John Wojtowicz may be the perfect embodiment of Maslow’s ideal of self-actualization. The inspiration for Al Pacino’s character in Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon and now subject of Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren’s fascinating documentary The Dog, Wojtowicz was many things: soldier, bank robber, libertine, and both “Goldwater Republican” and “McCarthy peacenik.” Through it all, however, he was a lover. And it was his love of Ernest Aron (later Elizabeth Eden) that spurred him to realize, in his own words, “On Aug. 22, 1972, I had to do something.”
That “something” was robbing a Brooklyn branch of Chase Manhattan with accomplices Sal Naturale and (briefly) Robert Westenberg. Fifteen hours later, Naturale was dead and Wojtowicz was in custody, facing a 20-year sentence (he would ultimately serve five). Notoriety followed with Lumet’s 1975 film, but Wojtowicz was barely heard from in the ensuing 30 years, dying of cancer in 2006 at age 60.
Taken on their own, those events would add up to a pretty impressive legacy. But what makes The Dog so compelling isn’t Wojtowicz’s cinematic imprint but the place in history that was very likely denied him by chance and his own irascibility.
Berg and Keraudren spent 10 years making The Dog, interviewing Carmen, the first of his four wives (if you take Wojtowicz at his word, always a risky proposition), his mother, Terry, journalists, former colleagues in the gay rights movement, and one of his former hostages. The portrait that emerges is one of a vulgar opportunist, true, but also of someone who came that close to much wider notoriety
Wojtowicz and Carmen wed in 1966, fresh out of high school (amusingly, both were Chase Manhattan employees). Pro-military, he was drafted and fought in Vietnam. In the Army, he had his first gay experience (with a “hillbilly named Wilbur”); he adopted an antiwar stance following a 1967 rocket attack on Da Nang, which killed most of his battalion.
But it was after he returned home that Wojtowicz started making waves. He split with Carmen in 1969, later misremembering the date (June 20) as the day of the moon landing. He joined New York’s Gay Activist Alliance but was more interested in getting laid than pushing legislation. During this time, he met and eventually “married” Aron/Eden, and though against the idea of a sex change, Wojtowicz struck upon the idea of robbing a bank to pay for it, hopefully ending Aron’s self-destructive behavior.
To recap: Wojtowicz and Aron were gay-married … in 1971. Wojtowicz robbed a bank to pay for a sex change operation for his gay husband … in 1972. Archival footage of on-scene interviews bears out the surrealism of the situation, with a police spokesman clearly dumbfounded at both the questions he’s being asked and the answers he’s giving. Only the absence of TV helicopters and CNN kept this from turning into the 1970s version of the Bronco chase, while Wojtowicz’s own bluntness and lack of media savvy prevented him from cashing in on his infamy à la Henry Hill or Danny Trejo.
The self-described “Dog” of the doc was many things (manipulative, fiercely loyal, perpetually aroused), but he wasn’t naive. And perhaps it was his distrust of the system and refusal to kneel to others’ expectations that kept him in relative obscurity. From all indications, he was fine with that.