We’re living in an age where the queer community and the horror community have met at an accessible crossroads, and it’s one of a heck of an awesome place to be at. Monthly, I will be meeting you at this crossroads, and sharing queer aspects of films past and present. Some of these aspects will be blatant, and some will be closeted, but in the end, the queer parts of the things that go bump in the night will be explored in Queer Frights.
Late 70s punk music is blasting. The smell of cigarettes, beer, sweat, and leather linger thickly in the air. A wide-eyed newcomer walks among the bodies writhing together, taking in a scene that he’s never been a part of, but has been thrown into for the sake of others’ lives. He’s a cop who has gone undercover in New York City’s gay leather scene to catch a murderer. A murderer who preys upon those looking for excitement … and sex.
“…all of the ingredients were there for the perfect controversy.”
This is the story set upon us in William Friedkin’s Cruising (1980), a thriller that was controversial for its time due to its subject matter. For a mainstream film with high profile talent attached (Al Pacino, Paul Sorvino, Karen Allen), Cruising struck a lot of chords when it was released in February of 1980. Although Friedkin, who wrote and directed the film based on the book by Gerald Walker, has said that he didn’t intend to make a movie that struck a chord with people, all of the ingredients were there for the perfect controversy.
I’m not here to speak specifically on the controversy that the film is known for, but instead, to talk about the fears that the film creates in the world that Pacino’s Steve Burns enters and the fears that the film mirrored from the reality that was queer culture in the late 70s and early 80s.
Fear of Misrepresentation
At the time of the Cruising’s release, queer culture was experiencing a heyday of sorts. The liberation brought about during the late 60s and throughout the 70s had placed queers in the position that they could have their own spaces to just be. This was a time before HIV. Homophobia and bigotry still ran rampant, but it had gotten to a point where if they joined in one space that there was their own, most knew to not involve themselves if they didn’t agree with what was happening.
Steve was one of those who didn’t involve themselves in queer culture. The movie lets us know that it isn’t because of homophobia on his part. He was a straight man. Steve accepts the undercover job posing as a queer man without much worry. It could be that he knew a promotion would follow, but he doesn’t ask many questions before being thrown into New York City’s queer scene.
“How could he pinpoint a murdered in an atmosphere of carefree yet violent (although respectfully) activities?”
It’s obvious the more that he becomes involved in the scene, the scarier it gets for him. Not only because he’s tracking a murderer, but because this world is entirely new to him. His first visit to a leather bar changes Steve’s demeanor. He goes from brave, young cop to a deer stuck in the headlights of an oncoming vehicle. This world of blatant sexuality threw him off. Not only was there sex happening in the club, but the intensity of the sex by means of BDSM practices were startling. How could he pinpoint a murdered in an atmosphere of carefree yet violent (although respectfully) activities?
While I believe the culture was represented as respectfully as it could have been, there were members of the queer community who thought that the final result of the film would be seen differently. They feared that queer representation would be presented strictly as blatantly sexual and full of violent acts. Although Friedkin’s film took placed solely in one subculture of the queer spectrum, there were those who were afraid that those who were uninformed about queer culture would see this as the queer community as a whole.
In the featurette, The History of Cruising, found on Arrow Video’s bluray release, Friedkin said that “…in hindsight, I realize that Cruising was not the best foot forward that you could put as an argument for [acceptance] by heterosexual people of the gay lifestyle. It was never meant to be emblementle of anyone’s lifestyle, but it did exist, and to me it was a background for a murder mystery …”.
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Just as Steve was getting his first taste of queer culture within the leather BDSM scene, a lot of Americans received that same viewpoint with their viewing of Cruising. Queer people feared for the slandering of the community, and that the violence committed by a member of the community – or not, the killer’s identity is left questionable – towards others in the film wouldn’t aid in calming others.
“The gay leather scene was the backdrop […and] held no other intention than to be the setting for the murders…”
While the gay leather scene was predominate throughout the movie, it wasn’t the only slice of queer life that was shown. Steve’s neighbor, Ted (Don Scardino), wasn’t a part of that scene. Ted was just a queer individual that happened to live next door to Steve while he was undercover. When they were together, their talks were just about life. This is where I believe that those involved definitely didn’t want to slander the queer community. Ted is shown as a normal individual, who just happens to be queer, living a normal life.
The gay leather scene was the backdrop for the murder mystery, as Friedkin said. The use of it for the majority of the film held no other intention than to be the setting for the murders and the community that Steve partakes in to catch the murderer.
Fear of Cops
As far as Steve’s position with his profession as a cop, it was portrayed in a respectful light. He never portrayed a moment of homophobia having been placed into an entirely new world. The respect that his character has for those who surround him was great. In Al Pacino: The Authorized Biography, written by Lawrence Grobel, it is noted that Pacino himself said that when he read the script, he saw no homophobia, and that comforted him.
While Steve was a comfort, there is an instance where two cops stop two transgendered people as they’re heading to the club. DaVinci (Gene Davis) makes mention how the same cops had picked them up multiple times already, and put them in the slammer overnight for ridiculous reasons. The cops proceed to pick up the two individuals, and have them exchange getting out from being put in jail for the night with sexual favors.
“[…] the use of sexual moments between two queer characters to the extent that was shown in the film was definitely a rarity in mainstream media.”
This is but a slight subplot in the film, but does mirror the relationship between cops and the nightlife of queers in those days and many years before. The best real life example that I can provide is the Compton Riot in the Tenderloin, the queer district of 1960s San Francisco. Cops used their power over queer individuals, specifically transgendered individuals. Most times, that power was used violently and under homophobic circumstances. This moment in queer history is chronicled in the documentary, Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafetaria (2005), with interviews of individuals who were present of this moment in queer history.
A moment in the film that was strikingly weird, and could possibly be interpreted with a homophobic air, was the interrogation of Skip Lee (Jay Acovone) after he is caught and assumed as the killer. Skip is confronted and beat up by detectives as well as by a hulking man wearing only a jockstrap during his interrogation. I am no specialist in how interrogations occurred back in the late 70s / early 80s, but the attempt of violence placed on Skip did seem a little detrimental to the non homophobic message attempting to be portrayed. The addition of the jockstrap wearing individual coming in and punching Skip a few times can only be determined as a psychological move on the police department’s side. Very weird. Very almost out of context. Very almost purposely done to include sex which is the killer’s motivation, but still, weirdly done.
Fear of Sex
The combination of a sexual figure coming in and slapping Skip around represents the most controversial topics found within Cruising. The use of violence, the use of sex, and the use of the two together. As far as I am aware, the use of both of those within a film at that time was a rare commodity. As mentioned before, the use of sexual moments between two queer characters to the extent that was shown in the film was definitely a rarity in mainstream media.
But why? Why wasn’t queer sex represented at the time? We can blame the Bible thumpers or a straight male dominated corporation, but I believe James Franco put it best in his documentary on Cruising, Interior: Leather Bar: “Sex should be a tool … a storytelling tool, but we’re so fucking scared of it. Oh, don’t show gay sex! That’s the fucking devil!”
“…a dark look into a queer subculture.”
He went on to explain that the use of violence that occurred in the film – on the part of the killer and the occasional brute force of the cops – moved the story forward more so than the sex. In retrospect, I find an equality in the two used, but I agree with Franco that it was the sex that scared most people including those who were involved with the film.
How far was too far? How much could they get away with? According to Franco’s documentary, almost 40 minutes of scenes were either not filmed or cut that involved sexual situations. There was suggested fisting within the film so what they could have not filmed or what they could have cut is a very interesting topic. Unfortunately, Franco’s documentary spends so much time not focusing on those moments, but focusing on the correlation between the actor hired to recreate Pacino’s Steve and how he responded to what Franco had in mind.
Fear, In Closing …
Cruising definitely marked a spot on queer film. The ideas and execution of the film are still talked about to this day. It’s definitely a dark look into a queer subculture.
By the end of the film, the identity of the killer is never truly revealed. It’s left up in the air as to who did what and why they did what they did. This may be a stretch, but it’s exactly how Cruising is viewed as a film. Although Friedkin has owned up to his story and how he went about it, the reflection the film has made for the past 40 years lies with the viewer. Is it a slander of the queer community? Is it respectful to the queer community? The fears represented in the film are still relevant to this day.
Opinions continue to differ on Cruising to this day. What do you think? You can share your respectful opinion on the film with us on our Twitter, reddit, Instagram, or on The Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook!