In the more than four decades since it premiered, The Boys in the Band has inspired every kind of reaction imaginable. Based on Mart Crowley’s landmark play about a birthday party attended by a group of gay men, Boys has often been hailed as groundbreaking for its honest depiction of homosexual characters and occasionally been greeted with scorn for allegedly perpetuating queer stereotypes. In the accomplished hands of William Friedkin, the 1970 film (now available on Blu-ray) remains a vivid document of gay life in pre-Stonewall Manhattan, with unforgettable characters (the entire original stage cast repeated their memorable performances) and Crowley’s crisp, biting dialogue is still immensely quotable. Who hasn’t walked into a soiree and shouted, “Who do you have to fuck to get a drink around here?” The director would go on to win an Academy Award the following year for helming the riveting police thriller The French Connection and scare the bejesus out of the world with 1973’s smash The Exorcist. Cruising, his 1980 true-crime drama with Al Pacino set against a backdrop of murders in New York’s gay S/M clubs, generated a different kind of horrifying reaction. During the making of Cruising in the summer of ’79, Friedkin was greeted with unprecedented outrage and protests from gay activists, attempts at disrupting filming and even death threats for presumably depicting a link between homosexual orientation and homicidal tendencies. In a wide-ranging interview, Friedkin, renowned as one of the great raconteurs in show business, chatted with Queerty about his experience making Boys, the backlash against Cruising, the film’s recent critical reevaluation and what he did to make Barbra Streisand comfortable with her appearance when they worked together on a music video.
Queerty: Each time I watch The Boys in the Band I’m surprised at how cinematic it is. I always expect to be entertained, but I also expect it to be talky and theatrical. I’m amazed by the interesting ways you found to move your camera and frame the dialogue sequences.
William Friedkin: I appreciate that and I don’t disagree with you because I was really inspired by it. It compelled me to visualize it as a film and not think of it just as a filmed play. It is that, but I felt it could be cinematic within a very confined space, which I’ve been attracted to in a number of films — a kind of claustrophobia.
No. I don’t know if the rest of the cast felt that. What I know they did feel and what I felt, as well, was this was a wonderful script and these were great roles. Most of their agents advised them not to do it. Some members of the cast were gay, others were not, but they were told if they did this it would be the end of their careers. That’s how bad it was at that time. When we filmed it, it was just after Stonewall so the first steps had been taken toward gay liberation. Strangely, show business has always had a great many declared and undeclared gay people from the turn of the 20th century and probably even before. Yet there was still this fear that if you played a gay character you’d be so labeled. All of them who experienced that simply defied it because the knew these were great parts that were beautifully written. I was told the same thing.
Your agent really advised you to not direct the film?
Oh, sure. He felt it was too risky and people would label me… I couldn’t have cared less about that. A script like that really comes along once in a lifetime. I thought of it as a beautifully-written love story with great comedic moments. Ultimately, a very dramatic turn, which is always a hat trick if you can go from comedy to drama in the same piece with the same characters. Mart Crowley accomplished that. Mart and I never talked about this being a statement about gay life. We simply discussed it in dramatic terms. Mart told me on a number of occasions that certain characters were based on people we both knew. The operative phrase is “based on.” He was writing about a birthday party he had attended. It was definitely autobiographical in that sense. I don’t know if you’re aware but he had been encouraged to write this by Natalie Wood.
Mart had worked as her assistant before he became a writer.
He’d been her assistant and told her stories. She urged him to write it as a play. He did reluctantly because I’m sure he didn’t think people would flock to producing it. It then had a kind of bumpy road leading up to its first production and ultimate success.
You mentioned Stonewall. Were you and the cast aware of the riots while you were making the film?
We were filming it at the same time. What affect Stonewall was going to have on the release of the film, I didn’t know and didn’t really care. I lived in New York at that time and it didn’t originally resonate as the sort of first notable step that it became in the gay liberation movement. It really became known across this country that gays were no longer going to tolerate that kind of oppression just because they were gay. It was rampant. I lived on the east side of New York and I would regularly see raids on gay bars. It was pretty common.
Was there any sense that Boys would contribute to the seismic shift for gay rights that was happening in the country?
I think it may have. I would probably be the last one to say. It wasn’t in Mart’s mind or mine as a “J’Accuse” [Emile Zola’s famous open letter condemning social injustice]. It wasn’t meant as that. It was meant as a very entertaining, touching and funny drama, which it was. We, of course, weren’t blind to the fact that there were no such other films around at the time.
I’m now working on a film for HBO about Mae West with Bette Midler. Mae West was writing about gay people in 1926 when she wrote The Drag, which was banned. It was an all-gay play. It had a few performances out of town and never made it to New York. There were others. There was a lesbian play called The Captive that starred a very popular actress at that time called Helen Mankin. She was busted for being in that play. There were a handful of gay plays from the turn of the century, culminating in Mae West’s The Drag, which made national headlines. Until about 1954 there was a Society for the Suppression of Vice that was led by a guy named John Sumner and he was going around busting everything that was away from the norm, like James Joyce’s Ulysses and anything with sex or gay material — even if it was just double entendre.
Do you think that’s why so many playwrights wrote covertly about gay characters?
Are you aware of the story of when Mart met with Edward Albee? Mart took the play to a number of possible producers. One of them was Richard Barr, who was Albee’s production partner. Richard loved the play and wanted to produce it. Albee did not. He didn’t like it and didn’t want to do it, but they made an agreement that Barr could do it on his own, but it could never be presented on Broadway. It’s never been on Broadway because of that agreement. It premiered on W. 54th St. in a theater which I think later became Studio 54.
That’s an interesting bit of synchronicity. I’ve heard that Albee was very harsh in his opinion of the play.
Mart had a meeting with Albee. He said, in essence, this is a terrible piece of work and will set back the gay rights movement 50 years. Albee was Mart’s idol and he tore it up. It really crushed Mart. I’m not a psychiatrist, but I think Albee might have been bothered by the fact that Mart had openly gay characters who were not disguised. That wasn’t what was happening among gay playwrights. So many of the popular songs of Cole Porter were very thinly disguised songs about a man and a man, not a man and a woman. That was a disguise that worked. I once met with Albee and asked if he’d let me direct Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with four men, which I’d heard was the original intent. I wanted to do it for HBO. I thought it would work perfectly well with very few changes. I’d heard that’s the way he’d set out to write it. He denied that so I had to take him at his word. He said, “That’s an old wive’s tale” and he’d never want to see it done that way. I think it would be spectacular. That may be why some of the references in the play were somewhat obscure to audiences.
How did Boys come to you? Had you seen the off-Broadway production??
No, Mart sent me the script. I thought it was sensational. Later, I did see the play while we were preparing the film. I thought it was great.
As a straight man, did you find the characters relatable?
Totally. What comes to mind when you ask that is perhaps the one thing I’d change today is I would have somewhat muted the behavior of Emory. I’m not saying that as a criticism. I think Cliff Gorman’s performance is terrific. I let it go a little too far. When you’re doing a play you’re playing to the last row of the balcony. It’s got to be heard and understood, but when making film the camera brings intimacy. I think in the context of the film I allowed him to push it a little too far. Perhaps that’s because Cliff was not gay. He was one of those warned by his agent and friends and other advisors not to do this role.
Was there any temptation to cast name actors rather than the New York cast?
We talked about it for 30 seconds and agreed it would make no sense. Here’s so-and-so playing gay. I always was interested in a kind of verisimilitude, rather than make the film a vehicle for a star. In the case of those nine guys, I didn’t think there was anyone who could play those parts better. If we’d cast one star, we’d have had to cast nine stars. What happens is a movie star would tend to overshadow those actors who were not movie stars. We could have gotten name actors. The film had taken on a kind of importance because of what it was. There were a lot of name actors who wanted to play in it, but we felt these nine actors couldn’t be topped.
The entire cast gives really great performances and inhabits their characters so it’s shame most of them didn’t go on to more prominent careers. Do you think this was due to stigma at having portrayed gay characters so believably?
To a great extent it’s the choices they made. I can’t tell you whether there was some innate prejudice in the industry at the time against them as they were warned by their agents. I can’t say that it wasn’t true. [Lawrence] Luckinbill worked all the time and built his own career. A number of them died young, don’t forget. [Robert] LaTourneaux, who played the cowboy, died very young. Cliff Gorman died young. The guy we lost touch with, who disappeared is Reuben Green. I thought he’d have a career, but I don’t know what happened to him. I worked with Keith Prentiss again in Cruising. Frederick Combs died young. Kenny Nelson… In my prejudiced view, Kenneth Nelson should have been nominated for an Academy Award.
You filmed a kiss between Hank (Laurence Luckinbill) and Larry (Keith Prentice) that eventually got cut out.
We did. It was a very traumatic situation. After Hank and Larry leave the party and go upstairs to the bedroom, Mart and I wanted to have not a scene but a shot of the two of them in the bedroom and that winds up in a passionate kiss. From the very beginning the actors didn’t want to do it and it was a source of constant debate. Neither Keith nor Larry wanted to do it. [Laughs] I remember Mart and I thinking that it was absolutely necessary. We had long discussions with the actors to discuss the importance of it for the characters and the piece itself. Finally, the day before it was scheduled they agreed to do it and we shot it. Then we came to put it together and I couldn’t find a way to integrate it. It stopped the flow of the final act. We didn’t take it out because it was controversial. The Boys in the Band is a very tight script and film and there was not a lot of room for digression or underlining. It just cut right into the flow. After all this trouble, we cut it.
Do you remember if the film played in the hinterlands when it was first released in theaters and how it was received there?
Not to my knowledge. I think its distribution was mainly to big cities. I think there with the DVD release years ago the reviews are almost entirely positive. The new generation of critics view it much differently. I remember there were some pretty great reviews and others that reflected a kind of fear of the subject matter. The film was rarely criticized in terms of how it was made and acted. It was always the basis of its subject matter. Nowadays, film historians recognize it as a pretty damn good piece of work for a generation that’s several times removed from that period.
It reaches a new audience every few years.
I think it’s a wonderful film. I’m very proud of it. I think it deserves to be seen. The judge of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Pasadena is Alex Kozinski. He told me this is his favorite film and got in touch with me and had me show the DVD at his office in a massive conference room. He showed it on television monitors to about 100 people and served pizza to his entire staff. One of the newly appointed judges came to me and thanked me for it. He saw it as a young man and said it helped him to come out of the closet. He had about 12 monitors set up and I saw it again with a an audience and the lines resonated and people who’d never seen it before had tears in their eyes at the end. I believe they were mostly straight people. I don’t know for sure because it wasn’t my business. Out of all the movies I’ve made, that’s the one he wanted to see. It played great.
About a decade later you made Cruising, another film that has become a lightning rod for all sorts of opinions from the gay community. It was the most controversial film of its time and there were protests by outraged gay people while you were making it and it wasn’t well-received when it was released in 1980. Now, more than three decades later, critical opinion has changed and it’s shown at gay film festivals. Do you feel vindicated?
No, because I know what my intention was with Cruising. It was to use the S/M world, of which there had been no depiction of which I was aware in any films, at least I’d never seen them. I wanted to use it as a background for a murder mystery.
How did you become aware of this scene?
Randy Jurgenson [a former NYPD detective] is in The French Connection and we’re close friends and he had that job of trying to solve the unsolved murders taking place in the late ‘70s in the clubs. There were several things happening at the same time. A guy named Arthur Bell wrote an incredible series of articles in The Village Voice about deaths in the S/M clubs. They were kind of a warning to the gay community to stay out of these clubs because they were dangerous. The fact that the Mineshaft and many other S/M clubs were owned by a guy I knew named Matty “The Horse” Iannello. He was the boss of the west side. Virtually every business on the west side of New York was either owned or partially owned by him or paying him protection. I asked him if I could film in the clubs. I went down there and saw a number of people I knew and they allowed me to film. They had no problems with me filming in there with Al Pacino.
There’s a really bizarre connection between the backstory of Cruising and The Exorcist.
Paul Bateson had been in The Exorcist, and I saw his picture on the front page of the NY Daily News as a suspect in all these murders. I got in touch with his lawyers and asked if he’d agree to see me. He was being held at Riker’s Island, pending trial. He was very anxious to see me. He told me his story, which was the real and final motivational kick for me to do the film. This is also why I basically leave the murders unsolved in the film. What Bateson said to me is he was being charged with the murder of a man named Addison Verrell, who was the theater critic for Variety in New York. He admitted to me that he had murdered Addison. He picked him up in the Mineshaft and brought him home, hit him over the head with a frying pan, killed him and cut him up. He put his body in a plastic bag and dumped him in the east river. There were many such bags that were being fished out of the East River, which is how they got Paul Bateson. In very small print on a part of the bag it said “Property of NYU Medical Center. [Laughs] That’s how they traced these bags with body parts They were just body parts that were unidentified. They were called CUPPIs, which stood for Circumstances Unknown Pending Police Investigation. He was being held for about eight CUPPI murders. He told me the police offered him a deal. If he confessed to four or five more murders, they would reduce his sentence. They wanted the headlines: Fifteen murders solved. I asked him, “What are you going to do?” He said, “I don’t know. I’m thinking about it.” Anyway, he got out about 10 or 15 years ago so he must have taken that deal and gone into witness protection.
Cruising got a lot of attention again two years ago for informing the James Franco movie Interior. Leather Bar, which used the footage you cut from your film as a broader discussion about male sexuality. What are those legendary missing 40 minutes?
Just pornography. There was one scene that I took out that involved an actual incident with two cops who were watching the area around the Mineshaft because of the violence in and around it. These two cops at one time were bored with the detail and started to play strip poker. The penalty being the one who lost would allow the other to beat him on the ass with his billy club. I think it’s one of the most provocative scenes I’ve ever shot. I just filmed everything that took place at the Mineshaft with Pacino watching and wondering and it’s down to just a handful of shots now. I’d shot 40 minutes worth. I put it into the cut I showed the ratings board knowing that they’d get rid of all of it and leave me with what I needed to tell the story. I wouldn’t put that footage back in. I think if I did that now it would be exploitive. It was nothing that moved the plot.
I know there was a great deal of anger against the film in the critical community. It was outrageous. I was getting death threats. They were the worst reviews I’ve ever seen, let along gotten. People were really angry. These weren’t simply reviews that reviewed the film. These were personal attacks. I think a large part of it had to do with the fact that the gay movement had made great strides at that point by the time the film came out in 1980. I understand that Cruising was not the best foot forward you could put out for the gay movement at that time and there was a lot of resentment for that. I don’t hesitate to say that they may have just hated the film. I know it’s disturbing.
After directing two of the most-debated films with queer-themed subject matter, were you offered other gay projects over the years?
Yes, I wouldn’t accept or reject something based on subject matter, only quality. I never thought of them as being definitive works about gay life at all. That was just background for these terrific characters and stories. I was neither drawn to nor repelled by the subject matter, it was the execution.
Another project you directed that holds a lot of appeal for gay audiences is the video for Barbra Streisand’s rendition of “Somewhere,” which marked her return in 1985 to the kind of music she performed at the beginning of her career.
I also interviewed her on The Broadway Album. She’s been a good friend for many years and still is. She asked me to do this video with her and I decided to shoot it at the Apollo Theater. I was going to get everything arranged at the Apollo, set up the lighting and shots then drive over to her apartment on the west side of New York and bring her to the theatre. There were close to a thousand people in the theater who’d come to watch a Streisand video. For the people in the first several rows, I hand-selected every face. I cut away to faces of all races and colors and ages. She was meant to lip-sync live in front of the audience. There were three murders in front of the Apollo Theatre when I left to pick her up. I never told her that and don’t think I have till this day. I picked her up and as I was driving to the Apollo I mentioned that I had this really great audience made up of people from all walks of life and that I would make the cut-aways while she was singing. She said, “What? I can’t perform in front of a live audience. I haven’t performed in front of a live audience in years.”
She famously suffered from stage fright for decades.
She told me that the last time she’d appeared live was in front of an audience at Central Park where there’d been an audience of more than 100, 000 people. They turned all the lights on the audience and she saw their faces for the first time. When she’d performed onstage either in a play or a live performance she could never see the audience. Now all of a suden the lights are on the audience and she saw what was to her figures out of a George Grosz painting. He painted Germany in the ‘30s just before the war and had depicted all these angry, bitter faces in drawings and water colors. She said the faces looked like that to her. At the Central Park concert not all the faces were smiling at her and some looked vicious to her. After that, she stopped performing live for the longest time. When I got her to the theater what I decided to do was I told the audience we were going to record their faces to a playback. Of course, there was great disappointment, but that’s what we did. Then she appeared and we had to re-light her when she performed solo on the stage so I dissolved into the faces of the people.
The other thing I remember is that she never thought she looked pretty other than in her makeup mirror. She always looked beautiful to herself in her makeup mirror. So I got with Andrzej Bartowiak [the director of photography] and he made a box that had very small wattage bulbs around it like a makeup mirror. It was a box with no mirror and we put it over the lens of the camera and it made her feel like she was performing into her makeup mirror and we called it the StreiLight.
No. [Laughs] I just wanted to portray her as well as we could and with the great passion and emotion she was able to convey.
There’s a long-standing rumor that Barbra turned down the role of Chris MacNeil in The Exorcist.
Never. The Exorcist was offered to three women. The studio wanted a big star. They wanted either Audrey Hepburn, Anne Bancroft or Jane Fonda — all of whom were stars. We offered it to Audrey first, but she was living in Italy. She said, “I’ll do this if you shoot it in Italy.” I thought about it a long time but decided I couldn’t. I’d have to bring every actor in from America. I’d planned to shoot it in Georgetown, where I did shoot much of it. I didn’t speak Italian so how would I communicate with an Italian crew? I urged her to come to American just for the shoot, but she turned that down so we turned her down. Then we offered it to Anne Bancroft, who said she’d be happy to do it, but she was in her first month of pregnancy and asked if we’d wait a year. We couldn’t. I would have loved to have had her. She’d have been great. Then we offered it to Jane Fonda, who sent back a telegram that read “Why would I want to appear in a capitalist bullshit rip-off like this?” I’ve seen Jane recently and asked if she remembered it and she didn’t, but that was her rejection of it. Then Ellen Burstyn called and told me she was destined to play the part. I told her it would never happen because at the time we were thinking of these other women. Burstyn was eventually the last woman standing.
She’s great. She had the quality that I most look for and admire, which is intelligence. She totally understood the nature of the piece and her role. But it was never offered to Streisand. At one point I met with Carol Burnett, who I thought was extraordinary in person. She had this really wonderful quality. I remember expressing that with [William Peter Blatty, novelist and screenwriter of The Exorcist] and he was all for it. Ted Ashley, the head of Warners, said, “You’re out of your mind. We’ll never get over the fact that she’s known as a comedian.” I think she would have been good, too. I was eager to do it with her, but that was one the studio clobbered. They were also very much against Burstyn. Years later, I met Ted Ashley at a black-tie gala in New York long after he’d retired and the film had by then made about $400 million. I said, “I guess Ellen Burstyn wasn’t the right actress, huh?” He replied, “If we’d had Jane Fonda we’d be at a billion dollars.” [Laughs]