Throwing Oscar adjudicators a bone: There aren’t many dogs (aka duds) in this year’s pack of nominated flicks.
And, no, this isn’t a post about front-runner “The Power of the Dog,” although it might be interesting to note the staying power of movies with “dog” in the title.
Case in point, canines have been featured in such Oscar-worthy works as 1987’s “My Life as a Dog,” 1997’s “Wag the Dog” (more about political louses than tail-chasing curs), and at least eight animated shorts from 1944’s “Dog, Cat and Canary” to 2011’s “Adam and Dog.” (Moviegoers’ pet pooch Lassie got nods with “Lassie Come Home,” up for cinematography in 1943, and for one of the treacly songs in 1978’s “The Magic of Lassie.” Man, in dog years that collie has outlived romanticist Francisco Goya’s painting “The Dog” by a long shot.)
This post instead is about how the crackling bank-heist feature “Dog Day Afternoon” (1975), starring Al Pacino as a nervy, nervous underdog thief, is stealing attention among today’s Oscar honors fetchers. That 46-year-old vehicle reverberates in two long-shot 2021 movies begging for closer attention.
Before this month, pretty much all I knew about the massacre at New York’s Attica state prison came from Pacino’s improvised performance in “Dog Day”: his raised fist and unrelenting “Attica!” chant. That single line has become a one-liner among cinephiles, repeated almost a joke. In my warped mind, I sometimes merged the image of Pacino outside the bank riling up the crowd with the scene in 1960’s “Spartacus,” in which enslaved survivors of a rebellion refuse to give up the identity of their leader, with their unified, upstanding “I’m Spartacus!” ruse.
What a shock, then, to absorb the full context of that hue and cry in Stanley Nelson’s “Attica.” This consciousness-raising documentary traces the five-day 1971 uprising in which thousands of incarcerated men protested their inhumane treatment — attesting they’d been treated worse than dogs — and took dozens of hostages as collateral for their civil rights demands. Through interviews with survivors and witnesses, and copious archived media that might have been lost to history, viewers are flogged with the all-too-familiar horrors of racism (70% of Attica’s population were Black men). It’s soul-crushing 50 years later, against the backdrop of I’m George Floyd, I’m Ahmaud Arbery, I’m Breonna Taylor, etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. ad infinitum … to realize change don’t look like it’s ever gonna come.
The parallels to the Pacino scene are uncanny. Snipers perched on rooftops; bloodthirsty, trigger-happy police amassing; hostages suffering from Stockholm syndrome and sympathetic to their captors; members of the media enlisted as leverage; helicopters looming like monsters. Then there’s the brutal way things play out — the evil duplicity of those law-and-order types who are ultimately unwilling to relinquish an inch of privilege. The prisoners at Attica were forced to relent. Pacino’s Sonny, even while ranting, symbolically waves a white towel — his surrender seemingly inevitable.
And Sonny was motivated (if misguidedly) by his own rights struggle. The film was based on the true story of John Wojtowicz, who needed the money to finance what society then called “a sex change operation” for his transgender lover, Ernie Aron. The real-life Wojtowicz, after serving seven years of a 20-year prison sentence, received $7,500 for “Dog Day” movie rights and gave $2,500 to Aron, who subsequently became Liz Eden. The movie was groundbreaking in dramatizing members of the LGBTQ+ community.
Nominated for six Academy Awards (best picture, leading actor, supporting actor, directing, film editing, and original screenplay), “Dog Day Afternoon” clinched just one, for screenwriter Frank Pierson. He drew his inspiration from the Life magazine article “The Boys in the Bank” by P.F. Kluge and Thomas Moore — who perhaps can take some credit for casting, because they described Wojtowicz as “a dark, thin fellow with the broken-faced good looks of an Al Pacino or a Dustin Hoffman.”
But the allusion to Attica was never part of screenwriter Pierson’s design. A 2018 interview with Pacino in Vulture reveals the line was improvised, the action feeding off the crowd of extras and onlookers:
“It was an assistant director who whispered the magic word to Pacino in the now-famous scene in which he rallies the crowd outside the bank. “He says, ‘Say “Attica.” ’ I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Go ahead. Say it to the crowd out there. “Attica.” Go ahead.’ So I sort of half got it, so when I got out there, I looked around. This is on-camera now. Cameras are rolling, and I looked around, and I just said, ‘Hey, you know, Attica, right?’ … And we start improvising, and you get that whole Attica scene, because an AD whispered in my ear as I’m going out a door. I mean, that is what movies are.”
In 2014, as part of a lecture series sponsored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science, Uri Hasson, an associate professor of psychology and neurosciences at Princeton University, explained how brain responses to films could be measured dynamically using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). After mapping subjects’ neural responses to particular “Dog Day” clips, the Attica! scene among them, he declared that 63%-73% of viewers’ brains were engaged — a remarkably strong response. He also observed outward manifestations of connection/emotion, like laughter.
“Attica” the documentary is guaranteed to deeply engage the brain and provoke serious emotion — in my case, outrage, tears, and unbridled fear for those still navigating racist brutalities in their daily lives. I don’t expect the movie to take home the Oscar — its competition this year is brutal (not as brutal as scenes depicted), and its narrative, building suspense toward a dreadful denouement, is jumbled. But it’s important folks bear witness to the buried history and also understand the undercurrent of one of Pacino’s iconic performances.
The other movie in this year’s Oscar race that pays unexpected homage to “Dog Day Afternoon” is the Norwegian offering “Verdens Verste Menneske,” translated as “The Worst Person in the World,” up for both original screenplay and international feature film. Who’s this worst person? Julie is no criminal. She’s a med student on the cusp of 30 who’s unsure what she truly wants in life — career-wise, love-wise, reproductive-wise — and how her indecisiveness affects those in her path. The title unfairly indicts her, of course, because many of us herk and jerk our way toward self-actualization.
One of her onetime lovers — played by the brilliant Anders Danielsen Lie, who happens to be a doctor as well as an actor — delivers an incisive line, something like: “How many times can one watch ‘Dog Day Afternoon,’ anyway?” That’s loosely translated and quoted, as I was at an actual movie theater for this one and not taking notes. Danielsen Lie’s character, a cartoonist and comic book writer, was reflecting on art, on the things in life with true value. He says something to the effect of: You can’t pass along culture in objects, you can’t really collect it, you can’t hold it in your hand. Although Julie, who works at a bookstore, reminds him, oh, but no, with books you can.
It’s an interesting testament to the screenwriter, who wrote the words and obviously reveres the American movie that snagged the 1975 award for best original screenplay. Just a passing reference, but one that made me sit up and wonder: How deep into our universal psyche does “Dog Day Afternoon” go?
Pretty deep, apparently. In 2009, “Dog Day Afternoon” was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress, and was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. I wonder if it’s been translated into Norwegian.
You may have heard about one special scene in “The Worst Person in the World,” in which Julie flips a switch and manages to momentarily test another life choice, an alternative pathway. The world freezes, and she escapes her domestic scene and runs through city streets to meet a potential love interest. Blissfully, no GCI tricks were used; folks freeze in place as she and the camera crew dodge and dart by.
I heard that on the day this scene was filmed, other passersby — or non-passersby, as it were — caught on to what was happening and extended the scene outward, filling in like an endless game of freeze tag, even though they weren’t on anyone’s list or payroll. It reminded me of the energy of the extras in the Attica! scene of “Dog Day Afternoon” — a fuse lit among the crowd but, in this case, inspiring stillness, inner reflection.
Our memories of movies live beside the memories of our lives, sometimes indistinguishable in our brains. No doubt John Wojtowicz had trouble remembering where he left off and the folk hero created by Pacino began. In fact, a transcendent 10-minute art installation dubbed “The Third Memory” features the actual John Wojtowicz re-enacting the 1972 Brooklyn bank robbery alongside footage of Al Pacino in “Dog Day Afternoon” and actual media coverage, including that Life article that inspired the screenplay. Sure would like to see the functional magnetic resonance imaging on that.
And that’s how movies amplify the stories of our lives. Some lived, others half-lived, some half-remembered, others impossible to forget.