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Dog Day Afternoon: A Retrospective

Looking back on the 1975 film Dog Day Afternoon and the wider represenation of trans characters in Hollywood.

Dog Day Afternoon poster.

“You know something people? You’re gonna be remembered the rest of your lives, for the day you got held up and kidnapped”.

If you’ve never seen Dog Day Afternoon (1975) before, you could be forgiven for thinking that it is a fairly standard (albeit brilliantly made) heist movie. It’s only when you discover why it happens that the importance of this movie truly comes to the fore. For those not in the know, here’s a brief synopsis of the film:

Protagonists Sonny (Al Pacino) and Sal (John Cazale) attempt to rob a New York bank but the police arrive before they can escape. In the subsequent hysteria, the pair panic and take the bank staff as hostages. And this is all within the opening twenty minutes.

Sal (John Cazale) and Sonny (Al Pacino)

During the hours which follow, an almighty stand-off ensues between Sonny and Sal, and the FBI, with swathes of circling media teams and Joe Public clamouring for a better view. After mounting tension and verbal sparring on the telephone between Sonny and Police Detective Sergeant Moretti, a new entity is introduced. And this is where the story really comes into its own. Cue Leon, Sonny’s partner, who reveals the very motive for the robbery: to pay for Leon’s gender reassignment surgery.

Sonny (Al Pacino) negociating with the FBI.

The stalemate continues long into the night, with the ever-determined Sonny and Sal growing increasingly frantic making a list of demands: pizza, Coca-Cola and a car to JFK where a private jet will be waiting to take them wherever they want.

Eventually, the FBI succumb to the pair’s wishes, providing a limousine which takes them – as well as several hostages – to the airport. They only make it as far as the runway tarmac, where Sal is killed by the police and Sonny is arrested. It is at this point that text appears on screen telling us that Sonny was sentenced to twenty years in prison and Leon is living as a woman in New York City and you realise – if you didn’t know already – that this is all a TRUE STORY.

The real Elizabeth and Sonny

What is so good about Dog Day Afternoon is not just that it’s a true story, or even that it is one of the all-time great thrillers, but the way that it deals with trans visibility – over forty-five years ago. Now don’t get me wrong, Dog Day is not ground-breaking in its representation of a trans character. It could be considered good trans representation in Hollywood for the mid-1970s, but only by virtue of the fact that the character is trans. The trans character Leon (the real-life Elizabeth Eden) is portrayed by a cis man (Chris Sarandon) and, if the film were released today, the congratulations would stop there – at what is a very low bar indeed. That having been said, between 2016 and 2019 there were ZERO trans characters in major Hollywood films whatsoever (GLAAD 2020 Studio Responsibility Index). Perhaps, it seems, Dog Day Afternoon should get a bit more credit?

Dog Day came at a time when trans representation was scarce. Even homosexual representation in Hollywood was often reduced to camp caricatures and quasi-queer representations of the LGBTQ+ community. Often, transgender characters are included in movies made BY cis people, FOR cis people. This isn’t to say that cis directors will make lousy films about trans people, but to have such a lack of perspective cannot be ignored.

So often had trans women been the butt of the joke in mainstream cinema. They are the crazy/mentally unstable (Ed Wood as Glen/Glenda in Glen or Glenda, 1953). They are the cross-dressing murderer (Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates in Psycho, 1960), a stereotype which has perpetuated the belief that trans women are to be mistrusted or feared. Transploitation in film has persisted throughout history and is still found in 21st century cinema. There’s the controversial Ticked Off Trannies With Knives (2010), which misrepresents trans women as maniacs hell-bent on revenge and uses exploitative depictions of violence against trans women. Films like Ticked Off Trannies trivialises the brutality trans women too often face.

Leon, portrayed by Chris Sarandon

Dog Day‘s Leon does fall into one trans stereotype: that of the transition narrative. There’s nothing wrong with discussing the transition, of course, but trans people are – at times – reduced to their transition. It’s all we are told about them, and so the transition can become a sort of faux personality trait in itself. It’s unfair to tar Leon with the same brush, chiefly because the story is true. We know the plot revolves around the fact that Sonny tried to rob the bank to pay for Leon’s surgery. What we don’t know is Leon’s motivation. Leon’s side of the story. Leon lacks representation. This is perhaps most obvious when we consider that Leon is never referred to as Elizabeth (Eden), even when we are told that she is living as a woman at the end. It seems like Hollywood is too scared to give her her name, even though they refer to her as a woman.

Sonny’s mugshot.

It’s worth pointing out that, whilst based on true events, there are a number of inaccuracies in Dog Day Afternoon anyway. The real Leon’s name was Ernest before it was Elizabeth. Sonny’s surname is also changed in the movies. The real Sonny ‘Wojtowicz’ himself said the movie is only “30% accurate”. That being said, I think it’s best to remember that it is a movie from the 1970s, and also to bear in mind the following: this is perhaps not a trans story, but a story with a real-life trans person at the heart of it. A trans person whose story is told with conviction. The scenes between Sonny and Leon are not presented in a stereotypical bawdy 1970s hypersexualised view of homosexuality, but instead, with a delicate realism. We are not shown a drag queen and their boyfriend, rather a couple having an honest, raw and real conversation.

Make no mistake: regardless of motivation and context, Dog Day Afternoon is a fantastic movie, but its place in trans representation is something that it should be heralded for when, even today, LGBT+ communities are often reduced to stereotypes in cinema. Perhaps Hollywood should look back before looking forward.

Charlie writes about all sorts of things like pop culture, football, foodie stuff and nightlife. He can usually be found nattering on Twitter @charleshutton_.

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