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Gay History – July 25, 1979: “Cruising” Film Shoot Protested By NYC’s Gay Community

For those of you too young to remember Cruising is a 1980 psychological thriller film directed by William Friedkin of The Exorcist fame and starring Al Pacino. The film is loosely based on the novel of the same name, by New York Times reporter Gerald Walker. It’s about a rookie NYPD cop that goes undercover to bait a homophobic serial killer in the leather and  S&M world of New York’s Greenwich Village.

The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force ( back when they actually had a task and did something ) in a letter to the New York Times wrote 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.”

The movie suffered a huge backlash from the LGBT community which did everything  it could to disrupt the movies filming and promotion in NYC.

Village Voice writer Arthur Bell was the person who raised a call for full out sabotage on the movie writing that 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.”

Gay-owned businesses on Christopher Street barred the filmmakers from their premises. People attempted to interfere with shooting by pointing mirrors from rooftops to ruin lighting for scenes, blasting whistles and air horns near locations, and playing loud music. One thousand protesters marched through the East Village demanding the city withdraw support for the film to which Mayor (and famous closet case) Ed Koch responded, “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.”

Al Pacino who starred in the movie said that he understood the protests but insisted that upon reading the screenplay he never at any point felt that the film was anti-gay. He said that the leather bars were “just a fragment of the gay community, the same way the Mafia is a fragment of Italian-American life,” referring to The Godfather, and that he would “never want to do anything to harm the gay community”.

Friedkin asked noted gay author John Rechy, to screen Cruising just before its release. Rechy had written an essay defending Friedkin’s right to make the film, although not defending the film itself.  At Rechy’s suggestion, Friedkin deleted a scene showing the Gay Liberation Front slogan “We Are Everywhere” as graffiti on a wall just before the first body part is pulled from the river, and added a disclaimer:

“This film is not intended as an indictment of the homosexual world. It is set in one small segment of that world, which is not meant to be representative of the whole.”

Friedkin later claimed that it was the MPAA and United Artists that required the disclaimer, calling it “part of the dark bargain that was made to get the film released at all ” and  “a sop to organised gay rights groups”.   Friedkin also said that no one involved in making the film thought it would be considered as representative of the entire gay community, but the late great gay film historian Vito Russo disputed Fredkin claims citing the disclaimer as “an admission of guilt” writing  “What director would make such a statement if he truly believed that his film would not be taken to be representative of the whole?”

Now almost 40 years later despite the movies content which by today’s standards seem schlocky and mediocre at best.  Snippets of Cruising are easily one the most graphic depiction of the NYC underground gay leather scene ever seen in a mainstream movie and is also in a way, a documentary of a time and places lost in history with background shots of the West Village and West Side highway that capture that period in time.

Locations like The Ramrod, The Anvil, Mineshaft, and the Eagle’s Nest (the latter two eventually barred Friedkin from the premises) have been gone for decades, but Cruising is a flashback to a time of  poppers, color-coded pocket hankies, hardcore discos, bathhouses, backrooms, park cruising and yes even Crisco.  It is a visual time capsule back to a part of our history that has been overshadowed by by the plague known as AIDS that would soon wreck havoc on the gay community in the years after the movie was released.

Like it or not the movie Crusing is a part of our history and reflects an era of images and memories that is slowly being lost forever.

Note: The exterior entrance of the club that Al Pacino enters into is actually the door to the infamous Mineshaft in NYC. (CLICK HERE to learn more about The Mineshaft.)  But as stated above Friedkin was barred from filming within the establishment.  The next shot of Pacino walking down the stairs was actually filmed at the Hellfire Club Sex Club in the triangle building  at 14th street which later would house J’s Hangout and home of the New York Jacks on 14th and  Hudson Street.

What now stands in its spot is the gentrified 675 Bar which is described as a “subdued lounge attempts to bring back some dignity to the Meatpacking District with pedigreed cocktails, and uncomplicated entertainment”  

If only the patrons of the 675 Bar ever knew.

 

 

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Will Kohler

Will Kohler is a noted LGBT historian, journalist and owner of Back2Stonewall.com. A longtime gay activist, Will fought on the front lines of the AIDS epidemic with ACT-UP and continues fighting today for LGBT acceptance and full equality. Will’s work has been referenced in notable media venues as MSNBC and BBC News, The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, Hollywood Reporter, and Raw Story,

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4 thoughts on “Gay History – July 25, 1979: “Cruising” Film Shoot Protested By NYC’s Gay Community”

  1. On of my favorite directors, Friedkin, and one of my favorite films! As a gay man who did not live through those times, I LOVE how this film captured a time, no matter how watered down, or overplayed it may be. Little did they know that us younger ones would one day recreate “scenarios” in club life to represent this era…although not taken too seriously, being that this whole scene seems to be more of a “pop culture” phenomenon to us, but it defienatly shows a time when the gay community lived with some kind of sexual abandon, and for that matter society at large, representing a time at the cusp of the AIDS epidemic. Everytime I read at how the gay community reacted, my though is “really?”. Anyway, kudos to Freidkin for pushing through! And Pacino for playing the role…SEXY!

  2. Where you there? Did you know how it felt to see the 1,000th film depicting us as twisted, perverted criminals? Hindsight is golden, but at that moment in time, we were sick of ONLY being presented as deviants. Had there been the balance there is today, it would have been different. There wasn’t – that’s what we were protesting.

    1. Actually I was there. And actually the 1000th is a bit of an exaggeration. But i do remember why the film was protested. Especially after coming only 2 years after Looking For Mr. Goodbar. But it still stands as a veuw of a part of gay life and landmarks that were not very well documented and are all gone now.

  3. Some interior bar scenes were filmed at The Bar, a gay bar on the southeast corner of Second Avenue and East Fourth Street. There is still a bar there now, but it’s no longer gay-identified.

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