Hard Hats, Rednecks, and Macho Men: Class in 1970s American Cinema

By Derek Nystrom | Go to book overview

5
EXTRA MASCULINITY
Looking for Mr. Goodbar and Cruising

Saturday Night Fever may have largely eluded the gender and sexual disorder of the 1970s, but it did so only by depicting its working-class characters as mired in a pre-1960s worldview. (Such strategic nostalgia was aided, no doubt, by the film’s adoption of many musical generic conventions.) But not every new nightlife film chose to avoid the 1960s. Richard Brooks’s Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977) and William Friedkin’s Cruising (1980) both confronted contemporary gender and sexual relations more directly. In doing so, they seemed to indicate that this new social terrain could not be mapped using the old cinematic tools, whether those of the musical or romantic comedy—in large part because the terrain itself was so bewildering. Molly Haskell argued that the achievement of Goodbar came from its recognition of the “social nightmare” of heterosexual dating in the late 1970s, a world “in which there are no mutually understood signals, no rituals, no codes for deciphering the intentions of another individual.”1Cruising, in turn, made visible another set of mixed social codes: the film’s persistent comparisons of gay S/M practices to law enforcement procedures (and vice versa) caused the New Yorker’s Roger Angell to be so unsure of the line dividing them that he wondered, “Are all cops, or most cops, gay?”2 Gender and sexual identity was being revised so quickly and so utterly in the late 1970s, it seems, that one needed a scorecard to keep all the players straight (as it were).

Of particular interest is the way both of these films depict—and worry over—the new possibilities of working-class masculinity in this transformed social setting. Like Fever, Goodbar and Cruising share an intense voyeuristic interest in this kind of masculinity, an interest that often drives their visual strategies even as it troubles their narrative coherence. In fact, Robin Wood has argued that both Goodbar and Cruising can be considered “incoherent texts,” in that they “do not know what they want to say.”3

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