Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
August 17, 1999

Cruising for a bruising.
Author/s: Bruce Vilanch

Here's a movie you won't find in a les-all-be-gay film festival: Cruising. William Friedkin's neurotic thriller--about a straight cop who goes undercover in the uber-seamy late-'70s S/M world of lower Manhattan to find a serial killer who preys on gays--became notorious even while it was being filmed.

For many of us who had curled up after Stonewall to take a little nap, Cruising became the rallying point for a whole new chapter of gay activism. We picketed, we protested, we made calls to influential friends, and we gave the picture more publicity, naturally, than its bewildered star, Al Pacino, could handle.

As I recall, there wasn't much of a stampede to the box office, but whether that was because of our protests or because the mass audience didn't care to watch Al choose between the ravishing Karen Allen or a thin, scarred leather queen hanging in a sling in a basement on Avenue A, I really couldn't say.

But Cruising meant something to a traditionally passive community. It was a big-budget wake-up call, and organizations like GLAAD seemed to bob up in its wake. I saw Cruising when it was released and was appalled along with everyone else. I probably wouldn't have looked at it again, except for a note from the American Cinematheque, the Hollywood film museum that routinely shows overlooked curios from the town's past. The museum had included Cruising in a retrospective of Friedkin's work, along with a description that read, "Widely condemned and misinterpreted on its release ..."

Condemned, yes. But misinterpreted? By whom? What homophobic film scholar had declared this movie kosher? Had 20 years muted the movie's bizarre message? Was the statute of limitations on bad art that short? The ghosts of all the dead people who had protested began nudging me to the old video catalog to find out.

The picture begins with a disclaimer, which also ran with the original. It says something to the effect that the S/M activities pictured are not representative of the mainstream of gay life. So now we know we're in for some real sensationalism.

And the sensationalism is good, especially for someone who was around during the period. A video store clerk's nonchalant description of the handkerchief-in-the-pocket code is a calculated eyebrow-raiser for straights, but at least it's one they could understand. (What those guys in the back room are doing to that other guy rolling around in the bathtub is still unclear even if you're gay.)

It's nostalgic to see a lot of shirtless men dancing the night away in an era before there were gymbots with `roid rage. But Cruising's surpassingly unattractive cast plants the notion that kinky sex is the indulgence of exclusively ugly people. Al himself, even though he begins working out to find a niche in the meat market, looks a bit frayed around the edges.

The non-S/M gay world is represented by a lightweight neighbor (high marks here for not making him a swish) who spouts the movie's other bow to evenhandedness, a diatribe about how the police don't care about finding the killer because they don't care about the victims. In fact, the cops are seen preying on gays themselves, something we know still goes on.

However, this stuff is buried in an almost torrential depiction of the lowest kind of behavior, which, in the absence of almost any other gay life, can't help but give the audience the impression that This Is What It's Like. And in 1980 they weren't getting many other impressions to counter it.

No wonder the picture became a lightning rod for a generation that was ready to tell the world they'd had enough of being demonized. Added to this--and this was the part that bothered me then--Al spends a great deal of time questioning his own sexuality just because it's ordinary. You know--get on, get off, get out. Even worse, he wonders if he's being drawn into this brave new world because it appeals to his dark side! Eek!

But just when you think you can take no more, Al meets the killer and, in answer to the question "Wanna do it?" replies "Lips or hips?" It's hard to take anything seriously after that, but I'm sure glad those mad fairies of 1980 did.