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.)

Top 10: Al Pacino Performances

In honor of the current book I’m reading Al Pacino: In Conversation with Lawrence Grobel (which is a great look into the actor’s mind, life and acting process) here is what I personally consider to be Al Pacino’s best performances. Al Pacino is regarded as one of the greatest actors of all time, his leap from the stage to the screen led him to a blazing start, appearing in some of history’s most famous films.

Although many like to poke fun that Al’s work gets gradually bigger and louder as time goes on. That he has now mastered the art of screaming and yelling on the top of his lungs, until it has become redundant. But nonetheless, Al Pacino’s performances are varied and vibrant.

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1. Michael Corleone – The Godfather

How can there be any other choice for #1? Francis Ford Coppola campaigned for Pacino against the studio’s wishes, refuting that there was no one else more perfect for the role. When he read the book, someone like Al Pacino was who he pictured in his head. Pacino would’ve preferred to play James Caan’s role as the hothead Sonny, (and Al eventually gets his wish and plays yelling hotheads many times throughout his career) but Pacino is masterful as the quiet, calculating Corleone. His still and subdued performance is much more powerful in the unspoken than any shouting could ever emote.

In this scene below, watch how he struggles to hold himself together despite the utter shock and contempt he feels for hearing what Kay has done. (And for a devout traditional Catholic, it is even more horrible) Note the wave of anger as he lashes out and slaps her, but you can see he regrets it as he quickly steps back.

There are far too many clips I could show from the first two films that demonstrate his fine work in this infamous role.

2. Sonny Wortzick – Dog Day Afternoon 

For all the stillness and subtly Pacino conveys in Corleone, he shows the complete opposite in his portrayal of Sonny Wortzick, a zany bounciness fueled by nervousness and hysteria. The role of Sonny was slightly controversial, a high-profile actor taking on the role of a gay man robbing a bank to pay for his lover’s sex change operation. This was one of the first main gay characters to ever appear in a mainstream film.

But Pacino doesn’t play him flamboyantly or override him with stereotypes, instead he is filled with passion and love for his partner. Overall, there is such a beloved earnestness in Sonny. The combination of that earnestness and naiveté is wholly endearing, as the not-so-well planned heist ends up becoming a media circus. (Foreshadowing the days of reality TV and the allure of fifteen-second fame.) His rallying cry of “Attica! Attica!” was completely improvised, earning the status of becoming one of the most famous film lines of all time. You can’t get a better example of Pacino’s energy and passion as an actor with this role.

3. Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade – Scent of a Woman 

This is the film that finally gave Al Pacino an Oscar. After being a seven-time nominee, most feel that this was given to Pacino more of as a consolation prize, making up for all his losses, rather than the part actually being deserving of one. Some feel the film is too long and overly schmaltzy. However, I view it as a heartwarming, moving, and triumphant drama with a lot of merit. Although it’s undeniable that the film would be nothing without Al Pacino’s performance. Al Pacino a Lieutenant Colonel Slade is a tortured soul, underneath all of his sarcasm and bravado, he is a lonely man. Blinded by an act of his own making, he is in the dark, both literally and figuratively.

Others feel that this role is very over-the-top and Oscar bait. But I think Pacino’s theatrical tendencies suit this character. Slade has got a lot of anger, a lot stirring up inside of him. And when it comes out, it over-bubbles.

That famous hoo-ha was Completely improvised by Pacino during his own private character work. If there’s anything I’ve learned by reading his interviews, is that despite a decades long career he still manages to take the time out to do private work for his characters. That’s someone who’s truly dedicated to their craft. Also, the closing speech is inspiring and audience-rousing.

4. Arthur Kirkland – …And Justice for All 

The film is a bit unbalanced, shifting between emotional drama and sitcom-like humor. (There’s really cheesy 70s sitcom music and close-ups) But Pacino’s performance certainly holds it together. Kirkland is an honest lawyer, he cares about the people and wants to obey the law and help as many as he can. This scene, below, I feel demonstrates some of his finest acting work, Especially when Kirkland admits that his client ended up hanging himself. The emotion in his voice and eventual breakdown is very well-crafted. You can really sense the other actor trying to keep up with Pacino’s skills.

…And Justice for All also features another famous ‘Pacino yelling speech’, one of the most famous. In his earlier days, before Pacino yelling became more of a joke and token staple in his films, you can see that when he nailed it he really did nail it. Similar to Sonny in Dog Day Afternoon, Pacino portrays Arthur Kirkland’s earnestness and passion as endearing and commendable.

5. Frank Serpico – Serpico

Al Pacino as Serpico is a famous and big role for him, between this and the recent release of The Godfather, he catapulted into becoming one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. It is also a transformative role We see him go from a clean-cut fresh faced rookie cop to a grizzled hippie police outcast, the only one standing alone for what he knows is right. Watching it, it is undeniable that Pacino carries the film. Both gracefully and explosively portraying the struggles and convictions of the real-life cop.

6. Lt. Vincent Hanna – Heat

Pacino sizzles in Heat, he has a lot of fun playing Vincent Hanna and you can see it. Pacino is able to run wild with his character, a wild-eyed hothead workaholic who struggles to keep together his crumbling marriage. But in the end, work is more important as he engages in a cat-and-mouse chase for the criminal Neil, played by Robert De Niro. Heat is famously the first film to bring the acting greats De Niro and Pacino together. Pacino brings his well-known bravado and theatrics to create a fun and truly memorable character.

7. Tony Montana – Scarface

Al Pacino’s role in this is iconic, so permeated in pop culture (“Say hello to my little friend” is perhaps one of the most infamous and widely quoted movie lines) that it’s hard to believe the film was poorly received when it first came out. Many felt that the film and performance was overly flamboyant, far too over-the-top. But Pacino, aligned with what he felt was Brian De Palma’s vision, wanted to make his performance operatic. And indeed, it is. Operatic as well as wildly entertaining. For all the extravagance that Cuban immigrant-turned-cocaine drug kingpin Tony luxuriates in, how can he be anything but over-the-top? There is no gray area or reeling in with this character, and Pacino goes all for it.

8. Lowell Bergman – The Insider

A lot of Pacino’s characters seem to be passionate, dedicated individuals who fight for a cause against the odds. In line with that narrative, Pacino plays Lowell Bergman, a reporter trying to take on the corrupt tobacco industry. However, for all of his passion this is much more of a quiet intensity. Rather than relying on his past theatrics, which work for other performances, this character brings a different kind of earnestness that we don’t usually see in Pacino’s other work.

9. Carlito – Carlito’s Way 

Also directed by Scarface‘s Brian De Palma, Pacino plays a character completely opposite Tony Montana. Carlito Puerto-Rican ex-convict who tries his hardest to stay on the straight and narrow path. It is a very quiet and understated performance, he tells a lot more through the eyes. Another thing that sticks out about the performance is that you want Carlito to succeed so much, you want him to be able to stay on the right path as much as he can, despite all the temptations along the way.

His character also brings a lot of humor, like in this scene.

10. Johnny – Frankie and Johnny

Frankie and Johnny is a rather underrated romantic comedy, featuring Pacino in a performance that we rarely see from him. Instead of his tough guy characters, we get to see his lighter side, an emotional and vulnerable man with a lot of humor and a heart of gold. It’s a sweet movie with Al Pacino yet again playing another earnest character. There is nothing deceitful about him for he lays all of his emotions out on the table. Michelle Pfeiffer is also exceptional opposite him.

Honorable mention to Two Bits, where Pacino gives a heartwarming and moving performance as a sickly and dying grandfather, a sweet and touching side we rarely see in his roles.

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In celebration of Al Pacino’s great work on film, I leave you with this fun remix.