[8 August 2014]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“Quiet on the set,” declares John Wojtowicz on a Brooklyn sidewalk. “I’m Dog Day Afternoon, the real one.” Even amid the endless possible meanings for the word “real”, for a moment, as Wojtowicz makes his presence known to an anonymous passerby, you might take it simply and reductively and immediately. He’s not only real, but also the “real one,” this guy. On the set.
By this point, late in The Dog, you have the idea that everywhere is a set for Wojtowicz. Just so, Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren’s wonderful documentary, shot over 10 years, follows his story as he tells it. As much as other interviewees answer pertinent questions and provide a few counter-stories to his anecdotes, Wojtowicz embodies a certain rhythm and flair, an array of fantasies and notes, around which the rest of the film revolves.
His set, as recounted in the film, is surely expansive. It ranges from his mom’s house in Brooklyn and the corner where once stood the Chase Manhattan bank he notoriously tried to rob in 1973, to Coney Island, where he takes his disabled brother Tony once a year. Then on to the Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary where Wojtowicz spent five years.
But Wojtowicz seems to expand beyond any location, his many self-performances vivid and contradictory. All of them, however, find support from his mother Terry, whose presence here is at least as enthralling as his. “He went from one extreme to another,” she says, “from daylight to darkness.” Terry appears in all manner of close-ups, her sharp features accentuated by shadows in her kitchen, in her pink-appointed bed, in a car’s passenger seat outside a pharmacy.
She loves her boy, she reveals again and again, showing off photos of a youngster in a baseball uniform, as a young soldier in Vietnam, as a groom at a couple of weddings. “He never hung out on the streets or anything like that,” she reports. “The service screwed him all up, whatever happened, I don’t know.”
What might have happened, according to Wojtowicz was that, even as he was looking forward to marrying his high school sweetheart Carmen on his return from Danang, where an attack killed “ninety percent of my fellow soldiers”, he experienced two major revelations. One, seeing the war go so badly, he abandoned his Goldwater Republican self-identification and transformed into a “McCarthy peacenik” in 1968, embracing or at least immersed in paradoxes (“Young kids get killed and die for nothing, we lost 50,000 people over there because they wouldn’t let us win it”).
And two, he had his “first gay experience” with a “hillbilly named Wilbur”. At first, Wojtowicz says, he thought he was dreaming, only to wake up to find that the blow job was real, and indeed, that Wilbur “blew great, he was like a summer breeze.”
As Wojtowicz speaks, you see snapshots of his youthful self, smiling, handsome, on crutches, with other guys. On his return home, Wojtowicz went ahead and married Carmen, with whom he had two children, but also pursued his other interests. “I’m sexually oriented,” he observes, a perpetual romantic and an angel inclined “to fuck”.
Wojtowicz’s newfound peacenik politics combine with these interests to produce an outspoken member of the Gay Activists Alliance, with some notion of the right to gay marriage. Going by the name of Littlejohn Basso when speaking for and with the GAA, Wojtowicz explains his function on the Entertainment Committee, greeting new members. “I could have sex with them quicker than anybody else, because they were just coming out. We did a lot of getting down,” He says, “You have to understand that at that time, the gay movement was more sexually driven than anything because anybody can be straight but it takes somebody special to be gay.”
If the logic here (“because”) is elusive, the import of the movement, around Stonewall, seems at once incidental to Wojtowicz’s experience and also strangely crucial. He looks back now with a sense of commitment to a cause, however jumbled. “Weddings to me is a holy institution,” he says, even as he skips over the part where his relationship with Carmen was falling apart. “I make a commitment to that person, I don’t see why gays can’t do that.”
Several archival photos here illustrate his commitment to GAA and also to his new love, Ernest Aron, who would later be known as Elizabeth Debbie Eden, a transition completed after Wojtowicz robbed the bank. Or more precisely, after he, along with Sal Naturale, tried to rob the bank. When Sal was killed and Wojtowicz went to prison, he cut a movie deal for just about enough money to pay for Liz’s surgery. (Money details are left out of this account, but it seems clear that no one apart from Warner Bros. and the moviemakers made much off the deal, though Terry and Liz and Carmen all reportedly tried to contract their own pieces.)
The Sidney Lumet film helped to disseminate the story that the surgery was Wojtowicz’s motivation (as do a couple of other documentaries, 2000’s The Third Memory, in which Wojtowicz reenacts the crime, and 2005’s Based on a True Story, featuring interviews with the Dog Day Afternoon moviemakers). But controversy lingers as to whether he owed money to the mafia or even had other reasons. But even as so many fictions and truths intertwine, Wojtowicz maintains his own form of grace, entertaining and intriguing, sometimes provocative, other times unsettling.
Much of this charm is premised on his seeming genuineness. How much of this is a performance is hard to tell, and irrelevant. Like all performances, Wojtowicz’s conveys its own reality, whether and whenever that might belong to him or his listeners. He fits a set of cultural needs, he embodies desires even as he acts them out. “I think there’s a whole mantra out there that he played very nicely into,” remembers As journalist Randy Wicker. “This was a guy who was wacko, he was robbing a bank supposedly to finance a sex change operation. Well, that’s not robbing a bank to take a vacation in the Bahamas, you know what I mean?” And so Wojtowicz, who ordered pizzas for the hostages and threw the bank’s money out the door at the crowd assembled all day, looked like “The little man against the system, the little man trying to do something good.”
This little man story may or may not correspond with Wojtowicz’s self-image. It may or may not be supported by facts, or help to make sense of the direst consequences of the robbery (the traumatized hostages, Sal’s death by FBI gunfire), it does fit more or less with Terry’s version of her son, the decent kid who remained goodhearted, with “no meanness in him”. As she invites the filmmakers in her home again and again, showing them her mementoes, remembering her boy, it’s easy to believe what his psychiatrist suggests, that she was “the great love of his life”. It’s another complication left mostly unexplained, another detail that expands beyond any one story, real or less real.