On Sunday, I had a piece published in The Daily News on a new documentary called The Dog, about the real guy behind Dog Day Afternoon. You can read it here in the paper.
The unedited, original version of my essay--including a few more details--is here:
On a sultry day in August, 1972, John Wojtowicz tried to rob a bank in Brooklyn. He needed the money for his transgender wife’s sex reassignment surgery. He failed. He did succeed, however, in entertaining and titillating the entire city, becoming an “only in New York” cult figure, and getting immortalized by Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon. Wojtowicz gave the movie money to his wife, she got her surgery, and he went to prison—where he styled himself as a Gay Liberation icon.
“I’m like Babe Ruth, but the gay Babe Ruth,” says Wojtowicz in The Dog, a riveting 100-minute documentary about one man’s unconventional life.
After earning high praise on the festival circuit, The Dog, co-directed by Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren, opens in New York on August 8 at IFC Center and Lincoln Center. Packed with old-school outer-borough characters and rare archival footage from the lost gritty city, the film’s arrival in today’s squeaky-clean New York is a rollicking reminder of when life was less orderly.
“Things were looser then,” says Berg. “It was a messier time. Today it feels like we’re in one big sanitized city. We loved getting back to the fast-talking, street-hustling dirty New York. It was full of characters you just don’t have today.”
Characters like John’s first wife, Carmen Bifulco, and his prison wife, George Heath. Liz Eden, the reason for the robbery, is here in grainy archival interviews, a lithe, beautiful boy who transitions into a striking woman. There’s the captivating Terry, John’s elderly mother, an Italian-American spitfire. And, of course, there’s The Dog himself—charismatic, controlling, and unabashedly foul-mouthed.
Says Keraudren, “John’s like if you took all of Scorsese’s characters and rolled them into one. But he’s also gay.”
Wojtowicz was a Stonewall-era fighter for LGBT rights. With the Gay Activists Alliance, he participated in the first gay marriage protest at City Hall. Then he held people hostage at gunpoint, because his wife was suicidal and only surgery would save her. Through all his seemingly conflicting words and actions, what emerges is a fascinating story of a complex character who fell somewhere between hero and loser, sane and crazy, good and bad.
Bob Kappstatter, reporting for The Daily News, was on the scene at the robbery. He recalls meeting a twitchy Wojtowicz face to face, with NYPD sniper rifles pointing at them. The robber was impatient—and sweaty. The police had turned off the air conditioning in the bank and the hostages suffered.
“The hostages liked him,” recalls George Heath. “They realized he wasn’t a criminal criminal. He gave them all money.”
Was Wojtowicz the heroic figure he longed to be? Kappstatter calls him “a person with a strong ego, passion, and a flair for screwing up his and others’ lives.” Heath says, “John was a hero in his own way. He saved someone’s life. He did what he felt needed to be done.”
As filmmakers, Berg and Keraudren try not to choose sides. “You’re not there to judge,” Keraudren explains. “On a good day, John was great. On a bad day, he was sociopathic.”
“We had complicated feelings about him,” says Berg. “He was a once-in-a-lifetime character. He also drove us up the wall.” The filmmakers followed Wojtowicz for a decade, until his death from cancer in 2006. He also followed them, calling at all hours of the night and showing up on doorsteps. “Once you were in John’s world,” says Berg, “he wanted you there all the time.”
Maybe that’s what ultimately drove Wojtowicz’s actions—an obsessive need, call it a doggedness, to keep people in his world, all the time.
In addition, a photography show accompanies the film. It opens tomorrow.
From the press release: "On Wednesday, August 6th at 7:00pm the Film Society of Lincoln Center's The Furman Gallery at the Walter Reade Theater will premiere photos taken by Marcia Resnick of The Dog himself, John Wojtowicz, the inspiration for Al Pacino's character in Dog Day Afternoon, at his most candid in the 1970's. The exhibit will stay up until August 15th."