Why the Village Went Wild
August 6, 1979
Jerry Weintraub, the producer of Cruising, has been telling reporters that pissing off gay people is the best kind of publicity. “I mean,” he told me, “when does a picture in production have an editorial in The New York Times?” Surely, this is gallows humor. Even if the protesters don’t actually stop his film, their disruptions are bound to strain its $11 million budget. Their anger won’t be lost on the networks when Cruising comes up for TV sale. And they can dent its grosses (at least in the cities) by throwing up a picket line wherever the movie shows.
Pissed-off people can limit an audience to their enemies — and that’s bad marketing. David Picker, the executive vice-president of Lorimar Productions, must be pondering the wisdom of his predecessors, who decided to finance Cruising even though the smart money in Hollywood was against it. In the nine years that Gerald Walker’s book has been up for grabs, three producers have optioned it, including Bob Weiner, who wanted Paul Morrissey to direct. At least three studios (Warner, Paramount, and Fox) turned Friedkin’s screenplay down. Did Hollywood snub this film because it was anti-gay, or because it was gay? The question is all but academic now. Assuming it’s finished, Cruising will go down in history, if only because it marks the first time a citizens’ protest has been mounted against a film before it’s in the can. And it has brought the gay community its most potent organizing tool since the murder of Harvey Milk.
No one was more surprised by the crowd that cut through Greenwich Village last week than the organizers of this campaign. For the most part, they are journalists who caught onto Cruising because Hollywood is their beat. A copy of the script, leaked by a gay person in the production, confirmed their worst fears. There are three murders in the first 14 pages, all of them hinging on rituals of leather-bar persuasion that are hard to [ed. note: illegible]. Evidently, William Friedkin does not: His script is a testament to heterosexuality; its dialogue is as inauthentic as the movies Hollywood churned out about the hippies 10 years ago. Here, for example, is the killer, being cruised by his gay prey:
“Why haven’t I seen you here before?”
“Just got in.”
“Chicago, Maine, Duluth, Mars. Who cares?”
“I beg your hard-on?”
“Look, it’s a boring, disgusting place — right…?”
“You wanna split?”
And here is what follows:
“No, no please.”
“Oh God! Oh God! No.”
“You’re not getting me hard!”
“You’re hurting me.”
“Eat this underwear! Get this underwear in your mouth!”
“Oh yes! Yes!”
“I’m gonna give it to you good.”
Enter the knife.
Friedkin’s folly has been to take characters from The Boys in the Band, which he directed 10 years ago, and update their agony by dressing them in leather. The connection between homosexuality and homicide is impossible to avoid. Sex between men is, for Friedkin, a prelude to combat. Al Pacino plays a rookie detective who is tainted by his immersion in this milieu. Cop and killer face each other, pants down, in a climax that is positively Eastwoodesque.
“How big are you?”
“What are you into?”
“I’ll go anywhere.”
“Do me first.”
“Hips or lips?”
“Go for it.”
They reach for their knives.
Weintraub says the script has been substantially altered in the last few weeks. Though he denies that the demonstrations had anything to do with these changes, there is now “a healthy gay relationship” in the film, and a disclaimer stating that what is being shown represents only a fringe of gay life. Al Pacino’s sexuality will be ambiguous, and so will the killer’s. “The written page is just a guide to what you’re going to do,” says Weintraub. “You can’t rate a film until you see it.”
It’s entirely possible that William Friedkin thinks this film will be erotic to homosexual men. It’s possible that all the people connected with Cruising thought they were doing something progressive by exposing a netherworld that many gays abhor. “What if the film serves as a warning to a young guy who comes to New York looking for a thrill?” Weintraub asks. “What if it says to him, don’t do this stuff; go and find a good relationship.”
But intentions are besides the point, because this project comes at a time when the gay middle class is beginning to assert a sense of public propriety that is not so different from that of the black middle class. Disco is the most vivid expression of this joint aspiration, but so is a new conservatism about emblems of oppression, like the word “nigger” or the accouterments of S&M. If Jesse Jackson blows up when a “progressive” like Mick Jagger observes that “black girls like to fuck all night,” why shouldn’t gay people have the same response to a stereotype even if this one has its grain of truth?
“I’m not putting anything in this film that doesn’t take place every day and every night,” Weintraub says. “This is not fiction, what we’re doing. This is truth.”
In fact, the corner of the Village where Cruising is being shot has always been a mecca for those who depend on the kindness of strangers. Back when Billy Friedkin was impressed by wet dreams, gay people called the stretch of waterfront that adjoins West 14th Street “the casbah.” But its bars are designed to resemble a filmmaker’s fantasy of dangerous sex. Illusion — not danger — is the point. The people who go to these bars know they are visiting a Luna Park of the libido; most of the people who patronize Cruising will think they are seeing ordinary life.
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. They show up every morning, shrill as the disco whistles they wear around their necks. They taunt the actors and harass the crew. The company has temporarily retreated to the basement of a bar called the Catacombs, on West 14th Street. Friedkin has constructed a replica of the Mine Shaft there. One extra said each stud in that scene was getting $60, but there was an extra $25 for any extra who would simulate a blow job. He added that everyone was expected to provide his own gear.
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. This was in marked contrast to the demonstrators, who sported no regalia of any sort. Instead of the dangling keys and “hot hankies” that figure so prominently in Friedkin’s vision of gay life, these people were wearing buttons with small pink triangles, to commemorate what gay prisoners wore in concentration camps. The march itself, which paused at bar after waterfront bar to summon the patrons inside, seemed to be a way for gay people to signal each other that the time has come to stop flaunting fetishism. These weren’t radicals, though remnants of the Gay Activist Alliance were certainly visible when the going got tough. This was the gay MOR, spurred on by the closest thing he has to a political leadership in this town. As its ranks swelled, something larger than William Friedkin’s homophobia was addressed. After years of stereotyping imposed from without and absorbed from within, this particular rank and file was serving notice on the Great American Dream Machine that it could no longer peddle its fantasy of gay life as if it were the real thing.
“We won’t be a background for their exploitation films,” said Ron Gold of the National Gay Task Force, over the bullhorn at Sheridan Square. Then, perhaps a thousand people set off down Christopher Street, with a more abrupt version of those remarks. They shouted, “No more shit!”
It was the closest thing to a long hot summer the city’s seen this year. All week, the Village rang with the rampage of gay people who had anything but cruising on their minds. They blocked Sixth Avenue, Seventh Avenue, West Street, 14th Street. They threw bottles and bricks, smashed windows, slammed into cars and trucks. The Sixth Precinct was kept busier than at any time since Stonewall. There were five arrests and perhaps a dozen injuries, mostly of demonstrators who wandered away from the crowd. One cop was kicked in the balls; it made page one of the Post. The next day, Tony Baska’s picture made page eight. In the photo, he is being “persuaded” to lean against a car. A bit later, however, he was pummeled, cuffed, thrown to the ground, kicked, and clubbed — by five cops. Alone in a cell, Baska told me, he heard the police talking about the demonstrations. “I think they should be decapitated,” said one of the city’s hippest cops, the guys who play against the gay softball league each year. “These pansies are trying to act like men.”
Tony Baska recalled the rally he’d attended at the Washington Square Methodist Church a few days before. Half a dozen gay leaders exhorted people to commit civil disobedience. “Call if you get busted,” they each said. Baska was permitted one shot at the telephone, and he dialed the Gay Switchboard. A tape told him to call back in the morning.
“It’s unreal,” said Betty Santoro, of the Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights. When things got heavy, she called 15 gay lawyers, but all of them were too busy to work for free. She finally had to rely on the National Lawyers’ Guild, which is straight, or at least, nondenominational. “The people who started this aren’t carrying through on their responsibility,” Santoro says. “The right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing, and the right hand is running the show.”
What she means is that, even though an ad hoc committee sponsored this campaign, its impetus came from the movement’s moderate wing — especially the National Gay Task Force. The militant Gay Activist Alliance call this “The National Gay Tom Force,” but both organizations rely on each other’s presence, though they revile each other’s ideology. NGTF counts on the GAA to stir things up so it can move in to work things out. The only problem is, nobody controls the enrages, and when the shit hits the fan, nobody is there to help them out.
Last week, the GAA was relatively restrained, but that didn’t stop the occasional bottle from being thrown or the flash of studded belts when the cops drew near. Straight provocateurs, some people muttered. Yet clearly these were young gay people out to show their rage, but there was no strategy for them to follow, so they roamed the waterfront along with everybody else, smashing car windows and taunting the police. This, too, could be blamed on the organizers, who were so ambivalent about the need for civil disobedience that though some of them advocated it, they were unwilling to organize it.
On top of this, the ad hoc committee made a spectacular blunder when it decided early on to throw the matter into the mayor’s lap. Maybe the NGTF thought its connections at City Hall would prove more powerful than the economics of the situation, but a little research would have shown that the Mayor’s Office for Motion Picture and Television has done everything to cooperate with filmmakers short of paying them to work here. Last March, when the Board of Education refused to allow a movie called Hot Lunch to film at the High School of Performing Arts because its script contained references to marijuana and teenage sexuality, the mayor’s office tried to overturn that decision. The Board of Ed won out, but the city promptly rented Haaren High School to the filmmakers for $1.
Last week, three members of the ad hoc committee met with Nancy Littlefield, the mayor’s movie scout. Weintraub suggested at that meeting that he couldn’t be responsible for his crew’s reaction if the demonstrations got violent. His indication that there were Teamsters on the set, coupled with the fact that some unsavory owners of waterfront bars may have served as consultants on this film, led some people in the ad-hoc committee to conclude that the mob has an interest in Cruising. “That’s nonsense,” says Weintraub. “That’s propaganda. I have no connection with anybody. The Teamsters on my set are working people. Somebody comes along and yells obscenities at them, in this heat, they’re liable to get their noses out of joint.”
The city is extending the usual courtesies to the producers of Cruising: police protection, permit facilitation, permission to store equipment on a city pier. The ad hoc committee asked the mayor to revoke the permits and rescind the police. This wasn’t a matter of censorship, they contended; it was simply a matter of withdrawing cooperation. Said Ethan Geto, a veteran gay activist and an assistant to State Attorney General Robert Abrams: “We are simply asking the city not to put its imprimatur on an offensive, abusive vehicle.”
The mayor declined, citing the First Amendment and refusing to interfere in any way with the content of a film being shot on the streets of New York. Some of the demonstrators agreed, especially within the NGTF, where Koch has strong support within the gay community. But Doug Ireland, who was beaten by a bouncer for leafleting in a gay bar, wonders: “Would the mayor allow a remake of Birth of a Nation in Harlem, or Jew Suss in Borough Park?” Is Cruising good for New York? I asked Nancy Littlefield, who is the mayor’s movie scout. “Anything that brings in $7 million is good for New York,” she said, and then hung up.
Andrew Stein has proposed the community boards be informed in advance of films that shoot on their streets. The mayor disagrees: “I do not believe community boards should have the right to decide what books shall be shown in bookstores in their areas, what paintings shall hang in museums in their areas, what movies shall be shown in theatres in their areas, or what films should be made in their areas, as long as what is done is lawful.” But Tony D’Apolito, the chairman of Community Board 2, which includes the Village, says, “Community boards don’t have the right to decide anything. We’re asking for the right to be consulted. By asking our opinion, we might be able to save them from making a mistake.”
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. Let him make Cruising in the studio, where he’ll have to pay through the nose to make it look real. 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 you picking on us, we’re the only ones 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.”