“Cruising” was originally supposed to be directed by a pre-“Jaws” Steven Spielberg, and I thank my lucky gay stars every day that this is not how things went down. I love me some Spielberg, but if a steamy leather daddy isn’t going to be the one to direct this story, it should at least be a straight person with a face that looks like they’re about to tell you to “go f*** yourself” at any given moment … which made William Friedkin the perfect choice. The film was shot in actual underground S&M clubs using mostly real club members because actors at the time refused to even pretend to be gay, poppers-taking leather boys. According to Friedkin’s commentary track, the first cut of “Cruising” was allegedly 40 minutes longer, mostly compiled of male pornography.
Friedkin’s dedication to the film is well-documented, having immersed himself in the community by visiting the clubs and following the required dress code, lamenting in the commentary track that when he attended jock strap night, he was “the ugliest guy in the room.” Look, I wasn’t there, but I’ve seen late ’70s-era Friedkin, and I’m sure with his tinted aviator glasses, he was just fine! Friedkin had already proved to the world that he was committed to telling uncomfortably nuanced stories about the gay community following “The Boys in the Band,” and while we can argue for decades about whether or not a straight man should have directed “Cruising,” I firmly believe that no other director would have devoted as much energy into dousing themselves into an unfamiliar and highly stigmatized culture the way he did.
As far as I’m concerned, “Cruising” is one of the most radically important works of queer cinema ever made because Friedkin prioritized veritable authenticity rather than a story that would be accessible to the cisgender, heterosexual majority.