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 that Dog 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 stereotype.
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.