Al Pacino's Gayest Movie: The 'Cruising' Controversy Of 1980

Culture | August 29, 2020

Al Pacino as an undercover cop trying to fit in at a leather bar in 'Cruising.' Photo by Lorimar/Getty Images.

In 1980 William Friedkin and Al Pacino made Cruising, a stylish but infamous thriller that takes viewers into the underground world of gay leather and S&M clubs on the hunt for a serial killer. It's hardly the kind of movie that you'd expect from the director of The Exorcist and The French Connection, and the star of the Godfather films. Cruising is infamous for its dark and gratuitous depiction of gay life at the end of the disco era. The film was protested by moralists who thought the film signaled the end times, and gay rights activists who thought the film depicted homosexuality as nothing more than a collection of perverts hanging out in a leather dungeon.

Like many misunderstood films of the era, Cruising has attained a kind of cult status even if it is a bit of a mess. There are gaping plot holes, characters whom we never see again, and an entire 40 minute section that had to be excised in order for Friedkin to attain an R rating.

"Cruising" is based on a true story (kind of)

source: United Artists

William Friedkin's descent into the world of S&M began with a 1970 novel written by New York Times reporter Gerald Walker. Walker's novel, Cruising, follows an undercover New York City policeman on the hunt for a serial killer working the gay scene. Friedkin took the basic concept of the novel and Frankensteined it together with two other sources: his conversations with former NYPD detective Randy Jurgensen, and a series of articles in The Village Voice by Arthur Bell that tried to unravel a number of unsolved murders that were taking place in leather bars.

It was in the final two sources that Friedkin found his character for the films. Former NYPD detective Jurgensen told the director that his time spent working undercover in the city's S&M clubs “messed up his mind,” and the series of murders that Arthur Bell was writing about were finally attributed to Paul Bateson - an actor who played an X-ray tech in n Friedkin’s film The Exorcist. The director's research for Cruising wasn't over. Friedkin wasn't content to just read about the gay leather experience happening in New York City, he wanted to experience it for himself.

William Friedkin descends into the Mineshaft

source: United Artists

To really get the feel for the gay club scene in the late '70s, William Friedkin went to extraordinary lengths to experience something that the straight world was terrified of, albeit with an outsider's point of view. At the time, gay clubs on Manhattan’s West Side were owned by the Genovese family, one of the "five families" that ran organized crime in New York City.

With the help of Matty “The Horse” Ianniello, a member of Genovese family, Friedkin was given entry to the world of S&M at the Mineshaft and Anvil, two of the Big Apple's most hardcore clubs. Friedkin told Billboard that his handler at the Mineshaft was armed at all times:

I went to [Ianniello] and asked him if I could shoot at the Mineshaft. He was a little concerned but he gave me the number of the guy who managed the place, a man named Wally Wallace. I talked to him and turned out he was a fan of mine and a graduate of the NYU Film School. So he gave me permission to come down and look at the club. I had never seen it, so I went down there with one of Matty the Horse's henchmen, who had a .22 in his sock because we didn't know what the hell to expect.

With all of his time spent researching the leather scene, Friedkin remained an observer which is clear from the film. At best, he presents queerness as the other, something to be gawked at because it exists outside of societal norms. But with the wrong interpretation Cruising can be seen as a moralistic tale where people reap the destruction of stepping outside of straight society. The nebulousness of Friedkin's take on homosexuality and the S&M scene is exactly what inspired gay rights activists to protest Cruising before one frame of the film had been shot.

Production was a nightmare

source: United Artists

Cruising was snake bit from the jump. Friedkin's initial casting choice for Steve Burns, the undercover officer investigating a serial killer in the West Village, was Richard Gere. Friedkin thought that the young actor would bring a sense of androgyny to the party, but when Al Pacino got ahold of the script he used his clout to snatch the part from the jaws of Gere. Friedkin notes that Pacino's fearful, nervous performance comes from the fact that he was freaked out by the gay club scene. Friedkin explains on the film's commentary, "He had never frequented that world... If there’s a note that appears to be fear in his performance, it was there for real."

At the same time that Al Pacino was dealing with the inner turmoil of pretending to be a detective who's pretending to be gay there were constant protests surrounding the film shoot. New York's gay community was understandably frustrated with Friedkin co-opting a part of the queer lifestyle and turning it into something nefarious. Protesters surrounded the set and blasted music, threw rocks at the crew, and shouted throughout filming, forcing much of the dialogue to be re-recorded. Voice writer Arthur Bell called for protestors to ruin the shoot in the July 16, 1979 edition of the periodical:

I implore readers — gay, straight, liberal, radical, atheist, communist, or whatever — to give Friedkin and his production crew a terrible time if you spot them in your neighborhood.

This wouldn't have been such a big deal if Friedkin wasn't such an artiste. Rather than shoot on a sound studio much of the sets are real apartment buildings in the neighborhoods where the film takes place.

For "Crusing," an R-Rating cost $50,000

source: United Artists

Somehow, Cruising actually finished production, but the drama wasn't over. When William Friedkin presented the film to the Motion Picture Association of America it received an X rating. There are only a few films with this heinous rating that have managed to actually be successful, Midnight Cowboy and A Clockwork Orange -- both from a decade earlier -- are the two that come to mind that have actually made money for major studios. By the time of Cruising, a X rating meant something else, so it makes sense that Friedkin wasn't keen on being stuck with this rating. He spent a reported $50,000 making cuts and delivering various versions of Cruising to the MPAA, finally whittling away 40 minutes of footage to gain an R rating.

The Germs made the soundtrack because Friedkin hates disco

source: United Artists

The music of Cruising is a bizarre mix of late '70s west coast punk bands like the Germs and antagonistic singer-songwriters like John Hiatt, which isn't exactly what's playing in dance clubs. Friedkin explains his choice to use more aggressive music in the film as both a directorial choice and a decision to spare himself from having to listen to disco while editing the film. He told Billboard:

The music in those clubs, the actual music played in those clubs, as you are probably aware was the same music played in all the clubs at the time -- Giorgio Moroder, Donna Summer, Chic, KC and the Sunshine Band, the Village People. I knew that I had a lot of scenes that I was going to try and film in the Mineshaft, and I didn't want to perpetuate that music, as it was on the radio all the time or always in rotation with the club DJs...

He continued, saying that to find music for the film:

We went to these clubs that were pretty obscure at the time like the Troubadour in L.A. and Madam Wong's. But you have to remember, this music wasn't in the mainstream clubs yet. It was still very much fringe music, but it was different, exciting. And, to me, it really captured the feeling I wanted for the film much more than the actual music in the clubs, which I thought was, you know, fairly lame.

Interior: Leather Bar

source: United Artists

The biggest mystery surrounding Cruising isn't why it was somewhat successful -- making a reported $19 million against a budget of $11 million -- moviegoers have always enjoyed taking a walk on the wild side from the safety of a theater. What people really want to know is what happened to the 40 minutes of film that Friedkin had to cut to get an R rating? And what was on them? Depending on the interview, Friedkin says that the 40 minutes contain either nothing but hardcore gay sex, or a combination of sex and intimations that there are multiple killers at large in the film, and that Pacino is one of them.

In 2013, actor James Franco filmed a pseudo documentary exploring the "creative and ethical questions arising from the process of trying to make" a film about intrinsically queer scene as a straight artist. Before that, Friedkin says that Franco reached out to him to get the rights to remake Cruising. He explains:

James Franco tried to get the rights to remake Cruising on two occasions. He wanted to remake the whole film and of course, that’s not possible. But I actually heard from some people involved with it that he was shooting a film about the missing 40 minutes of Cruising. About halfway through the shooting, he called me and he introduced himself. I had never met him and he said, 'You know, ‘I’m trying to make a film about the missing 40 minutes of Cruising. I said, uh huh. And he said, 'By the way, what were the missing 40 minutes?' I swear to God, he’d been shooting it! I said, ‘Well, it was just pure pornography that I shot because I could.'

When Friedkin started putting together a DVD for Cruising in 2007 he went on a hunt for the footage and wound up empty handed, believing that United Artists destroyed the footage. However, he did hear from someone who had a copy of it. He explained:

First of all, the guy was very freaked out about even telling this to me because that’s piracy. And I assured him it would not be piracy if we did it. But how the hell do I know? So I did not pursue it. And it is just pornography, so it wasn’t going to add anything to the story.

Somehow, "Cruising" was a success

source: United Artists

When Cruising was finally released in February of 1980 it screened with a disclaimer stating:

This film is not intended as an indictment of the homosexual world. It is set in one small segment of that world, which is not meant to be representative of the whole.

Friedkin calls the disclaimer a part of the "dark bargain" he had to make with the MPAA to make sure the film would see the inside of a theater. Even with the protests and bad press Cruising's box office take made it Friedkin's first legitimate success since The Exorcist. In the years since the film's release Cruising has become a cult classic, not only because of its dark subject matter, but in the production of a nasty, visceral movie William Friedkin captured a snapshot of an underground lifestyle moments before it invaded the mainstream.

Tags: Al Pacino | Cruising | New York City | The Gay Rights Movement | William Friedkin | X-rated Movies

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Jacob Shelton


Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.