WARNING: This post contains sexually explicit language. Please read on at your own discretion.
This weekend at Sundance, James Franco debuts his latest opus, Interior. Leather Bar., the prolific artist's attempt to recreate the lost 40 minutes censored from William Friedkin's controversial 1980 film Cruising. The recent press coverage swirling around Franco's indie has evoked memories of my own conflicting contributions to Franco's inspiration, when I looked forward to giving Al Pacino a blow job in Central Park.
On a late afternoon in 1979, I sat perched at the bar of the Ninth Circle, a popular gay watering hole on West 10th Street in Greenwich Village. As I sipped on my Dewar's and water, a group of 20 men and women rushed in, the urgency in their voices exceeding the decibels of the punk music playing in the background. They were recruiting for a demonstration protesting an Al Pacino movie that was shooting at a nearby leather bar, about an undercover cop who infiltrates Manhattan's gay S&M leather scene in pursuit of a killer. The protestors were concerned that the film's sweeping portrayal of gay men as insatiable sexual fetishists would reinforce negative stereotypes.
I tried being inconspicuous, but eventually a few of them approached me and made efforts to persuade me to join their cause. In all honesty, I felt out of my element. At 21, I knew nothing about political activism. I was too young to have been a war-protesting hippie, and Stonewall was about a decade before my time. To me, emancipation was being able to sit in a bar and openly cruise men while drinking alcohol. But they were determined to enlighten me.
Their enthusiasm was intoxicating, their arguments convincing. For one, I didn't fit the quintessential gay man as depicted in the film. I wasn't "into" leather per se; some might even say my sexual tastes favored the flavor of vanilla. And with my blond hair, blue eyes and clean-shaven complexion, I was more California surfer than Marlboro Man. Most of all, I resented being labeled as promiscuous simply for being a gay man. It's not that I hadn't slept around; I just didn't like the label. By the time they were finished coaxing me, I was convinced not only that the film's skewed depiction of "the homosexual lifestyle" was a threat to the simple freedoms that I had already begun to take for granted, but that its lurid portrayal of gay men would incite homophobic-fueled crimes of violence. Participating in the rally was the honorable and responsible thing to do.
That evening we converged in the middle of the Meatpacking District at 14th and Washington Streets before proceeding en masse for the West Street bar where the film crew had set up. Upon our arrival, we stood outside, loudly shouting various mantras, which I assumed was an attempt to disrupt whatever filming was taking place inside. But our crowd was soon disbanded when helmet-clad cops on horseback, armed with big sticks, were dispatched. I had never seen or experienced anything like it. Frightened and intimidated by "New York's Finest" equestrians, I quickly retreated to the safety of the bar where, hours earlier, I had begun a peaceful evening.
A handsome, stocky stranger wearing an alligator-crested shirt with the collar pulled up had taken my regular cruising spot. I walked over and gave him a sly smirk as I mounted the stool closest to him, and he immediately offered me a drink. As I nursed another Dewar's, I noticed that he was a bit older than I was, which was not uncommon, considering my age. As more alcohol was consumed, mutual flirtation and small talk suddenly turned serious. After I casually mentioned being an aspiring actor, the discussion turned to the film and the protests surrounding it, a topic about which he felt strongly. He thought the gay community was overreacting, and I began to reasonably question his position. But when he confided being associated with the film's production, I was relieved to have omitted any mention of my personal involvement. I had other immediate plans for the two of us.
My discretion prevailed, and he invited me to his place to spend the night. The next morning, he got a phone call from someone connected with casting.
"Hey, I got a hot young guy who'd be great for tonight's park scene," he said, winking at me and smiling. With raised eyebrows I tried eking out an appropriate smile, hoping it would distract from my head exploding. The thought of being in the film excited me, yet the irony didn't escape me -- nor did the concomitant feeling of being a traitor, which soon followed. How could I possibly consider working on a project that I had fought against with such halfhearted passion?
I tried adopting a professional composure: I moved to New York with my equity card to pursue acting. Here was an opportunity to be in a film. Even though I might only be an extra, it was a major motion picture starring one of my idols. I also reminded myself that the rent was coming up, which was a surefire justification for some of my more questionable decisions.
After hanging up the phone, he seemed excited for me, and I wrapped my arms around him to thank him for the favor. But my mind was already working overtime. Would someone on the set recognize me as one of the rabble rousers from the night before? I imagined the last scene from Invasion of the Body Snatchers, when one of the pod people points at an imposter and lets out an unearthly, ear-piercing scream.
The night shoot took place near a tunnel under one of Central Park's many bridges. Soon after I arrived on the set, an assistant director singled me out along with a handful of others waiting on the sidelines.
"OK, which one of you would be willing to simulate a blow job for this scene?" His nonchalant delivery couldn't temper the impact of his query. The proverbial sound of crickets validated the increasingly deafening silence, and I suddenly realized I was standing alone in front of the others, who must have taken a few baby steps backwards. Clearly, no one was eager to perform the job.
My thoughts raced. "Am I being typecast? Do I look like a cocksucker? I don't want to blow this opportunity. What's the big deal, anyway? My face could be up there on the big screen; so what if it means looking like I have a dick in my mouth? It isn't a porn film; it's a major motion picture, dick!" Self-doubt crept in. I wondered if I could pull it off. Then again, how hard could it be? After all, I had taken that one mime class in acting school. And who knows? Maybe I'd even be performing with Al Pacino. That would mean an upgrade. I would be "that guy who sucked Pacino in that film." Maybe I'd even see my name among the credits rolling at the end of the film. Of course, I'd have to add "Film" to my theatrical resume, with one entry: "Cruising. Role: Cocksucker #1."
"I'll do it!" I blurted out, as if I had to beat my competition to the punch. Unfortunately, I was soon disappointed when I realized that it wasn't Al Pacino's unbuttoned fly in my face but that of a total stranger I was to faux blow.
After rehearsing the scene, the director seemed satisfied with my work, which admittedly didn't demand much acting. I simply bobbed my head in and out while cupping my mouth with my left hand. Staring at my acting partner's crotch while on my knees, I sighed, reminding myself that there are no small parts, only small actors.
But I hadn't lost hope. Noticing where the camera was set, I saw a possibility of getting my head in the frame, so I exposed my profile as much as possible. I envisioned people commenting when leaving the theater: "You know, the film wasn't bad, but did you see that guy giving head? What an actor!"
In 1980, many critics trashed the film, and the gay community continued to boycott it. While I had taken money to appear in it, the thought of lending further support by paying for a ticket seemed like more duplicity on my part. Consequently, I never saw it, and eventually I lost interest and forgot about it as I moved on to other projects -- that is, until I heard the news of James Franco's work and decided to rent the DVD.
The movie's opening disclaimer reflected the protests of over 30 years ago: "This film is not intended as an indictment of the homosexual world. It is set in one small segment of that world, which is not meant to be representative of the whole."
I eagerly awaited my big scene, watching every second. But my profile was nowhere to be found. One scene resembled the set we were on, but I'd need a zoom lens and added lighting to be certain. I had to face it: My head giving head had ended up on the cutting room floor. In a queer way, I was a bit disappointed. I wondered if my scene was an original edit or part of the footage that had been destroyed after censors had forced Friedkin's hand.
I also wondered if James Franco would know.
In any event, I ended up playing two minor roles -- protestor and participant -- in the making of one of the most controversial films in post-Stonewall history, a film that captured a slice of the hedonistic sexuality extant in the years before AIDS presented itself and changed the landscape of gay sexuality for generations to come. Its dark, enigmatic appeal continues to draw a cult following and fascinate a newer generation of filmmakers.