On August 22, 1972, John “The Dog” Wojtowicz attempted to rob a Chase Manhattan bank in Brooklyn. He needed the money to pay for his marriage partner Ernie’s sex reassignment surgery, and in the 14-hour standoff and media circus that followed, Wojtowicz became a folk hero. Three years later, he was being portrayed by Al Pacino and his amazing hair in the film Dog Day Afternoon.
Sidney Lumet’s picture is a classic, but the real story is sadder, funnier, and crazier than anything Hollywood could conjure up. Filmmakers Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren spent a decade with the gregarious ex-con, up until his death in 2006. Even with Wojtowicz cheerfully running off at the mouth about his insane life and heaps of archival material—The Dog buzzes with old family photos, news and TV clips, and incredible video footage of the Greenwich Village gay community in the early ‘70s— the man himself is a puzzle.
“Half the things he says he never did,” chides his Mom, Terry, with a wide grin. “Bullshit.” We’re left to wonder where the truth and Wojtowicz’s own legend-building overlap. Are we really gonna believe that New York City mayor John Lindsay threatened to “kill all the hostages to stop you” when he spoke to Wojtowicz by phone during the botched robbery?
After six years in Lewisburg penitentiary, where he was beaten unconscious and gang-raped, and where he also met his third "wife", prison lawyer George Heath, Wojtowicz reemerged to capitalize on his celebrity, signing autographs outside the Chase Manhattan branch in a t-shirt that read “I robbed this bank.” He argues, “Hollywood can make a movie, make 50 million dollars off of it. They can make money off a crime. Why can a big corporation make millions and millions? My wife Carmen got $50, I got a couple of thousand.”
The proceeds from the Dog Day Afternoon paid for Ernie’s surgery. "I’m the gay Babe Ruth," boasts Wojtowicz. "I hit a home run, because I beat the fuckin’ system. I won. Ernie got the sex change. Ernie lived. Ernie survived.” Yes and no. After reinventing herself as Liz Eden, Ernie denounced Wojtowicz and turned to prostitution. With one notable exception, his friends in the pioneering Gay Activists Alliance exiled him—although Wojtowicz was more of a polymorphous sex addict than anything else, not to mention a weirdly unconflicted Catholic with a small dink (he took the name “Littlejohn Basso” when he joined the Alliance, in proud tribute to his under-endowment).
“He was bad and crazy but he had a lot of heart,” concludes his last "wife", Heath. It's a nice quote, but there are no happy endings here and a lot of dangling questions. The self-mythologizing is endless. Ditching his first wife and kids has the same historical weight as the moon landing and the Stonewall riots in Wojtowicz’s mind. In the end, his story is a kind of tragic absurdity weaving in and out of the era's progressive social history. As Dog's go, it couldn't be any shaggier—or more fascinating.
The Dog screens at the Cineplex Odeon International Village on Saturday (August 23) at the Vancouver Queer Film Festival.