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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - America in 1980 was a culture confronting itself. Conservative Ronald Reagan was elected president strongly supporting family values, while at the box office "Cruising" hoped to lure mainstream audiences into seeing a movie featuring graphic gay sex.
Twenty-seven years later, the Reagan administration has come and gone, leaving a mixed legacy, and porn films of almost every stripe are easily available.
But "Cruising," about a serial killer haunting New York gay bars and S&M joints, seems to have vanished in the intervening years.
It was a box office flop but drew protests from gay groups, instead of the expected support, and its star, Al Pacino, who plays a straight cop investigating the murders by posing as a gay man, seldom talks about it.
Now the film is hoping for a second life -- it is out on DVD after a re-release in theaters in a handful of major cities, and is being heavily touted by director William Friedkin, of "The French Connection" and "The Exorcist" fame.
In a recent discussion, Friedkin said he was still shocked at the backlash he received while filming in New York City.
"I was amazed at the violent response. It got so bad that we literally gave the crew the call sheets at the last possible moment and reminded them every day not to tell anyone where we'd be shooting," Friedkin said.
"For example, we had an early morning shoot on an isolated street featuring Pacino being approached by a gay man he's met earlier in the evening who may or may not be the killer of several gay victims in the East Village," Friedkin said.
"Suddenly hundreds of protesters showed up at 3 a.m. throwing rocks and shouting threats at us, which we didn't help by responding in kind. From the experience I had making 'Cruising' I learned people don't get upset when you push the boundaries of violence in films but when you do so in sexual areas you're going to make a lot of people angry."
If he tried to make the movie today, he would be laughed at by Hollywood's bosses, he said.
"I wouldn't get into their office even if I had a worldwide hit like 'The Exorcist' recently behind me," he said. Despite gays being a major economic force, today's Hollywood elite are scared to make a movie that examines the dark side of sexuality, gay or straight, he said.
"Besides which, no agent at any major agency would let his client play the lead today, in fear he might be typecast as being gay or gossiped about in the tabloid or Internet press."
One reason "Cruising" remains controversial is the film's ending, which leaves an unanswered question about the Pacino character's sexuality and whether or not the real killer has faced justice.
Pacino has said Friedkin kept him out of the loop when they were making "Cruising."
"Am I the killer at the end of the picture or have I gone gay? To this day I don't know because Friedkin never told me how to play my final scene," Pacino said recently.
When told that, Friedkin, responded with a sly grin that threatened to break into a laugh.
"That's the most intelligent thing I've ever heard Al say. Like most of my movies, especially 'The French Connection' and 'To Live And Die In LA,' there's a theme of the thin line between being a cop and a criminal.
"I wanted Al to use his own skills to discover if and when his character crossed that line. I guess it's the no-risk state and predictability of movies today that 27 years later the ambiguous ending of 'Cruising' is still controversial."
Controversy also remains over its graphic violence and intense sex scenes that even today would probably earn "Cruising" the dreaded NC-17 rating, which bars all but adults seeing the film. So how did it get an "R" rating in the ultra conservative Reagan era?
"With great difficulty," Friedkin said. "I sent over fifty different cuts to the rating board before we finally just wore out the censors," he said.