William Friedkin is a notoriously cold and distant personality; accounts of the set for The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973) reinforce his reputation as a sadist of sorts. However one feels about Friedkin the man behind the films, it is the films themselves, which should represent the director’s validation as a true screen artist. These harrowing tales of his earlier productions seem either exaggerated or out of place when one reads about or hears the director’s commentary to his 1980 film Cruising. Because of its controversial nature, Friedkin exercised considerable compassion in making this film. Though critics and the gay community were quick to either dismiss or condemn Cruising, a contemporary reading, post-eighties and the New Queer Cinema of the nineties, several points become apparent that help to dispel Friedkin’s reputation as a sadist as well as the film’s supposed malicious homophobia.
I say “malicious homophobia” because the film is indeed homophobic, which is perhaps why Friedkin felt compelled to issue a disclaimer at the start of the film. But the homophobia of Cruising is circumstantial. The film’s protagonist is homophobic, as are the supporting characters on the police force. Officer Steve Burns (Al Pacino) goes undercover to investigate a number of killings that have occurred in the insular world of New York’s gay S&M black leather sub culture. Steve Burns is the focus of Cruising, it is his story, and it would therefore be detrimental to the film to take an objective perspective of the sexuality that is so pervasive in the film. As a filmmaker, Friedkin wants his audience to relate to Burns, he wants Cruising to emote Burns’ sexual anxiety and identity crisis.
The character Steve Burns exists in Cruising as dual identities. The first incarnation of Burns we encounter is the blue-collar average Joe cop, with a loving girlfriend named Nancy (Karen Allen). The second is the undercover man, confronted with an alien lifestyle in which he must become absorbed, becoming a covert minority. Friedkin articulates this identity crisis by interspersing scenes of Burns and Nancy throughout Burns’ undercover investigation. With every instance that Friedkin brings us back to Nancy, the relationship between Burns and Nancy becomes more distant and strained. It becomes clearer and clearer that Burns’ undercover identity has taken a hold of him, that he has lost his true identity in a reality that, to him, had only ever existed as a distant unreality, a world that existed only in rumors, speculations, and stereotypes.
Yet, the homophobia is relatively restrained when compared to The French Connection or Karl Reisz’s underrated film The Gambler (1974). The gay characters of Cruising appear as they do in Gerald Walker’s novel of the same name, as real relatable people with real problems. Perhaps it is the association of these characters with S&M that prevents a heterosexual audience from engaging them as they would “straight” characters. Nonetheless, S&M is the primary focus of the source material, employed to better dramatize Burns’ own inner confrontation with his sexuality. In this case, the critical backlash of Cruising isn’t so much the fault of the film itself, but that of the homophobia of the audience.
This argument would make sense in explaining the public out cry of the gay community when the film was first released. It was believed that the film, at least according to Friedkin’s recollections, presented the entire homosexual community as S&M junkies. If the audience were to read such speculative text within the film, and adopt it as fact (which it appears they did) then the film would harm the gay community. But, as I stated before, that is not the fault of Cruising, but of the audience.
As a thriller, Cruising follows a rudimentary trajectory that manages to be refreshing mainly because of the setting of the film. Even Steve Burns bares a remarkable similarity to Pacino’s Serpico from the film of the same name. Typically this would not be so damaging as it is in Cruising. Without innovation in terms of cinematic approach the issues of homosexuality and prejudice are able to come to the forefront of any reading of the film. Initially, this could have been a daring aesthetic choice for Friedkin, to confront an audience with its own homophobia, but the timing was wrong, and the majority of the audience (heterosexuals) was not prepared to associate themselves with Steve Burns nor with the homosexuals he is indeed trying to save.
These circumstances make it almost impossible to investigate the film objectively; one must remove Cruising from any context of its initial release and appraise the film as a singular entity. This proves problematic, however, because the setting of the film is so obviously before the AIDs epidemic that would shortly follow, thus thrusting the film back into a historical context. But we as an audience must separate the history of film from the sociological history of the gay community and it’s depiction in the media. Though there is a direct link between the two, only the latter provides insight beneficial to understanding the film without the influence of poorly calculated film reviews and public protest.