William Friedkin's 1980 film Cruising, starring Al Pacino as a cop that goes undercover to find a killer in New York's gay S&M leather bar scene, ruffled so many feathers in Hollywood he had no choice but to remove 40 minutes from his film in order to appease the MPAA and avoid an X rating. This footage has never seen the light of day, leaving many to speculate about the alleged scenes of graphic gay sex that had to be axed from the final release.
Thanks to James Franco – who, for reasons unknown, has become obsessed with all things gay-related of late—and a partnership with queer filmmaker Travis Mathews, the 40 minutes of missing material have been reimagined in a project entitled Interior. Leather Bar.
Straight macho actor Val Lauren is cast to play the part of Pacino, and a slew of men—supposedly both straight and gay—are brought in to fill out the roles of the stereotypical gays at the S&M club (men in chaps, harnesses and jockstraps).
In what can be described as an intellectual exploration of social norms and preconceptions of gay sex, Franco spends a portion of the film prodding Lauren to see just how comfortable he is, or isn't, with the notion of queer coitus. Franco describes gay sex as "beautiful and attractive," which leads Lauren (conveniently) to point out that Franco is involved with Disney—having just finished shooting Oz: The Great and Powerful—and that it's incredulous that he would want to do a project at the opposite end of the spectrum. In typical Franco fashion, he doesn't care and wants to push the boundaries of Hollywood in an oblique, but titillating, manner.
Lauren is repeatedly shown from the sidelines as some of the more graphic material is being shot, zooming in on this straight man's wide eyes as particularly exuberant gay men are engaging in fellatio, sniffing poppers, licking boots and spanking. Lauren is occasionally shown out in an alley, speaking on the phone to his wife and male friends, toiling over the project and vocalizing his discomfort.
While Interior.Leather Bar is an exploration of the creative process and a look at the conflicts that can arise from personal sexual exploration, one can't help but feel the conversations are purely contrived. Anytime Franco and Lauren have a deep conversation it seems entirely scripted.
This is a similar tactic that Franco took with his sarcastically psychological examination of his brief soap opera stint, Francophrenia. He's keen on melding documentary and narrative elements to play with audience perception and engagement.
This tactic is ultimately distancing, but in looking past it, there truly is a message: if violence can be shown in film why is it so taboo to show gay sex, or any sex, in a film? That being said, if Franco and Mathews truly wanted to defy mainstream acceptance of queer sex they might have considered showing more of it rather than talking about it. The two put a lot of intellectual weight on what is, in the end, just sex. (Rabbit Bandini)