by Dennis Harvey
The Dog (7 pm) and Dog Day Afternoon (8:55 pm) screen Thursday, September 11 at the Castro Theatre.
Very well-received at the time, Sidney Lumet’s 1975 Dog Day Afternoon still personifies for many people what was so great about 1970s “New Hollywood” cinema: a gritty urban crime tale with depth and humor, stressing character over thrills or FX, aimed squarely at adults. Adding additional frisson was the fact that the story, which might have seemed ridiculous in less capable hands, was, in fact, based on a real-life incident.
Three years earlier, one John Wojtowicz and two accomplices attempted to rob a Chase Manhattan Bank branch in Brooklyn. In their ineptitude, they didn’t escape before cops arrived, leaving to a 14-hour standoff with seven employees held hostage inside and Wojtowicz frequently running outside to rant at negotiators and media. What quickly evolved into a circus—complete with hordes of locals gawking at the spectacle from behind police barriers—was only heightened when it emerged that the robbery was being committed to fund a sex-change operation for John’s cross-dressing lover.
You can judge whether truth is stranger than its dramatization this Thursday, when the Castro offers a double bill of Dog Day and its belated companion piece The Dog . The latter is a wildly entertaining documentary about the real John Wojtowicz, whom filmmakers Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren interviewed extensively. Actually, it’s less “about” than “starring” him—this loudmouthed Noo Yawker, holding forth three decades or so after his 15 minutes of fame, is the kind of shameless showoff personality that might be wearying company in real life. But for 100 minutes onscreen, he’s a riot.
A man with seemingly no social filters to hold back his ever-flapping tongue (at one point he even mentions his small penis), the subject was in fact married (albeit separated from his wife) with two kids when he met the future Elizabeth Debbie Edin—the latter then just Ernest Aron, but already a glamorous and flamboyant figure in the vivid Manhattan drag scene of the era. It was love at first sight, at least for John, despite the frequent rockiness of their relationship. Embracing his new life with a vengeance, Wojtowicz threw himself into Gay Liberation activism, even leaping a few decades forward when he and Aron got publicly—if illegally, at the time—married.
But his lover was suicidally unstable, insisting that she could never be happy as a man. So with two hapless cronies, and without Ernest’s knowledge, he plotted the bank heist to pay for that desperately desired sex-reassignment surgery.
The stickup might have been a highly-publicized bungle, but ultimately, Wojtowicz did just what he’d set out to do: Eve Eden was born, her transition funded by the pittance he was paid for his story’s film rights. Otherwise, he says, he wouldn’t have sold out to Hollywood.
Which is surprising, because this lovable schlub—believe me, he’s no gorgeous mid-70s Al Pacino—is a natural ham who seems to relish any spotlight. Ten years in the making, The Dog gives him plenty of attention. But equally entertaining is the input of various long-suffering bystanders, notably his ex-wife, Carmen, and most especially his ancient, rock-steady mother, Theresa.
Seeing Dog Day Afternoon and The Dog in one go may sound a little too much like hearing the same story twice. But even beyond the considerable liberties that Lumet & co. took in 1975, the documentary is cleverly structured so that a pop-culture-footnote tale you might think you already know well plays out as full of surprises—some amusingly bizarre, others tragic. Pacino didn’t get the Oscar for Dog Day , not in a year when the Oscars were pretty well swept by One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest . But if there was an award for Best Leading Performer in a Documentary, John Wojtowicz would be clutching gold.
Dennis Harvey has been publishing film reviews since the era of the typewriter. He’s a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and currently writes for Variety, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and Fandor.