Flavorwire Interview: William Friedkin on the Controversial Legacies of ‘The Boys in the Band’ and ‘Cruising’

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 Bates, 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.