Dog Day Afternoon is the new winner. Aug. 22, 1972, John Wojtowicz (pronounced “Woto-wits”) set out to rob a Brooklyn bank in order to pay for his lover’s sex-change operation. When things went terribly awry and cops surrounded the bank, Wojtowicz held hostages for 14 hours. The botched robbery was broadcast live on television, and three years later, Sidney Lumet made the classic movie based on the event, “Dog Day Afternoon,” starring Al Pacino as “Sonny Wortzik” and John Cazale as his friend and fellow robber, Sal.
Now, 45 summers later, a documentary entitled “The Dog” about the wild life of Wojtowicz and that dog day afternoon hits theaters. “The Dog” made Indiewire’s list of the “The Best Documentary.”
“Nobody would ever do what I did, rob a bank to give somebody a sex change operation,” said Wojtowicz. He remained unapologetic until his death in 2006. There is something so lovable — and infuriating and fascinating — about this strange character, this anti-hero with no social graces.
The lover he attempted larceny over was Ernie Aron, who he’d married in a mock Catholic ceremony in 1971. “I wanted to make Ernie an honest woman,” said The Dog aka Wojtowicz. The movie offers archival interviews with Ernie, who became Liz Debbie Eden in 1973 after sex reassignment surgery.
Let’s back up. Before Ernie/Liz and before the robbery, Wojtowicz was married to Carmen Bifulco in 1967. They had two children together and then separated in 1969. Bifulco is also featured in the film.
The Dog had a busy social life. “The reason I call myself a pervert is because I’m sexually oriented,” he said in the film.
John Wojtowicz mugshot courtesy of Drafthouse Films
Wojtowicz was sentenced to 20 years for the robbery and went off to Pennsylvania’s Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary. There he met his third spouse, George Heath, on July 16, 1974. Two weeks later, they married in prison. Heath acted as The Dog’s jailhouse lawyer and helped reduce the sentence so Wojtowicz only had to serve six of the 20 years.
Through rare archival footage, “The Dog” takes you through New York City’s history of gay pride and the LGBT fight for liberation and equal rights. You’ll see Wojtowicz’s participation. The movie flips back and forth between the swinging 1970s and the 2000s. You’re treated to a lot of screen time for The Dog’s unusual and headstrong mama, Terry Wojtowicz, who loves her son unconditionally.
Directors Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren had much to say about the film and the unique character it’s based on. “We like to call the film a fucked-up ‘Forrest Gump’-like ride through John’s life,” said Berg. “John’s life story is exhaustive, hilarious, offensive, touching, troubling and almost unbelievable.”
Keraudren said, “I think he probably liked the fact that we were local from New York.” Berg added, “I’ve always loved New York stories, and ‘outsiders’ stories, plus I’m a kid of the ’70s, so I love 1970s American movies.”
The amused directors described their first meeting with Wojtowicz. “We didn’t know quite what to expect,” Berg began. “The first time we met him was in the West Village. My memory is this short guy in a big coat who took my hand in a chivalrous manner and then quickly sucked on one of my fingers before I could pull it out of his hand.”
“I don’t think there was anything that could have prepared us,” Keraudren continued. “He was instantly funny and engaging, but it also seemed he had no filter. He talked a lot about sex, wives, boyfriends and his life in general. We ended up going to two other restaurants over the course of the day — he never stopped eating — and the whole meeting lasted about eight hours.”
I was riveted as the movie zoomed by in a blink. Now, I leave you with The Dog’s motto: “Live every day as if it’s your last and whoever doesn’t like it can go fuck themselves and a rubber duck.”