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‘THE DOG’ WHO HAD HIS DAY ON FILM
On Aug. 22, 1972, John Wojtowicz held up this Chase Manhattan Bank branch in Brooklyn, taking eight people hostage. Credit Larry C. Morris/The New York Times
By SAM ROBERTS
NY Times Published AUG. 4, 2014
NY Times Published AUG. 4, 2014
Running 130 otherwise perfect minutes, Sidney Lumet’s “Dog Day Afternoon” was punctuated by only two inauthentic moments as a feature film. One was invisible, and the other was barely audible.
Because this 1975 classic was actually filmed in the frosty months of fall rather than in the dog days of summer, the actors chewed on ice so their hot breath would be inconspicuous.
And when Al Pacino, playing the fictional bank robber Sonny Wortzik, dictated his will, he told a remarkably unfazed teller that he was leaving a $2,700 bequest to pay for a sex-change operation for his boyfriend, “whom I love as no other man has loved another man in all eternity.”
This week moviegoers get to meet John Wojtowicz, the lunatic, unrepentant real-life inspiration for Mr. Pacino’s implausibly good grammar and what, in retrospect, turns out to have been that demonstrative actor’s exceedingly subtle characterization.
If “Dog Day Afternoon” was about an improbable robbery set largely within the claustrophobic confines of a cookie-cutter Brooklyn bank, “The Dog“ (a Drafthouse Films release opening on Friday) unfolds from inside the swelled head of Mr. Wojtowicz, a sexually voracious witness to the early stirrings of gay liberation in Greenwich Village. The directors, Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren, took 10 years to complete the film (the fourth derived from the 1972 incident, along with “The Third Memory“ and “Based on a True Story”), or more time than their subject spent in prison.
John Wojtowicz, the unrepentant real-life inspiration for Al Pacino in “Dog Day Afternoon,” is the subject of a newly released documentary.
Think back to the New York of the early 1970s.
The opening montage of “Dog Day” depicts a hot, grungy city. Homosexuality was still classified as a disease. Gay rights barely existed.
Mr. Pacino “was the one at greatest risk,” Mr. Lumet later recalled, because “no major star that I know of had ever played a gay man.”
Still, as much as the subject had been taboo, it was almost incidental.
“Sonny not only maintained his gay relationship but was presented as being, at the same time, a ‘family man,’ with a wife and children,” said James Sanders, the author of the book “Celluloid Skyline: New York and the Movies.” Sonny and even his lover, a self-described woman trapped in the body of a man, are devoid of the gay stereotypes then common in mainstream films. “No less importantly,” Mr. Sanders said, “it was also a way for Lumet’s film to announce its fiercely ‘New York’ status, with sexual, social and emotional complexities of a kind Hollywood would never touch.”
As Chris Sarandon, who played Sonny’s lover, later remembered: “This wasn’t about the relation of a drag queen and his boyfriend. This was a relationship about two people trying to come to grips about what is wrong with their relationship.”
“The Dog” is all about the lecherous, narcissistic Mr. Wojtowicz’s relationships: with his lover, Ernest Aron, who later became Liz Eden; with his cloying mother (“I spied on him,” she confesses to the camera. “See I knew more than he thought.”); and with nascent gay-liberation advocates, who considered him a boorish embarrassment and vulgar braggart.
“I don’t think it changes the impression of the gay-rights movement, because, first of all, this guy is a bisexual polygamist,” Randy Wicker, a journalist and early gay-rights advocate, said in an interview. “I think it will be viewed as an isolated, bizarre story.”
After brief appearances at the 1964 Republican national convention and in Vietnam, Mr. Wojtowicz materializes in footage at the Firehouse on Wooster Street in SoHo, an early headquarters of the Gay Activists Alliance; at embryonic demonstrations for same-sex marriage at the city clerk’s office; and at his own extravagant drag wedding.
“There was only one star, and that was me,” Mr. Wojtowicz recalls in the film.
“Now people see he wasn’t a good poster boy for the gay-rights movement when he robbed the bank,” said Ms. Berg, the director, “but he was an individual who had zero shame about what he was. Think of what he said about marriage at the time: ‘When I love somebody, I want to marry them.’ People have a real appreciation for that now.”
After he was arrested at Kennedy International Airport trying to flee with hostages, Mr. Wojtowicz adopted the sobriquet “the Dog” in prison, when fellow inmates couldn’t correctly say his name (pronounced WAHT-a-Witz).
By the time he was released in 1978 (serving six years of a 20-year sentence), an already vulgar life was imitating a more glamorous art.
The documentary is truly a story of the tail wagging the dog.
Archival footage and interviews conducted with Mr. Wojtowicz’s first wife, Carmen; his mother, Terry; and his third spouse, George Heath, are poignant, sometimes hilarious and oddly endearing.
Terry, who coyly reveals that she smuggled provolone to her son in prison in her bra, “was the great love of his life,” Dr. Lowenkopf confides.
Mr. Wojtowicz also divulges tantalizing details of his bumbling gang-that-couldn’t-shoot-straight robbery, including the fact that the robbers went to watch “The Godfather” (starring Mr. Pacino) in a Times Square theater beforehand for inspiration.
Reducing the fictional Sonny Wortzik to a wallflower, Mr. Wojtowicz returns to the branch he robbed to sign autographs (sporting an “I Robbed This Bank” T-shirt, no less) and applies for a job as a guard, giving “Dog Day Afternoon” as a reference.
The filmmakers say Mr. Wojtowicz did not demand compensation for appearing in the documentary. “He wasn’t really driven by money, which doesn’t seem logical for a bank robber, but he loved for people to pay attention to him,” Ms. Berg said.
Mr. Lumet’s film spans a single day. But in his four years of interviews for “The Dog,” Mr. Wojtowicz ages like Dorian Gray’s portrait in fast-forward, finally reversing roles as he is awkwardly pushed in a wheelchair by his developmentally disabled brother around the Coney Island aquarium, where he unabashedly, and predictably, propositions a walrus. He died of cancer in 2006 at the age of 60.
Between the robbery and the release date of “Dog Day Afternoon,” the American Psychiatric Association declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder. And in the four decades since then, Mr. Wicker recalled, “the image of gay people has gone from ‘they’re all psychopaths’ to almost every gay person has been married 40 years and has 2.2 adopted children — and there are some real basket cases out there, including gay ones.”
Perhaps in a fitting coda, a recent court ruling dramatized how profoundly sensibilities have evolved since Mr. Wojtowicz robbed the bank, and Mr. Pacino accepted his risky role. In January a federal appeals court ordered state prison officials in Massachusetts to finance sex-change surgery for a man convicted of murdering his wife.