Naturally, homosexuality, has still faced lopsided surveillance from the MPAA. Nonetheless, in 1969, John Schleschinger’s Midnight Cowboy, which depicted gay cruising and a homoromantic dynamic between its leads Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman, was the first, and only, film to win Best Picture with a rating of X.
With The Boys in the Band, Friedkin charts how foul-mouthed, sexed up, and miserable gay men can feel— an emotional range contrasted by the film’s physical, confined space. The film’s claustrophobia (which he credited to Luis Buñuel) operated as a wakeup call, to galvanize gay and queer viewers into considering their own happiness: do you want to be yourself or do you want to be the kind of gay person other people think you should be?
It’s a microcosmic question that he would return to in Cruising, which follows Steven Burns (Pacino), a rookie cop going undercover in the gay community to investigate a series of horrific murders in the gay BDSM and leather scene. At first Burns thinks he’s a passive observer in an unfamiliar world he can otherwise float into. But committing to the investigation means disappearing into the culture, which, drenched in sweat, the stinging honey scent of poppers, and squelching noises of cowhide, means confronting his own conception of manhood.
As Pacino digs deeper into the case, his identity becomes destabilized, the camera assuming his point of view and transitioning from somewhat squicked out curiosity to intense fascination, as the acts we see on camera continue to escalate in graphicness. The camera glides across the bar, like Pacino walking from one end to the other, spectating the perspiration, the sheen on people’s pants, the glint in their eyes as they pass him and consider his presence and whether he is available for an encounter. The viewer inhabits this perspective, and we are forced to confront that we, too, are being considered, evaluated, and a sexual commodity. As Friedkin’s camera disappears into the crowd, including a scene where Pacino takes a hit of poppers only to send the viewer into a haze of blissed out ecstasy, the director gradually reveals that an insidiousness can co-exist in these queer spaces alongside joy and liberation.
Cruising faced backlash almost immediately, with the Village Voice covering protests that began during filming and continued through to its release. There were still few easily accessible examples of queer media, much less ones that were “positive representation,” and the cultural and social climate was still fairly cruel to queer people, with the New York Anti-Violence project being founded in 1980. The protesting from gay rights groups was so vigorous it inspired Friedkin to re-record much of the dialog in post-production, which actually amplified the eerie disembodied quality to the killer’s voice.
Where The Boys in the Band is a bruised but hopeful eye towards the future of a gay self-actualization, Cruising is a sour successor, a jaundiced eye to gay culture’s privyness to the same dubious institutional rule breaking as the police in The French Connection and To Live and Die in LA. Gay men are victims of a broken system, surely, but — and contentious though the claim is — they, too, have a predilection for the kind of wielding of power that the very institutions that marginalize them do.