The first hour of Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon does
not seem like a queer film. There’s certainly political subtext there, but
nothing queer, at least nothing overtly so. There is, instead, a link between Dog
Day Afternoon and Vietnam, the Attica Prison riot, and a general tone
of anti-establishment. Yet, a critical part of the story (even the true story
on which the film is based) involves queer politics. So it seems almost strange
Day Afternoon, it its sweltering atmosphere and tension and legendary
performance from Al Pacino, isn’t better remembered as a queer film. The recent
release of the documentary The Dog, which examines the life of
john Wojtowicz, the man who inspired the film, demands that the film be
reexamined in that context.
An hour into the film, we are introduced to Sonny’s (Al
Pacino) lover Leon Shermer (Chris Sarandon), a transwoman currently living as a
man unable to afford sex-reassignment surgery. This character was based on
Elizabeth Eden (nee Ernest Aron), Wojtowicz’s former lover and for whom he
allegedly robbed the bank. The Dog seems to better articulate
him as a bit of a self-mythologizing egotist than an actual LGBT activist, but
his involvement (and the detail that the doc goes into) certain presents an
interesting impact on the legacy of Dog Day Afternoon.
Al Pacino’s Sonny seems, not unlike Wojtowicz, ego driven,
as if Sonny’s performance is an
amalgamation of the gangsters he’s seen in movies and in films. There’s a false
hardened quality to it, very much a performed masculinity. Perhaps this aspect
makes the film’s queer content, especially with regard to it applying to Sonny
himself, so interesting. While neither the film nor the person seems to
consciously want to challenge our notions of what queer means or what
performance means in any kind of overt way, it’s important to understand that
it registers regardless. So, while Al Pacino’s hyper-macho performance isn’t
necessarily subverting any preconceived notions of queer performance (he
doesn’t have a high voice or a lisp, he’s not dainty, he doesn’t fit cleanly
into a box), for 1975, it was nonetheless an often unseen version of what it
was to be queer. Prior to the film’s release, depictions of queer characters
were either based heavily in stereotype, very tragic characters (think The
Children’s Hour), or carefully coded (Spartacus).
It makes Leon’s character even more important, for the presence
of trans people was, at that time, nearly nonexistent. While it’s a shame to
see Leon a) addressed by male pronouns and her former name and b) as a bit of a
weaker character, it nonetheless feels revelatory. This ignorance regarding
trans people, though, is accurate with regard to the way that Wojtowicz treated
Liz Eden. Throughout The Dog, he refers to her by male pronouns
and by her birth name, which, as Daniel Walber points out,
makes one question how serious he is about accepting his (at point former)
lover’s identity. These problems aside, what is mined from the performances
within Dog Day Afternoon makes for some of the film’s most intimate
scenes. As the sweat drips from his messy hair, Sonny explains to the cops that
Leon, who is being held by the cops as a possible accessory to the robbery, had
nothing to do with it. But his acceptance of Leon’s desire to transition is
bittersweet: though the tenderness is undoubtedly there in his performance (the
typically loud and hardened voice becomes softer and more attentive), it feels
almost like concession and a little bit of condescension. There’s an internal
battle between ego and acceptance. Sarandon’s performance is as good as one can
hope, mimicking Liz’s distinctive voice without resorting too much to
There’s a scene in The Dog in which Wojtowicz proclaims
the bank robbery this great piece of queer history and of politics being shoved
down one’s throat. His openness about why he committed the robbery go into how
he continually constructs an idealized version of himself, someone who has changed
queer history. Lumet does seem to make time for this event, as in one scene a
group of LGBT activists chants, “Out of the closets! Into the streets!” The
events that took place during the film occurred in 1972, so the film’s ties
with the Stonewall Riots maybe don’t seem as fresh as they possibly should. But
as Wojtowicz details in the documentary, he was very involved in the Gay Rights Movement, despite his peers
somewhat more modest assertions regarding his work. Despite this, the
involvement of a man and a trans person (their relationship was too often
reduced and equivocated to a gay relationship) in a relationship (however
distant it was at that time) in the media is extremely important.
The film’s queer content seemed to have been brushed aside,
but now, with The Dog in release, we can visit it and recognize its legacy as
not only a great film about anarchy, but a queer one as well.
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In August 1972, John Wojtowicz, 27, a married Brooklyn man and Vietnam vet with a stream of gay lovers on the side, decided to rob a bank to pay for his boyfriend’s sex change.
In the aftermath of the crime, a 14-hour hostage ordeal that riveted the nation, a character based on Wojtowicz would be played by Al Pacino in the 1975 film “Dog Day Afternoon,” which earned six Oscar nominations (winning Best Screenplay).
While Wojtowicz’s tale on film became the stuff of legend, the man himself remained little heard from until now, with a posthumous documentary, “The Dog,” hitting theaters on Friday.
The success of Pacino’s portrayal sprang from the hero/villain dichotomy of the character. As in the real-life robbery, which took place on Aug. 22, 1972, at a Chase Manhattan branch in Gravesend, Brooklyn, Wojtowicz got both his hostages and the many onlookers on his side, positioning himself as the little guy fighting against tyranny.
“The Dog,” which shows interviews with Wojtowicz from 2002 until his death four years later, proves his reality was more outlandish than any movie.
The night before the robbery, Wojtowicz and his accomplices — 18-year-old Sal Naturale and 20-year-old Bobby Westenberg — stayed in a New Jersey hotel. Wojtowicz had agreed to pay Westenberg $50,000 for his assistance. For that money, Wojtowicz wanted more than just a partner in crime.
“I grabbed ahold of Bobby Westenberg and I wanted to f - - k him, ’cause he used to dress up as a girl,” Wojtowicz says in the film.
“He goes . . . ‘I don’t want you f - - king me.’ I said, ‘I’m giving you $50,000, and you’re gonna tell me I’m not getting a f - - k out of it?’ . . . So then I f - - ked him.”
The self-described “pervert” met his wife, Carmen, at a bank where they both worked in the mid-1960s. Wojtowicz was drafted soon after and had his first homosexual experience during basic training. After Vietnam, Wojtowicz (still married to Carmen) joined the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA), but was driven more by a desire for sex than politics.
“I was a member of the entertainment committee, so I would meet and greet new gay people coming into the scene,” Wojtowicz said. “I could have sex with them quicker than anybody else, because they were just coming out.”
He was a disgrace. He would fall on a couch and start having sex in a semi-public place.- Randy Wicker
“He was considered a disgrace at GAA [dances]. He would fall on a couch and start having sex with somebody in a semi-public place,” Randy Wicker, a journalist who helped Wojtowicz negotiate the film rights to his story, tells The Post. “His reputation within GAA was, ‘This guy is a looney-tune.’ ”
Wojtowicz eventually left Carmen. In 1971, he met Ernie Aron, a transgender woman who went by the name Liz Eden. The two married in a non-binding ceremony that December.
Eden’s pals were not impressed.
“He was skeevy,” Jeremiah Newton, a longtime friend of Eden’s who appears in the film, tells The Post. “He was obsessed with sex . . . I thought he was pretty stupid.”
Over the following year, Eden talked about a sex change operation, which Wojtowicz was against. But after Eden tried to kill herself, Wojtowicz decided that the surgery was needed to save her life and hatched the plan to rob a bank.
As depicted in “Dog Day Afternoon,” the crime turned into a 14-hour circus that had over 2,000 onlookers on the scene rooting for Wojtowicz, who, at one point, threw money out to the crowd. Westenberg bailed before the crime got under way, Naturale was killed by the FBI and Wojtowicz wound up serving five years in prison.
Once he sold the film rights to his story, the money was used for Aron’s operation. But after the surgery in 1973, Aron — now Liz — told Wojtowicz that she never wanted to see him again. Wojtowicz slit his wrists, but survived.
He found love in prison, “marrying” fellow con George Heath — both got out in 1978 and moved in with Wojtowicz’s mother. Wojtowicz had the nerve to apply for a guard position at Chase Manhattan Bank. Instead, he found a job “cleaning toilet bowls on Park Avenue.” In the years to come, he would spend time in front of the bank signing autographs and wearing a T-shirt that read, “I Robbed This Bank.”
He died of cancer in 2006. While “Dog Day Afternoon” made him a legend, those who knew him say “The Dog” gives a truer picture of who Wojtowicz really was.
“They had no real understanding when they made [‘Dog Day Afternoon’] that John was as crazy as he was,” says Wicker. “He comes out more rational than he really was.”