The Hollywood Hassle
September 3, 1979
The Cruising company departs New York this week, leaving behind a load of unresolved issues. Most of these have been argued in The Voice. Some will be resolved only after the film’s release. But one issue has been overlooked that goes beyond civil rights: the obligation the city has to its people to make certain the production of a movie doesn’t mess up their lives.
Two weeks ago, Steve Askinazy, age 30, co-owner of Chez Stadium Restaurant on Greenwich Avenue, former owner of the Ballroom, returned from a conference of gay and lesbian Jews in Tel Aviv. One of the first functions he attended was a meeting of Community Planning Board No. 2 (he is a member). Askinazy was among several who convinced the board that violence would certainly erupt if Cruising were to be filmed on Christopher Street. The following day, the board sent a letter to Mayor Koch asking him to deny the film crew a permit for that locale “so as to ease the tension in our community.”
On Monday evening, August 20, Askinazy wore a University of Tel Aviv T-shirt (the lettering was Hebrew) and a yarmulke to Sheridan Square, where he heard speakers proclaim that a symbolic victory had been won: store owners, bar owners, and residents of Christopher Street had made it impossible to film that evening because they had locked their doors, shrouded their own signs, and put up others which read: “STOP THE MOVIE CRUISING.” Instead, the crew would shoot on West and Perry.
So, with 700 protesters, Steve Askinazy marched to the new location. He kept an eye on the crowd, as did the 30 other gay marshals and the 200 cops assigned from various precincts (this figure includes the Tactical Police Force). At no time were the protesters allowed within two blocks of filming, but whistles, chants, and appeals to “Stop Cruising!” were heard as far north as 14th Street.
Earlier, there had been an incident involving the cutting of a cable wire, and one demonstrator was hit on the head by a missile. At 9:30 p.m., another confrontation occurred and a demonstrator was arrested and taken to the Sixth Precinct. An hour later, a commotion erupted on the river side of West Street. A group of approximately 100 protesters tried to inch their way forward and six cops on horses charged at them, dispersing the crowd and causing pandemonium.
Askinazy, who was on the other side of the street, ran toward the commotion, hoping he could do something to cool down the crowd. Halfway there, he remembers, “Several demonstrators ran in my direction, and I decided to run with them instead, away from whatever disturbance was taking place. A cop blocked my path. I spun around and another cop blocked me. The two closed in. I froze, ready for them to arrest me or tell me to leave. They threw me against a car and beat me with nightsticks. Within seconds, four other cops joined them. Six of them were beating and kicking me on the back, head, and stomach. I fell to the ground. One tried to suffocate me by putting his hand over my nose and mouth. I thought I was dying. I don’t remember feeling the pain — just the terror.”
Askinazy was arrested and booked. He was charged with endangerment, resisting arrest, and harassment. He was taken to St. Vincent’s Hospital for treatment of severe bruises, stomach pains, and a concussion. He is still at St. Vincent’s.
William Friedkin, his crew, and his star, Al Pacino, invaded Jones Street August 10. Residents on the block hadn’t received prior notification. Nor had they been asked how they felt about Cruising being shot on their block. According to a Jones Street resident who didn’t want her name made public, “The cops had the street cordoned off by 8 p.m. They didn’t allow us into our buildings without first showing identification. They escorted us in. They were on practically every rooftop. At one point, they were lined up shoulder to shoulder, halfway down the street, like they were awaiting the arrival of Jimmy Carter.
“The cops are more interested in protecting the rights of moviemakers than the people who live in this city. There have been instances of people being mugged in the Village and it’s taken them an hour to come. Here, they were out full force for a few minutes of movie shooting. Is this where our tax money’s going?”
In Central Park, an Erie Transport truck carrying production equipment plowed through the Rambles to the spot where Paul Sorvino finds a mutilated body. The truck tore low-hanging branches off trees and left tire scars in the grass. At 26 Ninth Avenue, where the Metropolitan Community Church is housed, the crew took over a butcher supply shop next door, converting it into an s&m-gear toyshop. Without notice, they shut off electricity in the building housing the church and shut down the elevators.
On August 13, they brought their equipment to 140 Claremont Avenue, near 122nd Street, and almost immediately trouble started. Once again, there had been no prior warning. Martha Williams, a cellist and faculty member at Manhattan School of Music, noticed that “a prop man was pasting labels over our names on the mailbox and door buzzers. I told him to stop — it was illegal.” A couple of days later, he was doing it again. A neighbor started photographing him in the process and he quit. One day, the crew began shooting a scene in the lobby. Williams was with several neighbors — they refused to move. “After all, this is my home,” Williams said. “This is where I’ve lived for 13 years.” The production manager called the cops. Four came from the 26th precinct and another four from the Tactical Police Force. They told Williams that the landlord’s lease with the film company superseded her rent lease and that she had to move from the hallway or they’d give her a summons. If she still did not move, they’d take her downtown to criminal court and put her in jail for the night. They also instructed her that she couldn’t get in or out of her building while the crew was shooting.
Williams lives with her husband in Apartment 4A, next door to where the movie killer and mutilator of gay men resides (he’s played by Richard Cox). At 3 a.m. on the morning after the hallway confrontation, Williams and her husband returned to their apartment. She put the key in the lock and found she couldn’t open the door. Crazy glue had been poured on the keyhole. The couple went to the 26th precinct and called a locksmith. It cost $108 to repair the damage. When they finally got in, they found a message on the answering machine. It said, “You know, you’re a jerk. If you had cooperated with the film crew, they would have been all right and you would have been all right. You got what you deserved. Screw you.”
Brian Kirschner, who lives in Apartment 4C, found a sign on his door calling him “QUEEN OF THE YEAR” (Kirschner is straight). His apartment had been broken into, his lease and paycheck stolen, and his records vandalized.
The day before, Kirschner was playing his stereo when crew members began pounding on his door. They pounded so hard he thought the door would cave in. The next thing he knew, the electricity in his apartment had been cut off. They turned off the electricity in Martha Williams’s apartment too, because she was using her vacuum cleaner. On Thursday, August 16, she was playing Bartok’s Sixth when the electricity was turned off, for the second time that day. It stayed off for two hours. Williams phoned the police. They said, “Call Con Ed.” She called Con Ed. They said, “Phone the police.” She phoned the Mayor’s Office for Motion Pictures and Television and asked for director Nancy Littlefield. She got assistant Meredith Anthony instead.
Meredith Anthony told Martha Williams, “The Cruising crew is sensitive and professional.” She further said that the mayor’s office has no jurisdiction outside of actual filming on city streets.
“Do you mean that a tenant in this situation has no rights and no recourse against the city?” asked Williams. “I’m afraid that is the case,” answered Anthony. Later on, Williams spoke to Nancy Littlefield, who promised to call the production office. That was the last Williams heard from Littlefield’s office.
I phoned Nancy Littlefield. In fact, I called her five times during the week I wrote this story, leaving messages each time. Finally, I received a call from her assistant. “Miss Littlefield has no comment.” On anything? “That’s right. Miss Littlefield has no comment.”
Garbo has that option but certainly no public servant does — so I phoned the mayor’s office and complained. An hour later, Nancy Littlefield was on the phone. Had she relayed Martha William’s complaint to the Cruising production office? Yes, she replied. They assured her that Williams’s electricity would be turned on.
Littlefield reiterated that problems between tenants and film crews were not within her jurisdiction. Indoor shooting is a “private, individual thing that a film company negotiates.”
Would the Cruising agonies hurt future film projects in New York?
“I don’t think it’s going to help or hinder. Censorship will hurt.”
When all this mishagas started, Mayor Koch summoned me to City Hall. He asked me to come alone. He wanted to explain his position. For 25 minutes, I listened to him discuss feelings. His feelings are he doesn’t believe the city should censor books or movies, no matter what the content. He hadn’t read the Cruising script, nor the synopsis in the Post. Besides which, that wasn’t the point. “Whether I like the script or not, the city has an obligation.”
He then went on to say that he’s “the best mayor this town has ever had, protecting people and their rights.” I told him to stop the soapbox. It occurred to me how touchy this business must be for him. Had he done too much for the gay community by issuing an executive order right after election? Or not enough by failing to get the gay civil-rights bill passed? Were innuendos to haunt him all through his administration? Why wouldn’t he try to understand the political issue of Cruising?
We were playing twin soliloquies, and I was getting mad. As I started to leave, the mayor said, “You’re not going to shake my hand?” By reflex, I shook his hand. I used to like him when he wasn’t mayor.
Cruising isn’t the only film to disrupt New York, but no other movie has caused as many problems. Godfather producer Al Ruddy conferred with Italian Americans in 1970 before filming. They made it clear they wouldn’t allow Ruddy to shoot his big wedding sequence as planned, at an Italian-owned manor on Long Island. It was shot on a Staten Island estate instead. Whistles and noisemakers slowed down filming of Cotton Comes to Harlem on Harlem Streets. Protesters claimed that Cotton depicted blacks in a stereotypical and negative manner. Badge 373, with script by Pete Hamill (who has supported Friedkin in two Daily News column and whose book, Flesh and Blood, will be made into a TV movie by Jerry Weintraub, the producer of Cruising) faced opposition from Puerto Ricans in the summer of 1973. Meetings with director Howard Koch took place at the Paramount offices. Puerto Rican spokesmen threatened that theatres showing Badge 373 would be bombed. The theatres weren’t, but the movie bombed anyway at the box office despite heavy media coverage.
(Advance publicity doesn’t make a bad movie a hit. Cleopatra was the most pre-publicized film in history due to the loony romantic shenanigans of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton during production in Rome. Nevertheless, it was a critical and financial disaster. Not even the terrorist stakeout of an embassy helped Muhammed: Messenger of God. Muhammed was pulled from theatres at the height of the Washington rumble and reinstated after the real-life drama had run it course. It didn’t benefit from the headlines. Another Time, Another Place was released in the mid ’50s after Lana Turner’s daughter stabbed Lana’s lothario lover. Lana was a big star and revelations about her abundant love life sold papers, but they couldn’t sell her stinky film.)
Several films in progress have tied up city traffic and caused entire neighborhoods sleepless nights. The Warriors was problematic before it was released. Real-life gangs riffed with cast members, and the producers had to pay off the toughs in order to assure peace on the shooting site.
When Kojak shot in front of Fran Lebowitz’s building in the Village, the author of Metropolitan Life innocently left her apartment carrying 25 pounds of laundry.“’Go back in,” production men shouted. Fran did not obey. “I’m doing my laundry,” she said. “I’m not trying to break into show business.” They let her go to the laundromat, but when she returned a cop stopped her and said, “You can’t go in there.” “Why not?” Fran inquired. “I live here.” “They’re making a Kojak movie,” the cop replied. Finally, the director intervened. “Listen kid,” he said to Fran. “Help us out. You can watch us work.” Fran retorted, “I’ve got a column to knock out. Why don’t you walk upstairs with me and watch me work?”
Fran is opposed to moviemaking in New York. She maintains, “It’s like the Shriner’s parade. They should have it somewhere else.”
Most everyone else is all for it. When Woody Allen films his Manhattan love sonnets, neighborhoods go out of their way to respond with generosity. When The Goodbye Girl was shot in the West 70s, simulated rain flooded half a city block; local kids splashed in it and applauded Richard Dreyfuss, who applauded back en route to his dressing-room trailer. Martin Scorcese took over East 13th between Second and Third for a few days of Taxi Driver, and the shoot was like a street carnival. Director, producer, publicist, crew, treated the citizen’s with affection and respect. They responded in kind.
Cruising is a different story. Friedkin doesn’t speak to people. I’ve no doubt that had he at least conferred with the Community Planning Board, problems in Greenwich Village would have lessened. Had he dealt with gay groups, he’d have had an understanding of the inciteful nature of his script. If he had a sense of social justice, perhaps he’d have altered his script, which, in effect, says that murder is the result of gay sex. (The murder sequences in Cruising are filmed like production numbers in an M-G-M musical — each more spectacular than the last.)
Ethics, professional or personal, mean nothing: Disrupting citizens’ lives is something producer Weintraub and director Friedkin couldn’t care less about. (Weintraub told Martin Burden of the Post, “I wish they’d got the title right in the picket signs. It’s Cruising, not Cruisin’ ”). Budget is relative — they’ve gone over by at least a week. However, much of the money going into Cruising is coming from reluctant taxpayers, and more has been lost by individual merchants such as those on Christopher Street who willingly closed their shops rather than participate in the making of the film. Thousands of police hours have gone to keep angry gays in their place while Friedkin filmed his anti-gay movie. (A sound technician at the lab where Cruising is being processed told me the film is not only anti-gay, it’s anti-human.)
Another bit of local fallout is the morals division’s August 15 raids on Crisco Disco, the Mine Shaft, and the Anvil. They were the first major police raids on gay hangouts in a decade. Fourteen men were arrested and charged with selling or serving liquor without a license. Sgt. Phillip Tambasco of the Public Morals Division maintained, “The raids had nothing to do with Greenwich Village protests by homosexuals against the filming of Cruising.” Lawrence Gedda, State Liquor Authority commissioner, claims, “When one of these places hits the newspapers and gets a certain amount of notoriety, it gets raided.” Both the Mine Shaft and the Anvil received media attention because they denied Friedkin and company access to their facilities.
In Hollywood, Larry Marks chats from his office on the Paramount lot. Marks is vice-president of production and marketing at Paramount. He feels that “Future movies that are potentially dangerous on an explosive subject will no longer film in New York. People there are more in tune. Films like Cruising will have to shoot in Kansas City.”
Does that mean they’ll still make movies with fag jokes and anti-gay themes, but away from Manhattan? Larry Marks thinks less so. “I can feel the effects already. Industry people will be more careful about gay lifestyles and the kind of gay ingredient that should be in a script.
“To use a cliché, what you’ve done in New York is raise consciousness.”
What Cruising‘s done in New York shouldn’t happen in Kansas City.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 5, 2020