Hanky Panky

Melissa Anderson on The Boys in the Band and Cruising at BAMcinématek

William Friedkin, Cruising, 1980, 35 mm, color, sound, 102 minutes. Steve Burns and hanky salesman (Al Pacino and Powers Boothe).

WILLIAM FRIEDKIN BOOKENDED the decade that saw the release of his back-to-back box-office hits The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973) with two infamous queer landmarks, each released around the time of a seismic change in gay history. The director’s 1970 screen adaptation of Mart Crowley’s hit 1968 off-Broadway play The Boys in the Band, about a gathering of gay male friends at an Upper East Side apartment for a birthday party, opened less than a year after Stonewall. To many newly politicized homos, Crowley’s work on-screen, with its sobs, self-loathing, and desperate pleading for tolerance, now seemed pitifully retrograde.

Some of those put off by Boys may have been among the enraged gay and lesbian protesters who disrupted the shooting, in the summer of 1979, of Cruising, a thriller about an NYC cop (played by Al Pacino) who must go undercover as a leather daddy to solve the murders of gay men active in s/m. A year after the February 1980 release of Cruising—still unparalleled in Hollywood cinema for its raw, explicit man-on-man action—the first cases of AIDS in New York City were reported.

To watch The Boys in the Band and Cruising—BAMcinématek is presenting both on May 3 as part of its “Friedkin 70s” series—decades after their initial release is to reflect on revisionism, the trajectory of the LGBT rights movement, and nostalgia. (Friedkin himself does so in his memoir, The Friedkin Connection, the recent publication of which occasions the BAM series.) Viewed today, The Boys in the Band can grate with its unrelenting, shrill self-consciousness: Party host Michael (Kenneth Nelson) poses endless rhetorical questions (“What’s more boring than a queen doing a Judy Garland imitation?”); limp-wristed guest Emory (Cliff Gorman) falls back on his standard rejoinder—“Oh, Mary, don’t ask”—three times too many.

If some viewers now, as then, cringe at what, though certainly well-intentioned and heartfelt, plays like pink-face minstrelsy, certain aspects of Boys endure for their authenticity and poignancy. The opening minutes of the film, to the sunshine-pop sounds of a cover of “Anything Goes” by Harpers Bizarre, feature a brief, buoyant episode set in the West Village redoubt Julius’. (Stills from this scene proudly adorn the back room of the legendary gay bar on West Tenth Street today.) Hauntingly, Boys also serves as a kind of memento mori: Of its nine cast members, all of whom reprised their original stage roles, five would die of AIDS.

It is precisely the vérité aspect of Cruising, filmed in actual Meatpacking District s/m clubs like the Mineshaft and the Anvil with real habitués, that gives the film such potency. As Friedkin explains in his memoir: “We were allowed to film everything that went on in the Mineshaft, with no restrictions. The club regulars were paid as extras, since no Screen Extras Guild members could be asked, nor would they be able to simulate what took place there.” Friedkin shows, with absolutely no judgment, sexy, stygian pleasure domes where men deep kiss, engage in nipple play and flogging, suck each other off, and fist-fuck. At the time of its release, many critics agreed with the gay protesters, who argued that Cruising equated same-sex desire with insatiable homicidal urges; Vincent Canby of the New York Times called it “a homosexual horror film.” But in the years since, the film has been embraced by many queer scholars (and filmmakers: James Franco and Travis Mathews’s Cruising-inspired Interior. Leather Bar. premiered at Sundance in January). In 2007, the year of Cruising’s DVD release, D. A. Miller wrote, “Even to let us see the ‘sexual’ in the ‘homosexual’ to any extent, let alone as copiously as Friedkin has done, is a territorial conquest worthy of Cortez.” Speaking of territorial conquest, Cruising also depicts a radically changed far West Village, where the only things getting sucked today are artisanal ice pops purchased at the High Line.

“Friedkin 70s” runs May 2–7 at BAMcinématek in New York.