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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