William Friedkin’s Self-Loathing Gay Protagonists


Being perennially suspicious of authority, director William Friedkin is fascinated by the myth of fraternal community. This is apparent throughout Friedkin’s ’70s output, a decade of work that BAM Cinemathek has incautiously highlighted in their new retrospective. In Sorcerer, the film that opened the retrospective last night, Roy Scheider leads a group of desperate truckers in a long haul trek with a cargo of unstable dynamite. Each new obstacle in Scheider’s path only reinforces his alienation. Every attempt he makes to adapt to his increasingly perilous journey is ultimately futile. Similarly, in both The Boys in the Band and Cruising, self-loathing gay protagonists try and fail to assimilate to hostile environments that they realize they simply can’t belong to.

Where The Boys in the Band‘s conflict is internal–a closeted gay man tries and fails to come out of the closet because there’s no sustaining tie that binds the gay men he talks to–Cruising‘s narrative suggests that a non-heterosexual community of men can never be accepted so long as masculinity and sexual normalcy is enforced by fascistic policemen. The Boys in the Band is, to put it mildly, the more palatable of Friedkin’s two gay-themed films, perhaps because it was co-authored by a gay man while Cruising was only modeled after a supposedly closeted subject.

Then again, Cruising is still considered to be notoriously homophobic since Al Pacino’s Steve Burns, a wannabe tough guy cop, is ultimately revealed to be the killer he’s chasing. Cruising‘s production was famously picketed and protested by gay rights groups, many of whom objected to the fact that Burns has a psychotic breakdown when he realizes that he’s gay. But just like The Boys in the Band before it, a film that was considered pioneering thanks to its multi-faceted portrayal of gay protagonists, is about male characters that cannot accept being gay in a straight world.

Pioneering gay playwright Mart Crowley adapted his own source material, but while Friedkin’s script for Cruising was partly based on a pulpy novel by New York Times journalist Gerald Walker, with Al Pacino’s character was modeled after retired cop Randy Jurgenson. So while Crowley’s florid but satisfying Boys in the Band dialogue comes from a place of first-hand knowledge, Friedkin’s Cruising scenario presents a community as seen through the eyes of two outsiders, one of whom could potentially belong were he not already convinced of his superiority.

Before Cruising, Jurgenson served as a consultant on The French Connection. That experience led Friedkin to believe that Jurgenson was in denial about his sexuality. In a recent interview I conducted for Press Play, Friedkin told me:

“[Randy] sort of resembled the victims, who were all dark-haired, with swarthy complexions and mustaches[…]And he was about the same height and the same build and he was assigned to attract the killer. And he told me his experiences and how the whole thing really screwed him up and bent his mind. And I remember never asking him further what he meant–I got it! “

Perhaps that explains why Burns is very confused by what he sees in gay S&M-themed night clubs. Friedkin may be on record as saying that these scenes are a realistic portrayal of the scene Walker described in his novel. But within the context of the film, these nightmarish scenes make sense: this is what a gay nightclub looks like from perspective of a homophobe that doesn’t realize that he’s not only gay himself, but also a bigot.

Before Burns goes undercover in New York City’s gay community, his worldview is pointedly explained in a scene where two beat cops arrest a transvestite prostitute. One paraphrases Travis Bickle when he impatiently prophesies that a cleansing rain will come to New York and wipe out scum like their latest charge. According to Friedkin, this is the world Burns comes from, so naturally the hanky code is a source of profound confusion, not to mention the more-than-platonic feelings he has for Ted Bailey (Don Scardino), a gay playwright.

By contrast, The Boys in the Band‘s main subjects are two outsiders that are both incapable of accepting their homosexuality. After “straight city” socialite Alan (Peter White) tearfully invites himself to a surprise party Michael (Kenneth Nelson) is hosting, he tries (and fails) to swallow his pride, and accept his gay-ness. But while Alan can’t contain his disgust with Michael’s effete friend Emory (Cliff Gorman)–“He just seems like such a god damn pansy”–birthday boy Harold (Leonard Frey) has some choice words for Michael, his boyfriend. In one of a series of cascading, recriminatory speeches, Harold, Crowley’s stoned, but clear-eyed authorial voice, tells Michael that he’ll “always be homosexual:” “You’re a sad, and pathetic man. You’re a homosexual, and you don’t want to be, but there’s nothing you can do to change it: not all your prayers to your God, not all the analysis you can buy in all the years you’ve go left to live.” This, too, is the world Michael comes from, a too-tightly-knit group of friends that can barely contain their bemused, self-negating enmity.

When compared to Cruising, The Boys in the Band looks downright genteel, but its frustrated representation of the gay community is only relatively less damning. While Alan punches Emory in the mouth for making a teasing joke, Michael could have just as easily assaulted Gorman’s sassy, “butterfly in heat.” By juxtaposing Friedkin’s two bubble-bursting queer-themed dramas, BAM Cinemathek’s programmers have made it more apparent that both films are set in a cruel world of masochistic violence.