By Christopher Schobert | The Playlist August 6, 2014 at 5:08PM
John Wojtowicz is the rare subject whose real life was more complex, more borderline-unbelievable and more gloriously strange than the one presented on the big screen. He was “The Dog,” the wannabe bank robber whose failed heist of a Chase Manhattan Bank in sweltering '70s Brooklyn was the basis for Sidney Lumet’s classic “Dog Day Afternoon.” Portrayed by a peak-of-his-powers Al Pacino (named Sonny Wortzik in the film), Wojtowicz is mostly remembered for the ostensible reason behind the robbery—to pay for his boyfriend’s sex change operation. As the moving, sad, riotously humorous documentary “The Dog” explains, the film only captured traces of Wojtowicz’s personality, and only told bits of his story. 'Afternoon' is a masterpiece, to be sure, but the real dog’s life was even wilder, its central figure an utterly eccentric character.
“I’m an angel, but I got horns,” the late Wojtowicz says early in the decade-in-the-making documentary directed by Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren. He looks as if he could be in his 70s in that interview, which makes the news that he died from cancer at age 60 (in 2006) rather shocking. But if anyone should evidence hard living, it is John Wojtowicz. A self-proclaimed romantic with a wondrous New York accent and wide eyes, Wojtowicz tells that he has had four wives and 23 girlfriends—“I give a piece of myself to everybody”—and relationships with both men and women. In fact, following his first gay experience (with “a hillbilly named Wilbur” during army basic training) and one failed marriage, he became an active member of the Gay Activists Alliance in New York. These were the post-Stonewall days, and the ever-blunt Wojtowicz provides a unique, insightful look at this crucial stage in gay activism.
How blunt? At one point, Wojtowicz gave himself the nickname “Little John,” he explains, “because my prick is little.” In addition to being brutally honest and self-deprecating, he is wistful and passionate. When Wojtowicz met Ernest Aron (later Elizabeth Eden) in 1971, he was enchanted, bringing roses every week and pledging his love. When the older Wojtowicz brings the filmmakers to the place where he and Ernie first had sex, he is clearly still love-struck. They were an odd couple, the exotic Aron and the odd-looking Wojtowicz (“He was a troll,” says a friend from the time. “There was a troll that loved her”), and their relationship was often combative and tempestuous. But Wojtowicz has no regrets about any of it, including the events of August 22, 1972.
As the vintage trailer for “Dog Day Afternoon” establishes, it was “a summer day just like any summer day.” But this hot, oppressive day included, unexpectedly, the “most bizarre, unbelievable crime in history.” Anyone who’s seen the film has a rough idea of what followed. “Sonny” and his cohort Sal (played by the late John Cazale) attempted to rob a bank but ended up with hostages, epic media coverage, and later, arrest. While the film did include the then-scandalous sex-change aspect of the story, it missed the fascinating details of the hours before the robbery. Wojtowicz walks us through the sex-fueled night before, and a wonderfully ironic visit to the cinema to see "The Godfather.” Wojtowicz, Sal, and a third accomplice who fled the scene before the robbery watched the just-released mafia epic “for inspiration,” and it led Wojtowicz to end the note he handed the bank teller with “This is an offer you can’t refuse.”
The robbery did not end well, of course. As a bank employee states, “You knew they were amateurs, not professional bank robbers.” But it was undeniably bold, and it is still stunning to imagine the impact the story had on those watching and listening at home. “It was like gay liberation right down your throat,” says a Wojtowicz acquaintance. There is a sneer in voices of the news reporters telling of “an admitted homosexual,” and as “Dog Day Afternoon” memorably shows, tension was in the air. In fact, Wojtowicz says then New York Mayor John Lindsay told him on the phone that police would kill all of the hostages before letting him get what he wants: “You’re making New York look bad.”
Surprisingly, the rest of the documentary, post-robbery, is just as fascinating, if a bit overlong. Wojtowicz was sentenced to 20 years in prison, and these were hard years of rape and attempted suicide. By the time he emerged from prison five years later, “Dog Day Afternoon” had been released and become a cultural phenomenon, and it changed Wojtowicz’s personality. “When the movie came out it became the essence of his life,” says a friend. “He became a new person.” When we see Wojtowicz tell someone “I’m ‘Dog Day Afternoon,’” it is clear how strongly the fictional “Dog,” and his fame, influenced the real one. This makes the documentary an interesting study of post-fame life. “I’m the real motherfucker,” Wojtowicz says. But the world cared more about the “Dog” played by Al Pacino.
The documentary ends in somber fashion. Wojtowicz is decimated by cancer, while Elizabeth Eden passed away from AIDS in 1987. But “the Dog” was as colorfully confident at the end as he was that day in Brooklyn. “I’m waiting for them to tell me how many days I have to go,” he says before a doctor visit, “so I can go party.” From beginning to end, “The Dog” has an almost fable-like quality to it—strange, stirring, almost unbelievable; at one point harp music adds to the dreaminess. There is an air of romance befitting the subject, and even amidst the hardship, a sense of joy. The film’s final scene sees Wojtowicz’s doting mother showing the camera the resting spot of her son’s ashes. It’s his old bedroom, and it is almost perfectly preserved. The room is a fitting representation of a man whose life never quite progressed after that August day, and “The Dog” is a fitting tribute. [A-]