Al Pacino's Gayest Movie: The 'Cruising' Controversy Of 1980

By Sarah Norman | June 14, 2023

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Al Pacino as an undercover cop trying to fit in at a leather bar in 'Cruising.' Photo by Lorimar/Getty Images.

In 1980 William Friedkin and Al Pacino made Cruising, a stylish but infamous thriller that takes viewers into the underground world of gay leather and S&M clubs on the hunt for a serial killer. It's hardly the kind of movie that you'd expect from the director of The Exorcist and The French Connection, and the star of the Godfather films. Cruising is infamous for its dark and gratuitous depiction of gay life at the end of the disco era. The film was protested by moralists who thought the film signaled the end times, and gay rights activists who thought the film depicted homosexuality as nothing more than a collection of perverts hanging out in a leather dungeon.

Like many misunderstood films of the era, Cruising has attained a kind of cult status even if it is a bit of a mess. There are gaping plot holes, characters whom we never see again, and an entire 40 minute section that had to be excised in order for Friedkin to attain an R rating.

"Cruising" is based on a true story (kind of)

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source: United Artists

William Friedkin's descent into the world of S&M began with a 1970 novel written by New York Times reporter Gerald Walker. Walker's novel, Cruising, follows an undercover New York City policeman on the hunt for a serial killer working the gay scene. Friedkin took the basic concept of the novel and Frankensteined it together with two other sources: his conversations with former NYPD detective Randy Jurgensen, and a series of articles in The Village Voice by Arthur Bell that tried to unravel a number of unsolved murders that were taking place in leather bars.

It was in the final two sources that Friedkin found his character for the films. Former NYPD detective Jurgensen told the director that his time spent working undercover in the city's S&M clubs “messed up his mind,” and the series of murders that Arthur Bell was writing about were finally attributed to Paul Bateson - an actor who played an X-ray tech in n Friedkin’s film The Exorcist. The director's research for Cruising wasn't over. Friedkin wasn't content to just read about the gay leather experience happening in New York City, he wanted to experience it for himself.