In the 1960s, a New York City patrolman named Randy Jurgensen was assigned to investigate the harassment of gay men by a shakedown crew known as Salt and Pepper. Claiming to be cops, the duo (one white, one black, thus the nickname) prowled the piers and pickup spots of the far West Village, “busting” guys caught busting a nut and demanding payoff. Jurgensen went deep undercover in hopes of provoking an encounter. Setting up in a Village apartment, he donned the uniform of the leather scene and studied its rituals, making nightly forays to the decadent bars clustered at the terminus of Christopher Street.
So Jurgensen recounts his stint as a downtown daddy on the upcoming DVD debut of Cruising, William Friedkin’s notorious thriller starring Al Pacino as a NYPD cop deranged—sexually and otherwise—by his contact with the hardcore gay underground. Currently being rehabilitated by a theatrical re-release in advance of the DVD, Cruising‘s seedy ambience and dubious sexual politics inflamed the gay community, leading to protests throughout its filming in the summer of 1979, and continuing outside movie theaters when it opened in February of 1980. Despite the notoriety and marquee star, Friedkin’s downbeat, ambivalent, and flamboyantly pervy fag noir was a critical and box-office disappointment.
On the DVD “making of” supplement, Jurgensen, who served as a consultant on Cruising (among other films, including Friedkin’s The French Connection), testifies to its accuracy of detail, going so far as to vouch for the historical veracity of its most improbable and infamous flourish: the bizarre entrance of a giant black police officer into a tense interrogation room where, wearing nothing but a cowboy hat and jockstrap, he bitch-slaps a cowering suspect. We’ll have to take Jurgensen’s word for it, though he’s not the only source for the movie’s salacious scenario.
Friedkin derived the title and basic premise from a 1970 novel by Gerald Walker, a former editor at The New York Times Magazine. It’s unclear whether or not Walker was aware of Jurgensen’s operation, but the plot of his book is strikingly similar: A rookie NYPD cop goes undercover to bait a homophobic serial killer. Friedkin departs from Walker in manners large (shifting the point of view entirely to the cop) and small (changing his name from John Lynch to Steve Burns) while retaining details as specific as the subject of the killer’s Columbia University thesis (the roots of the classic American musical—so gay! so evil!).
Reviews and reporting on Cruising at the time noted the discrepancies between book and film, but none mentioned Jurgensen by name. It’s almost as if his autobiographical input was later used as a PR strategy to legitimize the controversial nature of the project and defend it against the charge of homophobia. It needed all the help it could get.
Throughout the summer of 1979, a large and vocal segment of New York’s gay community rallied to protest the production of a movie that seemed to equate— yet again—homosexuality with criminal insanity. In his July 16 column, Village Voice writer Arthur Bell raised a call for sabotage. Friedkin’s film “promises to be the most oppressive, ugly, bigoted look at homosexuality ever presented on the screen,” he wrote, “the worst possible nightmare of the most uptight straight. I implore readers . . . to give Friedkin and his production crew a terrible time if you spot them in your neighborhoods.”
Readers obliged. They took to Village rooftops, pointing mirrors at the shoot to interfere with the lighting, and surrounded the set blasting whistles and air horns. The most resourceful found out which apartments Friedkin would be using and set up in adjacent units to blast stereos. Evidence of this disruption is immortalized on the Cruising soundtrack, much of which has obviously been dubbed in the safety of post-production. Bell further exhorted gay business owners to “tell Friedkin to fuck off when he comes around to film and exploit,” and enough did so on Christopher Street to thwart any location shooting in the heart of the gay ghetto.
A few weeks after Bell’s broadside appeared (“What the Declaration of Independence was to Jefferson, that column was to the gay community,” he would later boast to Janet Maslin), The New York Times described the march of a thousand protesters through the Village, “most of them men and most of them clad in jeans or shorts and T-shirts.” Responding to demands that the city withdraw support for the film, Mayor (and famous closet case) Ed Koch was quoted as saying, “Whether it is a group that seeks to make the gay life exciting or to make it negative, it’s not our job to look into that.”
The dust (glitter?) had settled by September, and the Times ran a sympathetic profile of Friedkin. The National Gay Task Force took offense, writing a letter to the editor insisting that “in the context of an anti-homosexual society, a film about violent, sex-obsessed gay men would be seen as a film about all gay people.”
The psychosexual dynamic of Cruising is certainly questionable—deliberately so, to some extent—though in chalking up violent homoerotic impulses to unresolved daddy issues, the movie may be a greater insult to the intelligence of psychoanalysts than to the sensibilities of gays. From today’s vantage point, it seems unlikely that any audience for Cruising would automatically equate the hardcore leather scene depicted in the film with gay culture at large, though it pays to remember that this was an era when Time magazine, reporting on the Cruising controversy, could blithely inform its readership that “homosexual homicides are frequent—and often gruesome; dismembered corpses . . . and mutilated genitals are common.”
Still, it’s hard not to detect another source of anxiety underlying the protests: the squeamishness of the assimilation set over a movie that flaunts the decadent, disreputable antics of their Dionysian brothers. Cruising is a mediocre thriller but an amazing time capsule—a heady, horny flashback to the last gasp of full-blown sexual abandon, and easily the most graphic depiction of gay sex ever seen in a mainstream movie. Filmed in such legendary bars as the Ramrod, Anvil, Mine Shaft, and Eagle’s Nest (the latter two eventually barred Friedkin from the premises), Cruising is a lurid fever dream of popper fumes, color-coded pocket hankies, hardcore disco frottage, and Crisco-coated forearms. Nowadays, when the naughtiest thing you can do in a New York gay club is light a cigarette, it’s bracing—and, let’s admit, pretty fucking hot— to travel back to a moment when getting your ass plowed in public was as blasé as ordering a Red Bull.
Elaborating on the infernal urban horror show of Taxi Driver, Friedkin imagines the entire West Side of Manhattan as an expanse of sticky asphalt swarming with tumescent Honcho sluts. Grotesquerie abounds—leering sex fiends, freaky bondage weirdos, fugly trannies—but so does a palpable sense of fun. Nothing at the orgy is as shocking as the smile on everyone’s face. This atmosphere of uninhibited sexual camaraderie—invisible to the protesters and long since vanished from the scene—overpowers the trite homophobic conceits. Cruising‘s lasting legacy isn’t political but archival. One year after the film was released, the first symptoms of AIDS were detected in New York City.