William Friedkin: The Thin Line Between Good and Evil

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Cruising After a decade of making Oscar winners (The French Connection) and box office bonanzas (The Exorcist), director William Friedkin found himself drawn to a murder mystery set among the gay leather bars of New York City. Al Pacino plays an undercover cop who begins frequenting the bars looking for clues, but finds himself unequipped to deal with the sexual world opening up to him. A portion of the gay community decided that such a dark, violent film was not the way they wished to be portrayed, so they began demonstrating against the film, stirring up a bitter controversy that has rarely been equalled in the history of film. Predictably, critics sneered and the audience stayed away. The film has languished for years, but a new print of Cruising has been making the rounds in select theaters, now followed by the release of a deluxe DVD. I met Friedkin when he recently visited San Francisco for a special screening.

Are you fairly confident that Cruising will be accepted today, or will there still be some controversy?

I don't know. I have no idea. The times are different. At the time we made and released it, it was the first small steps of gay liberation. They had just begun to make gains to get recognition, have some political clout. Prior to that time, they had none. They were an oppressed minority. And Cruising of course was not what you would choose as the best foot forward for a bourgeoning political movement. There were a lot of people in the gay community who were conscious of that and they protested it, but in doing so, they probably brought more attention to it than it might have gotten.

As with many other controversial movies, like The Last Temptation of Christ, hardly anyone actually saw it.

They objected to the idea. The Last Temptation of Christ was being vilified. Crosses were burned on Lew Wasserman's lawn. This generation, comes The Passion of the Christ, and it's a huge hit. There were some protests, but they were of such a minor nature. Attitudes have changed since people gave a knee-jerk reaction to something they hadn't seen. The film [Cruising] has gained a life underground all these years. It's never been on DVD before, but it was on VHS and bootlegged. Millions of people saw it in a bootleg edition. It's tough. I will say that, even now, it does not play to populist sensibilities. Most of the movies today are, in terms of subject matter, bland. They're largely manufactured in a way that they're not going to offend anybody.

Probably the thing that people will object to today is not so much the gay subtext, but rather the ambiguous ending.

There is more than one murderer, and that's what a lot of people couldn't wrap their minds around. We are conditioned by films, and mostly television, that if it's a murder mystery, by the end of the film, when the curtain comes down, the murderer is caught. On television, there's a murder that takes place at 9 o'clock, and by 10 o'clock, it's completely solved. Evil is put back in its box. And Cruising doesn't do that. Cruising says that the evil is still out there. It's not meant as a cautionary tale to gays because equally, what I learned form the research on this film, is that most of the murders go unsolved in almost every big city in the world. As typified by the Jack the Ripper murders, which took place in 1888. There were five murders. They, to this day, are unsolved. They didn't have DNA or anything like that. They had suspects, many of them, but they never were able to pin down who Jack the Ripper was. But it's because of him that you now have all this interest in these serial murder cases. Jack the Ripper was the first that got people concerned about: are they safe?

You've always had the gay and lesbian culture on your radar and in your movies, The Boys in the Band, for example, and a little bit in To Live and Die in L.A. It's even in your latest film, Bug.

They're a part of the normal world that I move through. How do you put this? I have many gay friends, and many straight friends. Working in the film business and doing operas, there probably are a larger proportion of gay people, maybe, than there are in other industries. The depiction of gay characters, even in Bug, is a normal part of the landscape. As you're doing an impression of this particular landscape, all of these people of various persuasions pop up: a lot of Jews, also Gentiles, black people, etc. Up until recently, gay characters were disguised in American films. They were metaphors. As in Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? He's denied this, and he knows more than anybody, but I believe it was written for four male characters. If you read it in that context, everything becomes clear: the baby that they could never have, etc. But I've asked him about it and he says it's absolutely untrue.

A lot of films have unspoken gay subtexts, Ben Hur, Psycho...

Many films. In Kubrick's The Killing, the Jay C. Flippen character is probably gay. It's never stated, but you see his physical attachment to the Sterling Hayden character. For many years you could not portray a gay character onscreen in an American film, as a gay character. And of course, many of the stars of the previous era who were gay could never admit it. They could never live a life free of scorn. If Rock Hudson had been portrayed as gay, through all of his success, it would have... now we know that Rock Hudson was gay and died of AIDS. But you can look at his films, and I happen to be a big fan of his, especially in a film like Giant (1956). I thought he was just great. And some of the comedies he did with Doris Day. These are great films, and he was clearly a macho lover, romantic hero, and he's totally believable. Today, and I think this will pass, but it's unfortunately used as a slur against people. A lot of that stuff is rumor, wishful thinking and... who cares? What does it have to do with anything? As we get to the stage when it's peripheral to a person's ability, then real progress will have been made.

Cruising

 

The thing I love about Cruising and your other films is that you have this very concrete world in which the story takes place. Everything is impeccably researched. Except Bug, which is based mostly on paranoia and things that can't be proven.

Nothing can be proven. Take the mystery of faith, the idea of Jesus Christ and his teachings. Who has ever sat down in a room with Jesus Christ, or received a personal message from Jesus? Here's this man who died at age 32 or 33, over 2000 years ago, wrote nothing down, probably illiterate. The whole tradition is an oral tradition, and now over 2000 years later, billions of people have believed in the teachings of Jesus. And that's a phenomenal thing, if you think about it. The New Testament is filled with such beautiful thoughts and ideas and poetry, but it can't be proven. You either feel it or you don't. There is no evidence. And yet at the same time, you can see it every day in one thing or another, if you're attuned.

Given. Okay, let's say that your films are thoroughly researched and presented as the world as seen through your eyes.

It's how this works. I try to find out how the Catholic Church works, for The Exorcist. What is this ritual? What's behind it? And it turns out what's behind it is a very simple thing: the mystery of faith. And it's the most powerful thing. Why people believe in one set of principals or another, or why they don't. Christopher Hitchens has a new book out [God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything] but his mere act of questioning the existence of God is a statement about the existence of God. You're using God as a known factor. For anybody to say, "I don't believe in God," that's what I find strange. How does anyone know? We're not given to know the mysteries of life. We're getting closer and closer scientifically, but there's much more than science involved.

I don't think we'll ever be able to close that final gap.

Well, we don't know that either. You have to go on and accept that there's certain things, like love, that are peculiar to human beings. Or find ourselves on the other hand in an extraordinary dislike for someone, where they just rub us the wrong way. But that's part of the mystery of existence which I find endlessly fascinating, and the existence of good and evil in all of us, which is what all of my films are about, for the most part. The thin line between good and evil [in] all of us.

Recently I was a substitute teacher for a class on horror films, and we looked at The Exorcist again and really dove into it. I like it better than ever before.

It's a huge mistake because The Exorcist is not intended to be a horror film. There are some terrible things that happen in it, but I didn't let them advertise it as a horror film, and I didn't intend it as a horror film. It is a film about the mystery of faith. And it's based on a true story. It's certainly about good and evil.

Well, I didn't program the syllabus. But regardless, it's a great film.

It's based on something that had occurred in 1949 in Silver Springs, MD. That's where the young man was who was supposedly possessed. Bill Blatty [William Peter Blatty] was an undergraduate at Georgetown at the time. The case was widely reported in the newspapers, three pages in the Washington Post, and Blatty tried to get the facts on it. He spoke to some of the priests, but they wouldn't give him anything beyond the tenor of what had occurred. So he wrote it as fiction and turned the 14 year-old boy into a 12 year-old girl.

What's the connection between The Exorcist and Cruising?

The arteriogram scene; that was done by a neurosurgeon and his assistant at NYU medical school. And I remember at the time that the assistant was wearing an earring and a leather bracelet, a studded bracelet. And it was unusual to see that in any workplace situation then, in an operating room. But I liked him. He was a really nice guy, and he has some really intimate moments with Linda Blair.

And then about four years later, I read that he was charged with the murder of the theater critic for Variety, a fellow called Addison Verrill. So I see that he's being held at Riker's Island, and his attorney's name was in the story, and so I called his lawyer and said, "I wonder if I can see Paul." And he called me back in a couple of days and said, "Okay." So I met with Paul. He was being held at that time, it was a holding cell for trial. And he told me what happened. There were a series of murders that had taken place in which just arms or legs were found floating in body bags in the East River. And the police traced the bags back to the NYU Medical Center and ultimately to him. So they had him on charges of a couple of murders, that were body parts murders. Verrill was found intact. But some of the victims, they found just a leg or an arm. The police had come to him with an offer that they would reduce his sentence if he would confess to about 8 or 9 other murders, whether he had committed them or not. He never told me that. I said what are you gonna do? And he said, "I don't know." He sort of smiled. "I'm thinking about it."

And I see that he got out three years ago. So he did 25 years in prison. But it was his story along with a number of other events that had occurred at the time that provoked me to make this film the way I made it.

 

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