Even as it went into production on the streets of the Village, in the summer of 1979, William Friedkin’s Cruising — about a psychopath chopping up men he picked up in leather bars — was fostering outrage in the gay community. Voice columnist Arthur Bell urged readers to mobilize against the production: “The film promises to be the most oppressive, ugly, bigoted look at homosexuality ever presented on the screen, the worst possible nightmare of the most uptight straight and a validation of Anita Bryant’s hate campaign.”
In this dive into the archives, Richard Goldstein writes about the massive protests in the Village; John Rechy questions the wisdom of attempting to censor a film based solely on the script and what has been seen on location; the “Ad Hoc Coalition Against Cruising” takes out a full-page ad in the paper calling for peaceful protest; and Dorothy J. Samuels, then executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, surveys the First Amendment landscape. Finally, Andrew Sarris reviews the finished film, advertised in the same issue with a full-page image of the star — a reliably intense Al Pacino.
In July 1979, Voice columnist Arthur Bell alerted readers to a new film by director William Friedkin (of “French Connection,” “The Exorcist,” and “The Boys in the Band” fame), which was going into production in New York City. Bell was outraged that a film he and many others considered anti-gay was being shot in their very own neighborhood. In this initial column on the simmering controversy, Bell left no doubt where he stood: “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.”
Two weeks later, Bell expanded on the community’s anger: “The anti-‘Cruising’ committee organized a massive educational campaign. Twenty thousand pamphlets were distributed calling the film ‘a rip-off that uses gay male stereotypes as the backdrop for a horrific story of murders of homosexuals. Gay men are presented as one-dimensional sex-crazed lunatics, vulnerable victims of violence and death. This is not a film about how we live: it is a film about why we should be killed.’ ”
Front page of the August 6, 1979, issue of the Village Voice. In the paper’s grand old tradition of presenting opposing views on the same page, Richard Goldstein and John Rechy reach different conclusions about the “Cruising” controversy.
Goldstein writes about the way an often fractious gay community joined together to oppose the stereotypes in the film: “Billy Friedkin wouldn’t know ordinary gay life if it hit him in the face — which, apparently, it has. Thanks to pressure from gay-rights organizations that are usually at each other’s throats, all but one bar in the village have withdrawn their cooperation with the film. About 20 extras have quit, and some of those who remain have leaked confidential information about locations, so there’s been no escaping the demonstrators.… I visited the set Thursday morning. The extras lounging in dress leathers looked authentic enough, but they also seemed slightly passé, like last year’s Donna Summer song.”
Goldstein continues: “Most of the demonstrators do not intend to stop William Friedkin from making this film; they just want to get him out of the neighborhood ... Then there are those who want the film stopped entirely because they say it will cause murder on the waterfront. Arthur Bell has characterized ‘Cruising’ as ‘a snuff film. This isn't a civil-liberties issue,’ he told a crowd in Sheridan Square. ‘This is a matter of survival.’ Nice rhetoric, I thought; but then I visited the set.
“I saw the cops hassle three guys who were taunting the demonstrators. ‘Why are you picking on us, we‘re the only who aren’t queer?’ They were out to avenge the honor of Al Pacino, their favorite star. I asked why they thought the queers were in the streets. ‘They just want publicity,’ said one guy, who owns a gas station near the set. Then he pointed to the demonstrators who looked most like leaders, the ones who were giving interviews to the press. ‘You wipe out that guy and that one over there,’ he said, ‘the whole thing dies.’ ”
On the same page, John Rechy continues his argument against “the quagmire of prior censorship.”
Rechy continues, “Granted that Friedkin’s intentions may not be noble; remarks attributed to him from years back sound at best archaic today. (One should point out, however, that his film of Mort Crawley’s play, ‘The Boys in the Band,’ was very daring and sympathetic for its time.) Undeniably, the producer of ‘Cruising,’ Jerry Weintraub, has been vulgarly offensive, insensitive to real issues. But can one determine from a script a film’s full meaning, which is also shaped by essential elements of performance, editing, even music? It is not only ‘Cruising’ that is involved here: The precedent set by preventing its production will reach out to all other films — and may ricochet.
“What are the long-term effects? Will any group demand to see a script in advance? May the same argument be used against a film made by homosexuals opposed by heterosexuals? Shall we determine artistic expression by popular consent?”
Put together by the “Ad Hoc Coalition Against ‘Cruising,’ ” this full-page ad ran in the August 20, 1979, issue of the Voice, and asked, among other questions, “What can Hollywood do about the image of gay people? Look at us! We have jobs, families, relationships, social and political passions; we go to the dentist and buy shoes. We want to recognize ourselves on screen, and we are becoming strong enough as an economic force to insist on that.”
Guest writer Dorothy J. Samuels, then executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, questions the campaign against “Cruising”: “For those who have been vacationing on another planet, the controversy surrounding ‘Cruising’ began with the allegations that the movie will legitimize the victimization of gays and lead to violence. Unfortunately, the Ad Hoc Coalition’s disregard of the serious First Amendment implications of its call for withdrawal of all city support of the filming remains a very troubling aspect of this affair.”
Beyond the concerns about increased violence against gays that some felt “Cruising” might incite, Arthur Bell looks into a more mundane New York problem: how to deal with the hassles of film shoots on your block or, even worse, in your building.
“At the center of the criticism is the chief articulator of Bush’s imperial presidency,” we reported in 1992, “the man who wrote the legal rationale for the Gulf War, the Panama invasion, and the officially sanctioned kidnapping of foreign nationals abroad.”
"Here was a messenger whose lyrics call attention to our condition, to the reasons for suffering: The music brings lightness to the feet and makes them dance, but the beat is a marching drum, a call to struggle"