Gay respectability is thrown out the window in “The Dog,” a tremendously thoughtful and entertaining documentary that restores opportunistic sleaze, lovelorn hysteria, and proud promiscuity to queer history. “I’m a pervert,” insists pudgy, gray-haired, gruff-voiced outer-borougher John Wojtowicz. “Nobody [else] would ever rob a bank to cut off a guy’s dick to give him a sex operation.”
Wojtowicz did just that in 1972, and his sensationalistic motive — and the hours-long media circus he instigated by taking hostages, ordering pizza deliveries to the bank, publicly French kissing a male ex, and throwing money out the door at gathered onlookers — led to the crime’s dramatization in the Oscar-winning 1975 Al Pacino vehicle “Dog Day Afternoon.”
After the film’s release, Wojtowicz wrote a letter to The New York Times claiming that Sidney Lumet’s recounting was “only 30% true.” Directors Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren aim to offer a much more complicated portrait of their unrepentant subject, artfully chronicling his multiples lives as a mama’s boy, a heterosexual husband and father of two, a gay activist, a devoted brother to his developmentally disabled brother, a romantic, a bully, and a self-delusional fantasist.
The details of Wojtowicz’s story are amusing and fascinating on their own, but it’s Berg and Keraudren’s fair-minded puncturing of his illusions and expertly crafted game of revelations and counter-revelations that make their film exceptionally smart and provocative.
Though “The Dog” can be seen through any number of lenses — a study of media distortion, an illustration of life-sustaining grandiosity, a love story gone deliriously wrong — it’s perhaps most meaningful as an exploration of the limits of the gay rights movement’s political correctness. Wojtowicz’s first homosexual encounter was technically a rape (a fellow soldier fellated him while he was asleep) but the future criminal recalls that episode only with bemused fondness.
Soon after Stonewall, Wojtowicz abandoned his wife and infant children and joined the burgeoning gay movement. He earned a new nickname (Little John, “because my prick is little”) and discovered that most of the activists in his group were only there for the sex — or so he claims. He married hustler Ernie Aron, later Elizabeth Eden, partly as a political protest and partly because he loved being married. (“I’m a male chauvinist pig.”)
Aron insisted that Wojtowicz come up with the money for a sex-change operation or he would kill himself, so what could a fool in love do, even if he didn’t want his boyfriend to become his girlfriend? As it turns out, Wojtowicz was something much more than the hopeless, desperate romantic he purports to be. For one thing, he slept with one of his two co-robbers the night before the heist.
Suffice to say, Wojtowicz is no competition to Neil Patrick Harris in endearing himself to the public, and the larger gay movement wanted one of its most prominent members banished from the public eye. With their subtle editorializing touch, Berg and Keraudren suggest that sexual desire is so much more messy, complex, and diverse than the picture of almost-“normal” sexuality so many gay groups put forward for strategic reasons. During his five years in prison, Wojtowicz married a fellow prisoner. After his release, he indulged his addiction to tying the knot a few more times.
The post-prison interviews are in some ways even more fascinating than the tabloid-friendly crime that made him famous. Known all over the city after “Dog Day Afternoon,” Wojtowicz eked out a living as a security guard at the same bank he’d robbed earlier, sometimes posing with tourists in a t-shirt that read “I robbed this bank.”
His is a long journey into night, illuminated only by the remembrance that he was a hero once, or, at the very least, “one of the most celebrated losers in recent times,” according to the newspaper journalist who interviewed him over the phone throughout the entire robbery-turned-hostage crisis.
In between talking-head interviews and old news footage, the cameras follow Wojtowicz as he revisits some of the most meaningful places of his younger years. The apartment where Ernie first attempted suicide is now a falafel joint, the bank where he worked a medical-supply office. The rough-and-tumble East Village that inspired him to become the man that he did has disappeared into upscale restaurants and highfalutin boutiques.
Only the legend remains.