Movie review: ‘The Dog’ memorializes an extraordinary time in New York City and in gay historyMovie Review Thursday, September 11th, 2014
It should come as no surprise that movies based on true stories are much more “based on” than they are “true.” Few actual series of events unfold in a perfectly coherent and concise way, and even less fit into the three-act structure around almost all modern films are constructed. For many years, movies with queer lead characters were almost always straight-washed. For instance, in the 1965 film The Agony and the Ecstasy, the quite homosexual Italian Renaissance artist Michelangelo suddenly had a heretofore unknown female love interest. Things got marginally better after Stonewall, and in 1975, the then-young superstar Al Pacino played the bisexual would-be bank robber Sonny Wortzik in Dog Day Afternoon, a huge hit that went on to be nominated for five Academy Awards and is now considered a nearly flawless classic.
When I watched the film for the first time, I was impressed by how the film matter-of-factly portrays Sonny’s relationships with his wife and his boyfriend, whose sex change Sonny wants to pay for with the bank’s cash. This lack of moral judgment about homosexuality in 1975, in a Hollywood film, is impressive. Then I saw The Dog, the fascinating and fantastic documentary about the man upon whom Sonny was based, the bizarre and failed bank heist, early post-Stonewall gay New York, and the aftermath of the robbery and the film. Not surprisingly, the truth – at least the truth as presented in The Dog – is much more complicated than the rather tidy story in film.
The Dog is built around interviews with John Wojtowicz, who became Sonny in the film. John was never a Sonny; he occasionally went by Little John, because, as he tells us, his pecker is small. Amazingly, Pacino’s manic, ecstatic portrayal of Wortzik seems tempered when watching the real Wojtowicz speak. During the interviews, Wojtowicz is around 60, chubbier and white-haired, and in his thick Brooklyn accent, he’s full of jokes, self-aggrandizement, self-deprecation, and charisma. He first had sex with a man during basic training after he enlisted for Vietnam; he woke up one night to a fellow soldier giving him a blowjob. He let him keep going because, “it felt like a summer breeze.” He got married after his tour, but quickly started hanging out in the newly liberated gay hangouts in New York’s Greenwich Village. He would work the door at dances sponsored by the Gay Liberation Front because it was easier to pick up the newly out first-timers.
He met Ernest Aron, who would eventually become Elizabeth Debbie Eden, in 1971, and he tells us it was love at first sight. (In the film, Aron became Leon, played by Oscar-nominee Chris Sarandon.) It was a tempestuous love, too. They fought often, Aron would end up in psychiatric hospitals, and still, they had a very public, at the time very revolutionary, wedding at a restaurant in the West Village. Using footage taken by the journalist and GLF activist Randy Wicker, who also appears in the film, The Dog directors Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren manage to show us not only the GLF dances and meeting, but also this wedding and an interview with Wojtowicz’s beaming mother Theresa, who attended the wedding.
At first, Wojtowicz was extremely against his “wife” Aron’s decision to get sex reassignment surgery – as he says, he liked guys with tits and a dick – but eventually he realized it was what Aron needed. So, he decided to rob a bank to pay for it. (While The Dog only implies it and Dog Day Afternoon ignores it, the heist was probably more of a mafia operation gone awry than it was a fundraiser for Aron.)
As in Dog Day Afternoon, the real robbery became a media circus and then a tragedy. But Wojtowicz survived prison, getting released early with help of a new wife he met inside and going on to use his minor celebrity status to make money off of autographs and appearances. Not surprisingly, Wojtowicz’s life didn’t end in the notoriety that he reveled in during the 1980s. Neither did Eden’s. But The Dog memorializes them, as well as the wonderfully cantankerous Theresa and an extraordinary time in New York City and in gay history.
Directed by Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren
Featuring John Wojtowicz, Theresa Basso Wojtowicz and Randy Wicker
On Demand on Amazon and Vimeo
Short URL: http://lgbtweekly.com/?p=51272