Dog Day Afternoon: LGBT Characters in 1970s Film

Dog Day Afternoon was released in 1975; the real life events of the film took place in 1972. It is primarily a film about the death of the 1960s movement, with themes that touch upon the political anti-establishment, or disenfranchised Vietnam veterans. Sonny is challenging the system, the police and FBI, and becomes a symbol of anti-establishment for the crowd. (See the infamous “Attica!” scene) But Dog Day Afternoon also stands in film history for being one of the first films to openly portray queer characters. Between the real robbery and the release date of Dog Day Afternoon, the American Psychiatric Association declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder. Homosexuality (or any sexuality or gender identity outside of the norm) was rarely portrayed in film. If so, it was with a tragic ending, or diluted and merely hinted upon. (See The Children’s Hour. Also Midnight Cowboy, which was rated X at the time for “homosexual frame of reference” which is much more undertones than outright pronouncement)

The film really starts out as a comedy. Sonny is a fumbling and crazed bank robber that doesn’t really know what he’s doing. What was supposed to take thirty minutes takes over eight hours as Sonny, his partner Sal, and the hostages are in an eight-hour standoff with the police. Sonny is friendly to the hostages, doesn’t want to kill or hurt anyone but refuses to give up. Over the course of the movie we learn more about Sonny through his conversations with the police and hostages, and eventually meet his family and unconventional love life. This draws a rich and sympathetic portrait of who Sonny is. The tension boils into a simmering drama as Sonny’s background unfolds.

Sonny gives the police his wife’s address to have them bring her down. There’s another scene where we meet Angie, who the audience believes to be the wife they were called to collect. Angie is an overbearing, overweight, and overly frenetic woman. We learn she has two kids with Sonny. But then, about an hour into the film, we see an effeminate looking man in a hospital robe escorted by the police. It is Leon, and we learn that he (correct pronoun would be she, but it is improperly used in the film. Again, given the times) is a transwoman currently living as a man unable to afford sex-reassignment surgery. This surgery is the reasoning for Sonny’s attempted robbery.

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The police explain that Leon was located where Sonny asked them to find his wife. We eventually, through TV broadcasts, learn that Leon indeed married Sonny in a white dress and proper church ceremony. Although Sonny is referred to as homosexual by the news outlets, he is really bisexual. Here we have a 1975 film representing not only a bisexual character, but a transgender one as well. Also, technically, a polygamist! Sonny not only maintained his gay relationship but is also presented as being, at the same time, a ‘family man,’ with a wife and children.

At the time, Al Pacino was a huge star. He was hot off the heels of his debut in The Godfather, the hit Serpico also with Sidney Lumet, and The Godfather sequel. It was controversial and risky for someone of his stardom to take this role. Sidney Lumet says in the DVD interview “No major star that I knew of had ever played a gay man.” It was unheard of for a straight man to “lower” himself by playing that kind of character. Also, Al Pacino’s claim to fame was Michael Corleone, the epitome of masculinity and male power. A homosexual character (or rather, the idea of a stereotypical homosexual character) was the complete opposite of the imperious Corleone leader.

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Al Pacino had reservations for playing Sonny. (Pacino will go on to push the envelope even further in 1980s Cruising, which amps up the controversial content. He plays an undercover cop who has to find a serial killer in the gay S&M underworld. See picture below)

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In the DVD special features, Pacino talks about a moment that was in the script that didn’t get filmed. There’s a scene where Leon (escorted by the police) and Sonny meet in front of the bank, and after they talk they kiss. Pacino did not want to include this in the film, his reasoning that “When a relationship comes to an end, how often does sex come into it?” In the real-life event, there was no kiss. So yes, it is true to the facts that they did not kiss. Perhaps Pacino felt it would be disingenuous to their crumbling relationship. (After all, Leon is in the hospital because he tried to get away from Sonny by trying to kill himself).

Pacino continues by saying that the audience didn’t need to keep being reminded by pushing the gay issue in the audiences’ face. This sounds a bit ignorant, as if Pacino was covering up the fact that he wasn’t comfortable with- or even wanting to do, a gay kiss. But Sidney Lumet says that Pacino wanted to show “Two people who love each other and cannot find a way to live with each other.” Pacino finishes his reasoning by saying that he wanted to portray “the human conflict and the human cry for connection, and a kiss seemed to be exploitative.”

One has to wonder the kind of media reaction of the time if this kiss was included. For one, I don’t feel that we should sensor the physicality of gay relationships on screen for fear of “pushing it on the audience” or “rubbing it in their faces.” But in terms of how the relationship of Leon and Sonny plays out in the film, perhaps it was a good choice to not keep it in, even if Pacino is not wording it in the best way. He did want to show the humanity of these characters. It seems that he felt the connection they had should be shown as a bond of the soul. We can see the love Sonny has (at times misguided, but still strong) for Leon. Just look at his face after he wishes him happy birthday, you can see the joy he feels and how much he cares for Leon shining through.

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The phone call scene with Leon is one of the best scenes captured on film, thanks to Pacino and Chris Sarandon’s brilliant performances. Pacino and Sarandon’s performances are devoid of gay stereotypes and physical and vocal clichés.

There’s a scene where Sonny dictates his will to a bank teller. Actor Chris Sarandon remarked that at a screening he was afraid that audiences would laugh at the line “Leon…whom I love as no other man has loved another man in all eternity.” But the theatre was silent, enraptured in the performance. This is a testament to the believability of the performances and the writing of the characters, as well as a great leap for the 1970s filmgoers. There’s no mocking of these people, for they feel as we feel, despite being lovers of the same sex.

Sarandon said in an interview “This wasn’t about the relationship of a drag queen and his boyfriend. This was a relationship about two people trying to come to grips about what is wrong with their relationship.” They’re not erasing the sexual identities of these characters. But by showing that they are just two people that care about each other, that breaks down the barriers and preconceived notions of homosexuals. (Or bisexuals, transgendered, etc.) Remember, it was considered a mental illness at the time. They were looked upon as people with something severely wrong with them. But here they are shown for what they really are- human beings just like everyone else.

Dog Day Afternoon is a pivotal film in 1970s film making, an exciting and captivating piece of cinema that portrays one of the most engaging characters of all time, and sensitively portrays his sexuality and relationships.

(Please note that I am not saying we should overly applaud straight actors for playing gay, bisexual, or transgendered characters. (Etc. “it’s so brave of you!”) I just admire the filmmakers for giving them an honest portrayal. The actors do deliver fine performances. I know that proper representation by actors is important in today’s film making world, but this piece is framed with the 1970s film goers and filmmakers in mind.)

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Oscars 2015: Predictions

Here are my predictions for some of the Oscar 2015 categories! Boyhood-Bike Best Picture

Will Win: Boyhood

Should Win: Boyhood

Birdman and Boyhood are battling head to head here. Birdman perhaps is more deserving, a creative piece that shrewdly dissects Hollywood.  but I stand by the fact that Boyhood should win. Should we honor a film that may not be the most strongest narratively but purely for technical feats? Many feel that we shouldn’t. In this case, I think we should. You can’t deny that Boyhood managed to capture the magic and emotional resonance of time. We watch actors age before our eyes. It’s never been done before, could have easily failed, and I feel we should honor it for that. _MG_0817.CR2

Best Director 

Will Win: Alejandro G. Iñárritu for Birdman

Should Win: Alejandro G. Iñárritu for Birdman

Richard Linklater could easily win, but often the Best Picture winner differs from Best Director winner. The vote splits in order to honor the two films that are usually head-to-head frontrunners. (See last year, 12 Years a Slave and Gravity) While Linklater helmed a technical bravura, Iñárritu’s creative odyessy. michael-keaton-in-birdman-movie-1

Best Actor

Will Win: Michael Keaton for Birdman

Should Win: Eddie Redmayne for The Theory of Everything

This is hard. Again we have two frontrunners running head to head. I wish there could be a tie, because both are deserving. I am really starting to think Keaton will win. His long history in Hollywood gives him the edge, and this may be one of those cases where not only is the Oscar honoring the performance, but the actor’s longevity and career as well. While I think Keaton is deserving, Eddie Redmayne truly transformed into Hawking, which is no easy physical feat. I wish there was a way to honor them both, but I think Keaton will come out the winner. Julianne-Moore-in-Still-Alice

Best Actress

Will Win: Julianne Moore for Still Alice

Should Win: Julianne Moore for Still Alice

It’s her year. She deserves it. I loved Rosamund’s Amazing Amy, which is an iconic role that will be long remembered. I loved every actress in this category, and if any of them won it would be fitting. But she, and no other actress here, is no match for Moore at this point. Whiplash-7567.cr2

Best Supporting Actor

Will Win: J.K. Simmons for Whiplash

Should Win: J,K, Simmons for Whiplash

Another lock. J.K. Simmons as the terrifying teacher was an explosive and memorable performance, the best in this category. boyhood_hires_3

Best Supporting Actress

Will Win: Patricia Arquette for Boyhood 

Should Win: Patricia Arquette for Boyhood 

The only other actress in this category that I very much enjoyed was Emma Stone in Birdman, I thought she did a great job. However, Patricia Arquette’s tender performance as a single mom will take the prize. The-Grand-Budapest-Hotel-882x462

Best Original Screenplay

Will Win: Wes Anderson & Hugo Guinness for Grand Budapest Hotel 

Should Win: Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. & Armando Bo for Birdman

I didn’t love Grand Budapest Hotel, I feel that Birdman should take this category. But I think the Oscars will finally honor Wes Anderson’s long-standing career in originality and quirkiness. I also enjoyed Nightcrawler in this category, but it’s being overshadowed by these two films. Whiplash should’ve been in this category as well. THE IMITATION GAME

Best Adapted Screenplay

Will Win: Graham Moore for The Imitation Game

Should Win: Graham Moore for The Imitation Game

Inherent Vice was incomprehensible, American Sniper is problematic, The Theory of Everything had great performances but fairly tepid story, and Whiplash shouldn’t be in this category. The Imitation Game was an exciting, taut, and emotional story and is deserving frontrunner. Birdman-bilde-6

Best Cinematography

Will Win: Emmanuel Lubezki for Birdman

Should Win: Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski for Ida

Ida‘s stark black and white with tall landscapes were gorgeous, but Birdman’s  audacious style is likely to take this one. boyhood-ethan-hawke

Best Editing

Will Win: Sandra Adair for Boyhood

Should Win: Tom Cross for Whiplash

Strange that Birdman is not in this category! Sandra Adair will likely win for editing the 12 years worth of material. However, the heart-racing editing of Whiplash, especially in the thrilling drum sequences, are worthy of honoring.

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Best Original Score

Will Win: Johann Johannsson for The Theory of Everything

Should Win: Hans Zimmer for Interstellar

I’m partial to Interstellar‘s score, I loved the film and the soundtrack (especially the use of organs in the docking scene) made the entire experience overwhelmingly stunning. But Johann Johannsson’s score has been the frontrunner for this category.

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Best Visual Effects

Will Win: Interstellar

Should Win: Interstellar

Interstellar will likely be honored for their reliance on less CGI to create those breathtaking space sequences.

Scene Sound Off: Frank

The indie Frank could have been dismissed as trying too hard to be quirky, but it transcends these trappings with a surprisingly heartfelt ending. The film gets serious very quickly in its final scenes, turning out a rather thought-provoking story. Frank’s story revolves around a group of eccentrics and the struggling musician that follows them, their leader who happens to wear a Frank Sidebottom head 24/7. They go to a cabin to make the best music ever, which is really just an odd assortment of instruments and sounds.

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Towards the end of the film, after tensions from the group causes splits- we find out who is behind the Frank Sidebottom head.  In a scene preceding this, our main character finds Frank’s home and discovers who Frank really is- he’s been through an accident that somehow led him to want to hide himself from the world with the head. Frank is a damaged dreamer.

This scene- which ends the film- is a powerful one that takes the film to new heights. The main character, Jon, brings Frank to the bar where his estranged group of friends now play music. Michael Fassbender is an excellent actor- and he brings this scene home. His performance is raw and vulnerable. We see Frank’s childlike naiveté and shyness as he softly starts to speak into the microphone, the band picking up as his words turn to song. Frank is overwhelmed tears of happiness as he sings what is truly in his heart. He can finally be himself and has found a home with people he loves. “I love you all” It’s a sweet and sincere moment to see them all reunited. The ending gives me a reason to care about these people, more than just because they are quirky and weird.

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Our main character, after all the mess ups and chaos he’s created breaking up this group along way, has now finally managed to put them back together. He is happy knowing that Frank is in a better place, where he belongs, and he leaves the bar.

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The final scenes allow the Frank to make a statement on creativity and mental illness. When Jon visits Frank’s home, he assumes that Frank’s accident allowed him to become more creative. His parents tell him that Frank’s personality problems didn’t spark his artistry, instead they hindered it. Frank was also a creative and musical boy- his accident stopped him from flourishing as much as he could. This hits Jon hard. Too often the belief is that you have to suffer to make great art, or that great art is born out of your tragedy. Our main character muses on this throughout the film, after many unsuccessful attempts to create his own “masterpiece”, he often wishes he had a tragic and flawed life to allow his creativity to really come out.

The ending scene really seals the deal for the film- for me it was when I knew this was a great film and I really enjoyed it. The final reveal of Frank, and the final scenes, make Frank stand for so much more. Some may find the tonal shift of Frank’s broad comedy to the hard-hitting dramatics of the reveal to be a bit jarring. Others feel that knowing who’s behind the head ruins the enigma of who Frank is. He could be something to each person. By revealing the broken shell of a man that he really is, the filmmakers have ruined his powerful presence and mystery. I, however, enjoy the ultimate reveal. It elevates the film and again, saves it from falling into a trap of overabundant quirkiness.