October 26, 2012

Last week, previews started for the new Broadway revival of Glengarry Glen Ross, which has been marketed with a particularly unimaginative bit of stunt casting: putting Al Pacino, who played hotshot Ricky Roma in the 1992 film adaptation, in the role of sadsack Shelly Levene. Because we haven’t seen this new Glengarry yet, and because it’s a grey Friday afternoon, we decided to spend the afternoon with an earlier, less self-conscious version of Alfredo James Pacino. It was a worthwhile experiment, and not just because it was so much more fun than doing real work.

(An aside: Can you measure an actor’s success by how few original plays he appears in on Broadway? Pacino’s last appearance in an original play was in 1969′s Does A Tiger Wear A Necktie?, a drug addict drama the Times called “spasmodically rewarding.” It closed in a month, but Pacino drew good reviews for his portrayal of “a lumbering, drug-sodden psychopath with the mind of a bully and the soul of a poet.” He got famous soon after, and since then has been the kind of bankable Hollywood star who can anchor a big money revival.)

Cruising was released in 1980, after nearly a decade of development and two years of strident protest from the national gay community. A thriller about a serial killer at work in Meatpacking District leather bars, it starred Pacino as a young cop who agrees to go undercover in hopes of drawing the murderer out. A huge flop at the time of its release, it’s gotten renewed attention in the last couple of years, both as a relic of pre-AIDS attitudes towards the gay community, and as a portrait of a vanished gay club scene. It’s the kind of movie where you watch the background more than the foreground—ignoring the story in hopes of catching a glimpse of some piece of old New York.

I’ve read a lot of classic sleaze paperbacks from the ’60s, where the West Village is a wonderland of depravity and every gay man is a mincing cartoon queen, and I was expecting the same attitude from William Friedkin’s film. But Cruising is much less bad than you might think, and is certainly worth watching before Netflix takes it offline on November 1. It treads fairly lightly on stereotyping, portraying gay men with much more nuance than most mainstream Hollywood films of the last century were able to. These men are butch, and they are cut—every time Friedkin indulges in a long tracking shot through the clubs that Pacino infiltrates, you can hear him slobbering on the other side of the camera. It’s exploitative, but harmless.

Sex is fun, the film seems to say. Here are a lot of people enjoying sex.

It’s a flimsy movie, and not worth hanging an intellectual argument on. The best scene is a surreal interrogation sequence, when a massive, nearly naked black cop in a cowboy hat enters, slaps the suspect around a bit, and then disappears. It goes completely unexplained, and when the beleaguered suspect shouts, “Who is that guy?!”, you’re wondering the same thing. Mysterious black cowboys aside, the story is short on suspense. But Cruising is worthwhile for giving a look at three vanished phenomena:

1. Grit in the Meatpacking District.

2. Karen Allen, aka Marion from Raiders of the Lost Ark.

3. Subtlety in Al Pacino.

With a mop of frizzed out hair and an uncharacteristically quiet style of speech, Pacino seems to be doing a John Turturro impression. He’s scared, confused, and not terribly good at being an undercover cop. It’s charming to see him playing a wimp. The film ends with him staring into the camera. We’re supposed to look back at him, wondering what the underworld has done to him. Instead we stare into his eyes and shrug—”What the hell was that, Al?”

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