Oscar-winning director William Friedkin is best known for films like The French Connection and The Exorcist, but those are just two of the many in his wide-ranging career, which he has detailed in his extensive autobiography The Friedkin Connection, published last month. Two films that had major impacts on his career may not be as recognizable as his award-winning productions, but they have proven to be just as influential and controversial. An adaptation of Mart Crowley’s play The Boys in the Band, released in 1970, was one of the first mainstream pictures to give an honest look at the gay experience. Ten years later, Friedkin made the incendiary Cruising, a murder mystery starring Al Pacino and set against the seedy underworld of the gay leather bar scene. While The Boys in the Band is still heralded for its thoughtful portrayal of gay men in New York, Cruising continues to spark controversy for its violent and sexual subject matter, especially as it combines the two. I was eager to chat with Friedkin about his experiences making the films, as well as his perception of how both have been received by audiences and critics since their release.
Flavorwire: I had a few questions, primarily about The Boys in the Band and Cruising. They’re kind of the first gay mainstream movies that sparked a lot of dialogue, not to mention they were directed by a straight man.
William Friedkin: Let me clarify a couple of things based on what you said: I honestly have never thought the idea that these were “gay movies made by a straight director.” I don’t really… when I hear that, it becomes a very hard notion for me to process, because I believe that there is gay and straight in all of us. Some people choose to act on it, some people, by reputation, are asexual and don’t act on homosexuality or heterosexuality. I believe it exists in all of us. To me, The Boys in the Band drew me because it was a wonderful script. I found it both funny and touching — not at the same moment, but it sort of evolves from being very funny and superficial. Now, I don’t define myself as a gay man, but I have to tell you, at the same time, I don’t define myself as a straight man. To someone who is gay, if you don’t define yourself as gay, then you’re not, but I don’t think in those terms. I don’t look at somebody and say, “Oh, he’s black.” I don’t judge people at all other than how I interact with them. Cruising was a very exotic background to a murder mystery, to a series of murders that actually existed in New York and were written about. Did you read my book?
Yes, I did.
Okay, so you know that I first learned about these murders from Arthur Bell’s columns in the Village Voice and then from this fellow Paul Bateson, who was in The Exorcist and turned out to be the guy they got for the so-called trash bag murders. And then I had this friend Randy Jurgensen who was a detective for over 20 years under the New York Police Department, who at one time was assigned to the detail that the Pacino character is assigned to in Cruising. And then it turned out that a guy I knew rather well was the guy who owned or operated most of the clubs and many of the other businesses on the west side of Manhattan from mostly midtown to down to about the Battery, and among some of the other clubs he owned or operated was Stonewall, where the gay movement is said to have begun. I felt that I was a part of that and still am. I never set out with either of those films to make a commentary on gay life. The one thing I think I would change if I were making those films today is, in Boys in the Band, I don’t think I would’ve had Emory quite so flamboyant. I mean, we played him pretty much like Liberace in terms of flamboyance, and that seemed to provide a lot of the humor of the piece, but I hope you will take me in my word that I don’t think of people in that way.
Despite some of the stereotypical characteristics displayed in The Boys in the Band, the film provides one of the most realistic depictions of gay men in urban areas I’ve seen.
At that time, yes. At that time, there was no doubt that there was a closet. There was no doubt that the scene that Mart Crowley wrote about was something he had experienced. He and I discussed the specific people, some of which I knew, who were the models for these characters, and Mart was largely writing out of an experience, so he clearly is the creator of Boys in the Band, and although Mart did define himself as gay, it would’ve been very difficult to label him in that way if he had not defined himself in that way, and of course I remember the ‘60s and before when gay people were in the closet. I imagine there’s still some kind of closet, although I’m sure it’s now a rarity. A guy would have to be insane to deny his sexuality today. You’d have to be really troubled or in a situation — there are all sorts of situations of prejudice in all walks of life, based on color, based on tall people and short people, how people are perceived. So I have never defined myself either way, and we can talk about this as openly as you want, but Boys in the Band was a film I made because I thought the script was great, the characters were well drawn, and as a script, it was a very good piece of work. Cruising drew me because of the exotic nature of the S&M clubs, in particular the Mineshaft, which many gay people were only vaguely aware of at that time.
I didn’t realize the novel on which Cruising was based wasn’t really set in that world, but actually the softer scene of gay nightlife in the Upper East Side. I was wondering if you hadn’t set Cruising in S&M nightclubs, if you had put it in the more mainstream gay world, would the reaction have been different — and perhaps even more negative?
It was never a choice for me. I didn’t like the novel Cruising, and I turned it down, and at that time, the producer of The French Connection, Phil D’Antoni, hired Steven Spielberg to direct it. They couldn’t get the film set up, as you can well imagine. When I read it, I thought, “There’s nothing here.” I didn’t find it particularly well written, but I did like the setup. I like the idea of a guy going into a world with which he was not really familiar to try and lure a killer. That setup interested me. The book and its setting did not, and it didn’t come together for me until those four events I mentioned to you. When it all came together, and by then D’Antoni had lost the option, and Jerry Weintraub picked up the option and called me and he said, “You know I optioned Cruising.” And I said, “Why?” And he said, “Because I heard you were interested in it and I want to be in business with you.” I told them that I wasn’t interested in it, and it wasn’t until the Bell articles [about gay men being murdered on the west side] that I saw a way to make that film. It was really Matty Ianniello who operated or owned — I’m not sure, I believe he had partners — the Mineshaft, and he gave me the contacts to be able to film there. So it wasn’t until all that came together that I thought I could make a film out of this material. It was, of course, going to be even more violent than Walker’s book. I still believe that world was more or less simply about dress-up, about people acting out a fantasy. It was pretty much closed to people who weren’t [in the scene]. The Mineshaft was a private club, and I had access to it. I knew a lot of the guys and they allowed me to film what was going on there, night after night. And also, along with that, there was the undefined AIDS epidemic. There was this disease that was claiming people’s lives in a very strange way, and then there were these murders happening, basically, in a similar environment. That’s what attracted me [to the subject matter].
So you think the negative reception came about because critics read a lot more into what they thought was your agenda?
I had no agenda. I had no agenda. I was fascinated by that world, as I was fascinated by the world of The French Connection, not because I was especially interested in narcs, but the way those two cops operated in what was basically a much lower level of the narcotics trade, and they stumbled, literally stumbled into this big deal of a $32 million heroin bust. I was more interested in the cops and their behavior than in the heroin bust, and so it just served as a background, as did the world of Cruising. Now, I have to say that I was not conscious — nor am I still, nor am I now — of the fact that this was going to cause violence to gays to increase. And I don’t believe it did. I know of no instances of more violence to gay people or a setback to gay liberation because of Cruising, but I do understand that that’s how it was perceived by people in the movement. I understand that totally, and I did only after we started shooting. I never believed we would have massive protests against the picture for the very thing I just mentioned to you, but shortly afterwards, I do understand that clearly a lot of people in the movement felt that this would set back the movement and was not the best foot forward for the gay community. When I started the project, I had no inkling of that.
Some of the bars you mention having used as inspiration for Cruising are still open, and these more extreme scenes are a complicated issue in the gay community. We seem to be struggling to balance of notions of normalcy and mainstream acceptance while still appreciating the idea of gay subculture.
But at the same time, I was going to clubs in midtown Manhattan where a very similar series of events was occurring night after night that involved people who were just interested in leather, many of them women. I’m not a nightlife guy, and so I only became aware of all of these private clubs where sexuality was practiced on a more or less fantasy level, and that was much more far-reaching than places like the Mineshaft. I remember three or four clubs where you’d see older women in leather and young guys fondling them and playing with them and just acting out their own fantasies, and it had nothing to do with gay lifestyle whatsoever. So all of this was going on then.
You say to me that there are similar places now — I’m not now aware of them, or the type of clubs which I just mentioned to you. If I have a philosophy, it’s best expressed by what Hamlet said to Horatio, which was, “There are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” and that’s really how I feel about it. It’s a constant series of discoveries to me. I would never have, in my wildest dreams, imagined that there were clubs where people were doing this. Were they in their own homes or apartments or whatever? Sure, but I never thought there were private clubs where a lot of the things that I saw then were being done. So I was as fascinated as anyone else by that, and I would tell a lot of friends of mine that I knew defined themselves as gay about these places, and they were shocked to hear about this stuff. It wasn’t as though everybody was completely aware of what went on in the Mineshaft.
I don’t know if it was Cruising or the AIDS epidemic that really drew attention to these sexual behaviors.
You’re probably too young to remember Arthur Bell’s columns in the Village Voice, but they had a wide impact. They had an impact much farther and deeper than the Village Voice. Stories about them appeared in mainstream magazines especially. There was a guy named Doug Ireland who wrote for New York magazine then, and he referred to what was going on then in terms of the mysterious deaths and the murders, and these were like cautionary tales. Arthur Bell’s articles were largely urging gay men to be careful about these places, that there was violent behavior going on.
You write in your book about the reception of the film, and I wanted to ask: Do you think the reaction would be different if you’d released this film 20 years later?
That’s speculation. I have no idea. I mean, I’m only vaguely aware, and very peripherally, of the fact, because it’s been stated by Steven Soderbergh that he couldn’t get any distribution company to release the Liberace film in theaters and so he got HBO, which has a much wider distribution than all the theater chains put together… Other than whatever warnings may have been on that or not about young children seeing this, anyone can see it in their home, and so I imagine it was disappointing to Soderbergh to not have the film in theaters, but he said, and I quote, “No studio would release it because it’s too gay.” I find that weird. I think that people are so past that now. Now, I’m not speaking about the quality of the thing at all. I’m not talking about how good or how bad I think it is. The subject matter… again, your question would be speculative, but what if it had not had certain scenes? Did you see the Liberace film? What if it had been just a love story, like a Cary Grant/Ingrid Bergman movie, and had not gone into their sexuality, would anyone have released that? I don’t know, it’s speculation, but that’s a very unusual situation as well. Young people are only vaguely aware of Liberace. People under 40 may not be aware of him at all, but when Liberace died, most of his fans were older women, people like my mother, my aunt, and I’m telling you, they were not thinking about Liberace as gay or straight. They were thinking about him as a flamboyant showman, and there were a handful of others at the time.
I was stunned to hear that Soderbergh said he couldn’t get a studio with himself or Michael Douglas and Matt Damon. I would’ve thought they’d put anything on with those guys, but I am a bit surprised to hear that. I very much admire Soderbergh, but when you hear stuff like that, it discounts the quality of the piece itself, which may be a reason why distributors didn’t want to touch it — not because it’s too gay. I mean, as you know, there are openly gay characters all over series television today, and their sexuality has little to do with the plot of these things… almost nothing to do with them. They’re just gay characters, and that’s an evolution of where it now belongs. Gay characters are, let’s face it, part of the mainstream.
I’m a little dubious of when I see gay characters there for the sake of being “gay characters,” which is one of the reasons I think The Boys in the Band is so representative of what gay men are really like and how we interact with each other. The sexuality is such an integral part of the characters in The Boys in the Band as well as in Cruising.
Well, as you look back on Boys in the Band, you see that almost every important line in the play is about being gay in some way. The play is about being gay, and gay characters from various aspects of gay life are portrayed at the same party, and that’s what it’s about. It’s hard for people to believe, but I did not think of it particularly in those terms. Mart Crowley obviously did, and he was writing about people close to him and about his experience. I happen to be Jewish. I’ve never done anything about Jewish characters. I can’t even recall whether any of them are Jewish — yes, Kinderman in The Exorcist is a Jewish guy, and guess what? If someone is going to criticize Boys in the Band for having gay stereotypes, Kinderman is kind of a Jewish stereotype, and that’s what [writer] Bill Blatty intended! Now, when I cast Lee J. Cobb, I wasn’t casting a Jew. Lee J. Cobb was not known in films or theater then for playing Jews. He happened to be Jewish, but he was known for On the Waterfront, where he played a thug called Johnny Friendly, and he was known for Death of a Salesman, which did not have a particularly Jewish aspect to it at all. But Kinderman, I freely admit, is written with the rhythms of a Jewish character, and he could’ve been called O’Brien and he still would’ve had the same role in the film and in the novel, but he wouldn’t spoken precisely in that way that defined him as Jewish. It was a Jewish name. Now, it’s an interesting discussion, because what defines somebody? There are Jewish people who do not sound particularly Jewish and who do not have particularly Jewish names. In Cruising, for example, the names of these characters do not define them as gay at all. It’s the references that they make. Mart Crowley was definitely raising ground with Boys in the Band as being specifically about gay life at that time with no apologies. Now, was this all gay men? Did I ever think that we were doing something covering the spectrum of all gay men? No, absolutely not, and they weren’t defined, with the exception of Emory, by how they carried themselves. If the dialogue had not been predominantly about the gay experience at that time, you would not portray them especially as gay stereotypes.
James Franco has made a film inspired by Cruising. Did you have any conversations with him about it?
He called me. I had heard that he was doing this. I had no idea what he was doing or why, and then sort of in the middle of it, he called me. We had never met or spoken, but he got a hold of my number and we spoke and he asked me — I had heard from people who were involved that he was making a film that was kind of an homage to Cruising. I know that he had tried to get the rights to remake Cruising on two occasions, and then I heard he was doing an homage. I didn’t know what the hell it was. All I knew about it was that it was allegedly about the missing 40 minutes, and when he called me, he asked me, “What are the missing 40 minutes of Cruising?” He was laughing when he asked me that, and I said, “I thought you were making a film about that.” “Well, it’s about that and a little bit more, but what are the missing 40 minutes?” I said, “Pure pornography.” I was able to film in the Mineshaft, and I was able to film everything, and so I did! I had the notion that if I showed all of the footage to the ratings board, they would’ve chipped away at it and I would’ve been left with something like the film I wanted to make. But Franco sent me a version — I don’t know if it’s the final version — of what he had at that time, and all I remember seeing is scenes of guys auditioning to be in Cruising and then a scene in the leather bar. I didn’t see enough, so I can’t really comment on the overall, but he did send me quite a bit of edited footage, and I frankly didn’t know what he was driving at. He seemed to me as though he was fascinated by the scene like I was, and there are some shots that are almost copies of the shots in Cruising.
Do you think the idea that it would be the lost 40 minutes was his way of generating buzz?
What I saw had no resemblance at all to the missing 40 minutes of Cruising. There are fragments of those 40 minutes in the picture! There are little fragments of fist-fucking and golden showers and a lot of things that remain, but not to the extent that I filmed them. They’re more to an impressionistic extent. People not being aware of what’s going on would not be more enlightened from what’s left in the film. It would be much more impressionistic. It’s like if you look at a Jackson Pollack painting, you don’t know what the hell it’s about. It’s about the art of painting in a way — or it’s nothing but garbage in another way — but it purports to be art.