Queering Cinema: Director William Friedkin's 'Cruising,' 'To Live and Die in LA' and 'Bug'

by Jason St. Amand

National News Editor

Sunday October 2, 2022
Originally published on August 31, 2022

Willem Dafoe in "To Live and Die in L.A."
Willem Dafoe in "To Live and Die in L.A."  (Source:IDMb)

While filmmaker William Friedkin may be most well-known for his seminal '70s horror film "The Exorcist," the director has explored — both subtly and overtly — queer themes with some of his other films. Most fans will instantly think of the pre-AIDS 1980 crime thriller "Cruising," starring Al Pacino as an undercover cop tracking down a serial killer targeting gay men in New York City's leather scene. The film was condemned upon its release by LGBTQ+ activists but has gone on to have been reevaluated as an important queer film.

"'Cruising' came out around a time that gay liberation had made enormous strides among the general public. It also came out around the same time that AIDS was given a name. I simply used the background of the S&M world to do a murder mystery; it was based on a real case," Friedkin told Vulture in 2013. "But the timing of it was difficult because of what had been happening to gay people. Of course, it was not really set in a gay world; it was the S&M world."

"But many critics who wrote for gay publications or the underground press felt that the film was not the best foot forward as far as gay liberation was concerned, and they were right," he added. "Now it's reevaluated as a film. It could be found wanting as a film, but it no longer has to undergo the stigma of being an anti-gay screed, which it never was."

Queerness also seeped into at least two of Friedkin's other films: the 1985 action thriller "To Live and Die in L.A." and the 2006 horror film "Bug."

Starring William Petersen, Willem Dafoe, and Debra Feuer, "To Live and Die in L.A." follows reckless Los Angeles secret service agent Richie Chance (Petersen) as he tracks down the elusive counterfeiter Rick Masters (Dafoe). It's full of sex, action, an iconic soundtrack by Wang Chung and one of the best car chases in movie history. On the surface, the film is a bro-y yet slick neo-noir caper with a creepy Dafoe performance. But digging a bit deeper proves that queerness can show up in the most unlikely of places.

In a 2016 blog piece about the film, Dr. Jacqueline Ristola detailed the way Dafoe's Rick is shown in the film: "Rick, however, is not completely presented as a straight man either, as the film alludes to a gay potency throughout the film. We first meet Bianca as Rick kisses her while she is dressed completely androgynously, making the audience question his sexuality quite early in the film. Rick also makes coded references to his potentially build sexuality, as he asks the undercover cops 'Is this package for me?' while in a gym locker room."

"While the film is ambiguous to what extent its characters are queer, its possible to see Masters final act as another example of his control (after all, he also videotapes his sexual encounters with Bianca), or an act of acknowledgment from one queer individual to another," Ristola added.

Over two decades later, Friedkin's psychological horror movie "Bug," based on Tracy Letts' play, hit theaters. Mostly set in a rundown motel room in rural Oklahoma, "Bug" stars an incredible Ashley Judd as Agnes White, a waitress at a lesbian bar who has turned to drugs and alcohol in the wake of her missing young son, who vanished from her sight a decade ago. Agnes' BFF, a lesbian woman who works at the bar with her, R.C. (Lynn Collins) introduces her one night to Peter (Michael Shannon), a drifter who says he has recently been discharged from the military and is queercoded at the start of the film.

After a night of hard partying, Agnes and Peter finally talk when R.C. goes home. Discussing their personalities and conspiracy theories, Peter tells Agnes he wants to see her again. When she's reluctant, Peter insists he doesn't "want to go to bed" with her and that "women aren't really my bag."

"You a homo?" Agnes asks Peter, who replies by saying, "I'm not anything, really. I'm done with that. I'm just looking for a friend."

As the movie goes on, it is revealed Peter isn't all that he seems. After a brutal fight with her ex-husband Jerry (Harry Connick, Jr.), a vulnerable Agnes ends up sleeping with Peter, who, later that night, tells Agnes that his blood is full of bugs. The two become obsessed with examining and exterminating the infestation inside Peter, who constantly spews conspiracy theories about how the bugs entered his body and about the U.S. military, as drugs and alcohol fuel their erratic and unpredictable behavior, leading to a destructive end.

"Cruising" and "To Live and Die in L.A." are available to rent from iTunes and "Bug" is currently streaming on HBO Max