production and release) and film critics (it was nominated for Worst Picture, Director and Screenplay at the Razzies), it’s held up surprisingly well.

The story of a cop who goes undercover in Greenwich Village’s leather-bar scene to track a serial killer, Cruising fits perfectly into the oeuvre of Friedkin—who’s previously explored the worlds of gay men (in The Boys in the Band) and New York cops (in The French Connection)—and star Al Pacino, who’d done a tour of duty with the NYPD in Serpico. What was once intended to be a timely drama has instead become a time capsule, not just of pre-AIDS NYC but of the gritty, down-and-dirty cinema of the ’70s, which would soon be smoothed over in the slicker, more shallow movies of the ’80s.

Cruising was originally released on February 8, 1980—the same day as American Gigolo, which heralded the buffed-and-polished new cinematic era and starred Richard Gere, who had reportedly been Friedkin’s first choice for Pacino’s role. Friedkin’s film is surprisingly more of a piece with Taxi Driver, written by Paul Schrader (who also directed Gigolo); there’s even a line spoken by one of the cops that echoes Travis Bickle’s “Some day a real rain will come and wash all the scum off the streets.”

It’s certainly understandable why gays were upset with Cruising at the time of its release; with so few depictions of homosexuality on screen (and almost all of them insultingly stereotypical), a film that focused on the seamier side of the subculture carried much more weight than it would today. Seen now, in the post-Modern Family era, it feels like a taut, pleasingly sleazy crime story that just happens to concern gay people—not that there’s anything wrong with that.

As the cop who gets sucked into the case—and the club scene—Pacino’s at his low-boil best. Though he’d flirted with going over the top in the previous year’s …And Justice for All, he wouldn’t fully commit to scenery-chewing until Scarface two years later. Though none of the film’s other characters are nearly as well-developed, they’re embodied by solid performers like Paul Sorvino, Powers Boothe, a pre-Raiders of the Lost Ark Karen Allen and Ed O’Neill, who’d later play French Connection‘s Popeye Doyle, aka Eddie Egan, in a TV-movie. (Sonny Grosso, Egan’s real-life partner and a consultant on both Connection and Cruising, also appears as a detective.)

Friedkin famously cut 40 minutes of hardcore gay sex in order to achieve an R rating from the MPAA, and Franco’s project (which the Cruising director has disavowed as illegitimate) seeks to recreate that footage, which Warner Bros. allegedly destroyed. But the birthday boy needn’t worry; if this “reimagining” turns out like Franco’s other “experimental” films Broken Tower and About Cherry, people will keep on cruising right past the few theaters where it’ll ever show.

Do you think Cruising got a bad rap? Post a comment!

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  1. After many years i saw Cruising on TV again. But i seemed to remember a scene where police comes in. Serial killer in gay scene.
    Victim in blood on bed, police react: Oh, him again. They take the TV and go. But in this version this scene wasn’t there.
    Is there a long version of the movie? Or is there some other gay serial killer film with such scene at the start?

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