Cruising: The 1980 Gay Thriller Pushed the Envelope

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With the release of "Interior. Leather Bar,” SFGN decided to take a look back at the film, “Cruising,” which inspired James Franco's "mockumentary.” “Interior” reimagines the scenes that were cut from the 1980 thriller.

There were massive protests when "Cruising" was being filmed in New York City during the summer of 1979. Instigated by Arthur Bell, the openly gay film critic and columnist for The Village Voice, New York City’s premier weekly alternative paper, gay activists were concerned the film would paint a portrait of the gay community as a group of outcast, sexual predators incessantly on the prowl.
In recently shot interviews for "Cruising's" DVD, director William recalled hundreds of activists showing up for location shoots on the city's streets, shouting over his every attempt to complete a scene. Parts of the film's dialogue had to be re-recorded in a studio as a result of the disturbances.

Friedkin, who is straight, was no stranger to controversial gay topics. A decade before "Cruising" he called the shots on the film version of the play "The Boys in the Band." That film focused on a group of gay men at a birthday party where their bitchiness spirals out of control. These men, allegedly close friends, have been hurting each other for years under the guise of being "witty.”

Many have raised questions regarding Friedkin's alleged homophobia because of the subject matter of his gay themed films. On the "Cruising" DVD, he says that nothing could be further from the truth.

In fact, both films focus on very real segments of the gay community, and paint a sad (if sympathetic) portrait of gay men who struggle with with issues of self-esteem and sexual identity.

In "Cruising,” superstar Al Pacino, undoubtedly one of the finest actors of his generation plays Steve, a New York City police officer. Steve accepts an assignment to go undercover in the city's leather and sex club community in search of a serial killer targeting gay men in the leather community. As the story progresses, an unnerving game of cat and mouse ensues between Steve and the character he believes to be the killer.

No one is who they seem to be. A homophobic cop (Joe Spinnell), harasses transgender prostitutes, then heads to the Ramrod, a popular leather club, to pick up guys.

Is Steve tailing the right guy? Is he struggling with his own sexuality as he falls deeper and deeper into the leather world? How does he really feel about his girlfriend (Karen Allen) and his cute gay neighbor (Don Scardino), who's obviously interested in Steve and doesn't know he's a cop?

And whose side is the chief of detectives (Paul Sorvino) really on?

"Cruising" is a dark, gritty and unnerving film, which offers viewers a peek into the tormented souls of the killer, his victims and the cop who's hunting him down. Friedkin and Pacino daringly took their cameras into real leather and sex clubs, hiring actual patrons to recreate their nightly rituals. Parts of the film are shockingly graphic, even after Friedkin cut forty minutes of footage in order to avoid an “X” rating.

One scene left mainstream moviegoers gaping in 1980. As Steve looks on, a man greases his hand and arm with lube as he prepares to fist the naked man in the sling before him.

Straight Pacino, always an actor willing to immerse himself in his roles, allows other men to fondle his body, and even allowed himself to be tied up while fully nude. Though the actor doesn't engage in any sex acts on camera, he reportedly was present for the filming of hardcore sex acts between other men.

“Cruising” is a thriller in more ways than one. Yet despite the protestations from some, it is not an inaccurate portrayal of what goes on in gay sex clubs. It's a riveting and scary thrill ride, which continues to fascinate today and is more than worth making the subject of your next movie night.

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