No one in Hollywood ever sets out to make a dud. Take, for example, Cruising, the notorious William Friedkin thriller starring Al Pacino as a straight cop who infiltrates New York’s gay-nightclub scene while hunting a killer who is targeting homosexuals. It’s easy to imagine why Friedkin and Pacino, both of whom enjoy testing limits, saw the pulpy story as an opportunity to investigate a mysterious subculture. Concurrently, it’s useful to remember that the gender-politics climate of the late ’70s was still rotten with prejudice. Fearful the movie might propagate ugly stereotypes about predatory gays, activists staged noisy protests during filming in Manhattan, thereby creating a widespread perception that Cruising was antigay. These circumstances all but guaranteed a hostile reception from audiences and critics, rendering the filmmakers’ original intentions moot.
But that was then. In trying to arrive at a modern understanding of Cruising, however, one must wrestle with the fact that the naysayers who attacked the film during its original release were both right and wrong. For instance, Cruising absolutely features the “gay killer” trope, which had become a raw nerve after too many movies along the lines of Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977). Yet Cruising is too complex to earn a label as narrow as “antigay.” More than anything, Cruising is deliberately perverse. It’s about a man who loses his personal and sexual identity while pretending to be someone else, set against the backdrop of a nightclub community populated by individuals who celebrate their truth and by individuals who disguise themselves.
Like the best of Friedkin’s films—a category to which Cruising doesn’t necessarily belong—Cruising is designed to get under the viewer’s skin and distort perceptions. Just as The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973) revel in moral ambiguity, Cruising revels in sexual ambiguity.
That leaves unanswered, of course, the burning question: Is Cruising a good movie? That all depends on the kind of experience the viewer wants. Those craving sensitive insights into gay culture will be left wanting, since Cruising focuses almost exclusively on the rough stuff—S&M, street hustling, swinging, and so on. Alternatively, viewers who want a conventional whodunit may be turned off by Friedkin’s incessant use of misdirection. Satisfying the viewer, in the usual sense of that phrase, was obviously never the goal.
Yet buried within the frustrating rhythms of Cruising are moments of great intensity and surprise. Powers Boothe has a memorable scene as a salesman who explains which handkerchiefs, worn in which fashion, communicate the wearer’s interest in particular sex acts. Karen Allen brings a sultry quality to her part as the lead character’s long-suffering girlfriend. And Pacino attacks the starring role with his signature go-for-broke intensity. Whether he’s dancing in a nightclub while wearing a black tank top or wrestling with angst over antigay violence committed by fellow policemen, he’s an open wound of ambition, confusion, emotion, and need. Cruising doesn’t “work” in any conventional sense, and it undoubtedly retains its power to offend many people, but it’s a singular piece of filmmaking. At its best, it’s haunting. At its worst, it’s wildly sensationalistic. And if nothing else, it remains a lightning rod for debate.