After a decade of making Oscar winners (The French Connection) and box
office bonanzas (The Exorcist), director William Friedkin found himself
drawn to a murder mystery set among the gay leather bars of New York
City. In Cruising (1980), Al Pacino plays an undercover cop who begins frequenting the bars
looking for clues, but finds himself unequipped to deal with the sexual
world opening up to him. A portion of the gay community decided that
such a dark, violent film was not the way they wished to be portrayed,
so they began demonstrating against the film, stirring up a bitter
controversy that has rarely been equalled in the history of film.
Predictably, critics sneered and the audience stayed away. The film has
languished for years, but a new print will open in select theaters this
week (including the Castro in San Francisco) and a deluxe new DVD will
be released September 18. Friedkin visited San Francisco for a special
screening and sat down with me for a talk.
Jeffrey M. Anderson: Are you fairly confident that Cruising will
be accepted today, or will there still be some controversy?
William Friedkin: I don't know. I have no idea. The times are
different. At the time we made and released it, it was the first small
steps of gay liberation. They had just begun to make gains to get
recognition, have some political clout. Prior to that time, they had
none. They were an oppressed minority. And Cruising of course was not
what you would choose as the best foot forward for a bourgeoning
political movement. And there were a lot of people in the gay community
who were conscious of that and they protested it, but in doing so, they
probably brought more attention to it than it might have gotten.
JMA: As with many other controversial movies, like The Last
Temptation of Christ, hardly anyone actually saw it.
WF: They objected to the idea. The Last Temptation
of Christ was being vilified. Crosses were burned on Lew Wasserman's
lawn. This generation comes The Passion of the Christ and it's a huge
hit. There were some protests, but they were of such a minor nature.
Attitudes have changed since people gave a knee-jerk reaction to
something they hadn't seen. The film [Cruising] has gained a life
underground all these years. It's never been on DVD before, but it was
on VHS and bootlegged. Millions of people saw it in a bootleg edition.
It's tough. I will say that, even now, it does not play to populist
sensibilities. Most of the movies today are, in terms of subject matter,
bland. They're largely manufactured in a way that they're not going to
JMA: Probably the thing that people will object to today is not so
much the gay subtext, but rather the ambiguous ending.
WF: There is more than one murderer, and that's what
a lot of people couldn't wrap their minds around. We are conditioned by
films, and mostly television, that if it's a murder mystery, by the end
of the film when the curtain comes down, the murderer is caught. On
television, there's a murder that takes place at 9 o'clock and by 10
o'clock it's completely solved. Evil is put back in its box. And
Cruising doesn't do that. Cruising says that the evil is still out
there, and the evil is out there. It's not meant as a cautionary tale to
gays because equally, what I learned form the research on this film, is
that most of the murders go unsolved in almost every big city in the
world. As typified by the Jack the Ripper murders, which took place in
1888. There were five murders. They, to this day, are unsolved. They
didn't have DNA or anything like that. They had suspects, many of them,
but they never were able to pin down who Jack the Ripper was. But it's
because of him that you now have all this interest in these serial
murder cases. Jack the Ripper was the first that got people concerned
about: are they safe?
JMA: You've always had the gay and lesbian culture on your radar
and in your movies, The Boys in the Band, for example, and a little bit
in To Live and Die in L.A. It's even in your latest film, Bug.
WF: They're a part of the normal world that I move
through. How do you put this? I have many gay friends, and many straight
friends. Working in the film business and doing operas, there probably
are a larger proportion of gay people, maybe, than there are in other
industries. The depiction of gay characters, even in Bug, is a normal
part of the landscape. As you're doing an impression of this particular
landscape, all of these people of various persuasions pop up: a lot of
Jews, also Gentiles, black people, etc. Up until recently, gay
characters were disguised in American films. They were metaphors. As in
Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? He's denied this, and he
knows more than anybody, but I believe it was written for four male
characters. If you read it in that context, everything becomes clear:
the baby that they could never have, etc. But I've asked him about it
and he says it's absolutely untrue.
JMA: A lot of films have unspoken gay subtexts, Ben Hur, Psycho...
WF: Many films. In Kubrick's The Killing, the Jay C.
Flippen character is probably gay. It's never stated, but you see his
physical attachment to the Sterling Hayden character. For many years you
could not portray a gay character onscreen in an American film, as a gay
character. And of course, many of the stars of the previous era who were
gay could never admit it. They could never live a life free of scorn. If
Rock Hudson had been portrayed as gay, through all of his success, it
would have... now we know that Rock Hudson was gay and died of AIDS. But
you can look at his films, and I happen to be a big fan of his,
especially in a film like Giant (1956). I thought he was just great. And
some of the comedies he did with Doris Day. These are great films, and
he was clearly a macho lover, romantic hero, and he's totally
believable. Today, and I think this will pass, but it's unfortunately
used as a slur against people. A lot of that stuff is rumor, wishful
thinking and... who cares? What does it have to do with anything? As we
get to the stage when it's peripheral to a person's ability, then real
progress will have been made.
JMA: The thing I love about Cruising and your other films is that
you have this very concrete world in which the story takes place.
Everything is impeccably researched. Except Bug, which is based mostly
on paranoia and things that can't be proven.
WF: Nothing can be proven. Take the mystery of
faith, the idea of Jesus Christ and his teachings. Who has ever sat down
in a room with Jesus Christ, or received a personal message from Jesus?
Here's this man who died at age 32 or 33, over 2000 years ago, wrote
nothing down, probably illiterate. The whole tradition is an oral
tradition, and now over 2000 years later, billions of people have
believed in the teachings of Jesus. And that's a phenomenal thing, if
you think about it. The New Testament is filled with such beautiful
thoughts and ideas and poetry, but it can't be proven. You either feel
it or you don't. There is no evidence. And yet at the same time, you can
see it every day in one thing or another, if you're attuned.
JMA: Given. OK, let's say that your films are thoroughly
researched and presented as the world as seen through your eyes.
WF: It's how this works. I try to find out how the
Catholic Church works, for The Exorcist. What is this ritual? What's
behind it? And it turns out what's behind it is a very simple thing: the
mystery of faith. And it's the most powerful thing. Why people believe
in one set of principals or another, or why they don't. Christopher
Hitchens has a new book out [God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons
Everything] but his mere act of questioning the existence of God is a
statement about the existence of God. You're using God as a known
factor. For anybody to say, I don't believe in God, that's what I find
strange. How does anyone know? We're not given to know the mysteries of
life. We're getting closer and closer scientifically, but there's much
more than science involved.
JMA: I don't think we'll ever be able to close that final gap.
WF: Well, we don't know that either. You have to go
on and accept that there's certain things, like love, that are peculiar
to human beings. Or find ourselves on the other hand in an extraordinary
dislike for someone, where they just rub us the wrong way. But that's
part of the mystery of existence which I find endlessly fascinating, and
the existence of good and evil in all of us, which is what all of my
films are about, for the most part. The thin line between good and evil
between all of us.
JMA: Recently I was a substitute teacher for a class on horror
films, and we looked at The Exorcist again and really dove into it. I
like it better than ever before.
WF: It's a huge mistake because The Exorcist is not
intended to be a horror film. There are some terrible things that happen
in it, but I didn't let them advertise it as a horror film, and I didn't
intend it as a horror film. It is a film about the mystery of faith. And
it's based on a true story. It's certainly about good and evil.
JMA: Well, I didn't program the syllabus. But regardless, it's a
WF: It's based on something that had occurred in
1949 in Silver Springs, MD. That's where the young man who was
supposedly possessed. Bill Blatty [William Peter Blatty] was an
undergraduate at Georgetown at the time. The case was widely reported in
the newspapers, three pages in the Washington Post, and Blatty tried to
get the facts on it. He spoke to some of the priests, but they wouldn't
give him anything beyond the tenor of what had occurred. So he wrote it
as fiction and turned the 14 year-old boy into a 12 year-old girl.
JMA: What's the connection between The Exorcist and Cruising?
WF: The Arteriogram scene; that was done by a
neurosurgeon and his assistant at NYU medical school. And I remember at
the time that the assistant was wearing an earring and a leather
bracelet, a studded bracelet. And it was unusual to see that in any
workplace situation then, in an operating room. But I liked him. He was
a really nice guy, and he has some really intimate moments with Linda
Blair. And then about four years later, I read that he was charged with
the murder of the theater critic for Variety, a fellow called Addison
Verrill. So I see that he's being held at Riker's Island, and his
attorney's name was in the story, and so I called his lawyer and said,
'I wonder if I can see Paul.' And he called me back in a couple of days
and said 'OK.' So I met with Paul. He was being held at that time, it
was a holding cell for trial. And he told me what happened. There were a
series of murders that had taken place in which just arms or legs were
found floating in body bags in the East River. And the police traced the
bags back to the NYU Medical Center and ultimately to him. And so they
had him on charges of a couple of murders, that were body parts murders.
Verrill was found intact. But some of the victims, they found just a leg
or an arm. The police had come to him with an offer that they would
reduce his sentence if he would confess to about 8 or 9 other murders,
whether he had committed them or not. He never told me that. I said what
are you gonna do? And he said I don't know. He sort of smiled. I'm
thinking about it. And I see that he got out three years ago. So he did
25 years in prison. But it was his story along with a number of other
events that had occurred at the time that provoked me to make this film
the way I made it.
August 27, 2007