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Fri August 8, 2014
Movie Reviews

The Shaggy Story Of A Real-Life 'Dog'

Originally published on Sat August 9, 2014 9:24 am

A Brooklyn bank, a sweltering crowd, swelling cheers as Al Pacino's charismatic bank robber baits the police with chants of "Attica. Attica. Attica. Attica."

That scene, along with the rest of Sidney Lumet's 1975 classic Dog Day Afternoon, was based on a true story. Now, an odd — and oddly compelling — documentary called The Dog brings us the story behind that true story, and if you're anything like me, it'll leave you alternately amused and slack-jawed in astonishment.

Pretty quickly after The Dog's filmmakers introduce John Wojtowicz, a talkative fireplug who does sort of resemble Pacino, it will occur to you that a) he's kind of full of himself, and b) he has virtually no filter. He calls himself a "pervert" because he likes sex, talks about his four wives ("one female," as he somewhat ungallantly puts it), his 23 girlfriends, his many hookups with men, his enthusiasm for Barry Goldwater, his service in Vietnam, and his involvement in the Stonewall-era gay liberation movement.

Now, that last is something I'd never heard about, and is the sort of thing you might expect Lumet to have included in Dog Day Afternoon, but there Wojtowicz undeniably is, appearing almost Zelig-like in footage shot in 1971 as the Gay Activists Alliance planned and carried out a protest at Manhattan's wedding bureau. It's a protest in which he was not incidental, either. Calling himself Littlejohn "because my prick is little," he explains (as I said, no filter), he is one of the men who petition to get married.

All of this, mind you, before he met Ernie, the lover whose desire for a sex-change operation prompted the bank robbery. That story, too, is told with archival footage, including a TV station's call to John while he was still in the bank, in which he announces to the world — and remember, this was a far less accepting time — that he is gay. His then-wife, Carmen, remembers watching TV that day, and feeling as if somehow the robbery was her fault.

Filmmakers Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren spent years unearthing evidence that substantiated (or in some cases, refuted) John's stories, ending up with an oddly affecting tale populated by a rogue's gallery that Dog Day Afternoon barely hinted at — another male "wife" John met in prison, a mentally challenged older brother he clearly adores, and, most especially, the woman who is arguably the real love of John's life, his mom, Terri.

The filmmakers have been telling interviewers they have sufficient additional material for a whole other movie. And The Dog is eye-opening enough to make you kind of hope that's true. (Recommended)

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Finally this hour, a bit of movie history from the 1970s. Picture a Brooklyn bank, a crowd, cops and a charismatic bank robber played by Al Pacino.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DOG DAY AFTERNOON")

AL PACINO: (As Sonny) He wants to kill me so bad he can taste it. Attica! Attica! Attica!

CORNISH: Sidney Lumet's "Dog Day Afternoon" was based on a true story. And now, comes the story behind that true story, a documentary called "The Dog." Our critic, Bob Mondello, says it had him laughing and amazed.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Pretty quickly after "The Dog"'s filmmakers introduce John Wojtowicz, a talkative fireplug who does sort of resemble Al Pacino, it will occur to you that he's kind of full of himself.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE DOG")

JOHN WOJTOWICZ: Nobody would ever did what I did. Nobody would ever rob a bank to cut off a guy's [bleep] to give him a sex change operation. That's why they made a movie about it.

MONDELLO: It will also occur to you that he has virtually no filter. He calls himself a pervert because he likes sex, talks about his four wives - one female, as he somewhat ungallantly puts it, his 23 girlfriends, his many hookups with men, his enthusiasm for Barry Goldwater, his service in Vietnam and his involvement in the Stonewall-era gay liberation movement - something I'd never heard about. But there he is in footage shot in 1971 as the gay activists alliance planned and carried out a protest at Manhattan's wedding bureau.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE DOG")

WOJTOWICZ: We have two leaflets. One is an invitation. The honorable Herman Katz, city clerk, invites you to an engagement reception for Mrs. John Basso (ph) and John C. Bohn (ph).

When I was in the gay movement, I didn't use the name Wojtowicz. I coined the phrase little John Basso (ph), OK? Little is because my [bleep] is little.

MONDELLO: Like I said, no filter.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE DOG")

WOJTOWICZ: So that's where I got the nickname little John, and then I used the name Basso so people would know I was Italian.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN # 1: Are any people going to try to get marriage licenses? John, fine.

MONDELLO: All of this before he met Ernie, the lover whose need for a sex change operation prompted that bank robbery. And that turns out to be story-and-a-half, also told with archival footage, including a T.V. station's call to John while he was still in the bank.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE DOG")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: What's going on now?

WOJTOWICZ: We're waiting to negotiate the release of the people so we can get out here.

MAN #2: What are your terms for release?

WOJTOWICZ: Well, I want them to deliver my wife here from (unintelligible) county hospital. His name is Ernest Aron. It's a guy. I'm gay.

WOJTOWICZ: His first wife, Carmen, remembers how startling this all seemed and not just to the general public.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE DOG")

CARMEN BIFULCO: Put the news on - I was watching it, and I hear there's another bulletin out now. He wants to see his wife. And this is his wife. And they put the picture on the television of Ernie in the bride outfit, which I never saw before. And my relatives never knew Johnny was gay. And then I get the phone calls. We told you not to marry him, you see? You see what you did? I was getting the blame for the robbery.

MONDELLO: Filmmakers Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren spent years unearthing evidence that substantiated - or in some cases refuted - John's stories, ending up with an oddly affecting tale populated by a rogues gallery that "Dog Day Afternoon" barely hinted at - another male wife John met in prison, a mentally challenged older brother he clearly, the woman who is arguably the real love of John's life - his mom, Terri - and the man himself, John Wojtowicz, who says what he thinks - everything he thinks, even when it is distinctly not to his advantage.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE DOG")

WOJTOWICZ: I said don't you love your wife? He goes, yeah. I said well, imagine your wife is dying of cancer, and you needed $10,000, and you couldn't get it. You tried everything to get it. You tried to borrow it, tried to make deals - nothing worked out. Wouldn't you do something illegal to get the 10,000 to save your wife? He said no. I said then you don't [bleep] love your wife because if you loved your wife you would do anything for her to save her. You don't even know what the [bleep] love is all about. And then he sentenced me.

MONDELLO: The filmmakers have been telling interviews they have sufficient additional material for a whole other movie, and "The Dog" is eye-opening enough to make you kind of hope that's true. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.