In “The Cruising Controversy: William Friedkin vs. The Gay Community,” author Edward Guthmann explores the controversy surrounding the William Friedkin movie Cruising, which gay rights groups actively protested against during its filming and subsequent release. Guthmann struggles with the complicated relationship between protecting freedom of speech against censorship and wanting to protest against offensive and dangerous media. As the author puts it, “Hollywood’s long tradition of stereotyping gays as psychopaths and nelly buffoons” was nothing new at the time of Cruising‘s release, but the film director’s track record with The Boys in the Band seemed enough to warrant disgust over his production of a new gay film about a murderer praying on gay men in the BDSM community (Guthmann 4). This previous film immortalized gay men and gay life as depressed and gloomy with the line: “The only happy homosexual is a gay corpse.”
Reading that line, I can only recall the final scene in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1975 West German Film Fox and His Friends, in which the titular character lies dead on the floor having overdosed on sedatives. Before this, he had been swindled out of his massive lottery fortune by a manipulative and bougie boyfriend and was left with absolutely nothing — no apartment, no job, no boyfriend, and no money. It’s a critical and depressing look at greed, lust, and love; how “love” can be negotiated for financial benefit. It calls into question whether or not this film — starring several gay characters — is a negative outlook on gay life and gay men. While Fox is a well-rounded and likable queer character, he ultimately dies at the hands of greedier men he has foolishly fallen in love with. It may be a critique of capitalistic systems of thought and their casualties, but it could also point to the stereotype about gay life being utterly miserable, violent, and petty. Guthmann battles with the implications of deciding who exactly gets to make queer movies and what exactly they can be about. So while LGBT people have a right to “distrust heterosexual versions of their lives,” he writes, “what guarantee do they have that a gay person’s self-portrait will be any more “positive”? And what certainty is there that no heterosexual can ever make an honest gay film? (Guthmann 4)”.
That last line immediately reminds me of Brokeback Mountain, the mainstream “gay cowboy movie” that revolutionized modern understandings of queer film and homonormativity, was written by Ang Lee, a straight man. While there are still arguments to be made about Brokeback Mountain in the same vain as Fox and His Friends in terms of depressing depictions of gay life (and tragic endings), it does prove what Guthmann’s claims a Hollywood producer said after the release of the box office failure Cruising: “Someone will make the one blockbuster that proves you can make a million dollars on this market and then everyone will get into the act” (Guthmann 8).