Published Sep 29, 2013In 1972, John Wojtowicz attempted to rob a Brooklyn bank to finance his lover's sex-reassignment surgery. And because John Wojtowicz's robbery, hostage-taking and subsequent attempt at escape was so heavily documented by the media, director Sidney Lumet was able to authentically recreate the 18-hour ordeal in the Oscar nominated Dog Day Afternoon.
Examining the man that inspired the cult film, directors Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren follow Wojtowicz for the final ten years of his life with The Dog, presenting a fascinating look at a person whose life played out in a succession of crises; chiefly sexual appetite, contradiction and identity. While most documentaries of this type are fueled by an onslaught of talking heads and various expert opinions, Berg and Keraudren's film is driven by Wojtowicz himself, making for one of the most remarkable retellings of someone's life caught on camera in recent years.
This Brooklyn Italian-American with the assumed Polish last name was an abrasive alpha-male proud to declare himself a pervert. Though initially in a heterosexual marriage with children, his experiences in the Vietnam War, placing him in close living quarters with other men, triggered a recognition in himself that he may be gay (in one of the many telling, albeit vulgar, interviews, Wojtowicz openly talks about his first time swapping fellatio with an army buddy, noting that it wasn't a big deal and felt great).
After returning from Vietnam, a sexual liberation of sorts awakened in him, leaving Wojtowicz knee-deep in the Gay Activist Alliance soon after Stonewall. Gay relationships abounded for this sex-crazed man and it soon led him into an affair with a transgender man (Ernie) who called himself Liz Eden. The two were later married by a gay priest in Greenwich Village (unbeknownst to his legal wife) at a time when gays were struggling for basic rights. It was when Liz decided to go through with the costly sexual reassignment surgery that Wojtowicz became inspired to rob a bank to look after his transgender bride.
Rather than rehash the entire crime, Berg and Keraudren frame their film as both a prequel and sequel to Dog Day, combining a firsthand account from Wojtowicz himself with archival footage and testaments from those that were directly linked to the story. They allow the larger-than-life man to tell his tale candidly, which lends itself, on occasion, blatantly to self-delusion.
Most fascinating, if not ironically, is that after the release of Dog Day Afternoon Wojtowicz became something of a local celebrity, standing in front of a bank to sign autographs for fans. Interestingly, and quite pointedly, no one from the Hollywood film makes an appearance in this documentary. Given how much of an impact the film had, some context from an actor, producer or writer involved might have added some perspective.
Touching on the gay rights and sexual movements of the day, The Dog becomes more than a mere retelling of a bank robbery; it recounts a time when gay activism became part of the fabric of American society. It's also a fascinating, if occasionally flawed, look at an equally imperfect man, playing as an engrossing look at an American figure that happened to create a sensational story one afternoon in 1972.