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No bruising for 'Cruising'

William Friedkin's 1980 film once outraged the gay community, but not this time around.

August 29, 2007|Paul Wilner | Special to The Times

SAN FRANCISCO -- In many ways it was a typical night at the Castro Theatre, the venerable 85-year-old revival house in the heart of San Francisco's gay and lesbian district. The house organist opened the show with renditions of "I Get a Kick Out of You" and "That's Entertainment" before being lowered into the pit to the strains of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy's "San Francisco," as audience members sang along.

What was decidedly atypical, though, was the fare: a special preview Monday night of "Cruising," the controversial -- in some circles, notorious -- 1980 murder mystery written and directed by William Friedkin set against the backdrop of the New York leather bar S&M scene. It starred Al Pacino as an undercover cop who infiltrated the gay scene to try to catch the killer.

"Cruising" was by far the most explicit mainstream Hollywood treatment of gay sexuality at the time, and it sparked protests from activists seeking to disrupt, if not shut down, production of the project because they felt it unfairly stigmatized the gay community.

Now it's back. Starting Sept. 7, "Cruising," restored in a new print, will have brief runs in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York, and a Warner Home Video DVD release is scheduled for Sept. 18.

What a difference 27 years makes.

The reaction to the re-release, in and around the Castro, was more like a love-in than an ACT UP demonstration.

"What went on at the time was ridiculous. It was from a bunch of people who hadn't even seen the movie," said Jean Paul Rimes as he nursed a drink at the Bar across the street from the theater before the film. "The only possible objection was that the killer turned out to be gay." His companion, Patrick Baird, agreed: "I don't think gays should be offended. It's very possible that incidents like that could have taken place as part of the scene in New York or L.A."

"I've never seen it before, but I think it's good to see it in this kind of venue, where there can be a critical dialogue about it, as opposed to just showing it in the suburbs," said Travis Mathews, 23, as he stood in line with the rest of the overflow, mostly male, mostly gay crowd waiting to see the picture.

"I think it still stands up, and some of it will still probably put us off," said Ron Vest. "It will be interesting to see how many people who were protesting will be here tonight," added his friend, Javier Valencia.

"I've never seen the film, but I'll be interested to see what a gay Al Pacino -- at least the cop he plays is drawn to the gay scene in some ways -- might do," said budding screenwriter David Field. "And I'd like to ask Friedkin if he had any tendencies."

He didn't get to ask that particular question, but a question and answer session with the "French Connection" director before the screening was more like a hearts-and-flowers session than a political rally. And despite the checkered history between the San Francisco gay activist community and potentially inflammatory fare -- this is, after all, the city where "Basic Instinct" drew protests because of Sharon Stone's depiction of an ice-pick wielding bisexual killer -- the mood inside the theater was largely positive, even celebratory.

Perhaps Friedkin disarmed the crowd by saying, "This is far from a perfect movie, folks," but there was appreciative laughter at scenes depicting "police night," complete with outré uses of batons at one of the clubs, and an encounter Pacino has with a clerk (Powers Boothe) at a store where he is educated about the sexual significance of the colors of handkerchiefs. "I'll think about it," Pacino's character mutters, as he backs out of the door, when asked if he wants to buy anything. There was nary a catcall nor a hiss to be heard.

There were risible, incongruously campy moments, however, including a scene in which a beefy black police officer clad only in a jockstrap and cowboy hat slaps around Pacino and one of the murder suspects. The audience also responded with approving hoots as Pacino's character sniffs an amyl nitrate-laced bandanna and dances with a stranger in one of the clubs, flirting with a participation in the scene that went beyond law enforcement.

"It was made after Stonewall, when the gay rights movement was beginning to be recognized and to make political gains," the 72-year-old Friedkin allowed, in an interview earlier in the day. "I could see why some people felt like it was not the way to put the best foot forward at the time, but I also felt I had the right to make a movie, not a political statement." (He also let drop that he will be directing a "CSI" episode this fall at the request of William Petersen, whose career he helped launch in "To Live and Die in L.A.")

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