“There is a continuum between male and female. Some are hard-wired one way or another, I’m in between.”
— Richard O’Brien, 2009
In 1972, John Wojtowicz, Salvatore Naturile, and Robert Westenberg went to rob a bank. It went badly.
In 1973, a musical called The Rocky Horror Show premiered on London’s West End. It went well.
In 1975, movie adaptations of the botched robbery and successful musical were released, and while it’s a bit facetious to compare a real-life robbery with works of fiction, the roles got reversed: Dog Day Afternoon was nominated for six Oscars, won for Best Original Screenplay, and earned screenwriter Frank Pierson the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Written Drama. The Rocky Horror Picture Show earned no awards upon release and was only saved a year later by a series of midnight screenings in New York City that gave rise to its current reputation as a gender-bending cult romp. Only history put them both in the pantheon of classics.
Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon and The Rocky Horror Picture Show have little in common, really. Even the fact that Dog Day Afternoon is a “Sidney Lumet movie” gives you an idea of the difference; Jim Sharman is, by all accounts, an excellent theatrical director, but has only a handful of film credits to his name, and if anyone remembers a creative force behind the film, it’s composer and musical creator Richard O’Brien. (This is, of course, not to denigrate the work of Pierson or anyone else on the films’ creative teams; it just underlines how much Dog Day Afternoon fit into the auteur movement of its decade and Rocky Horror didn’t.) Dog Day Afternoon deals in realism, with an authentic grittiness that makes you feel the heat coming off the sidewalks and the stink of the garbage. Rocky Horror is pure fantasia, visible even in the costuming and makeup of its ‘ordinary’ opening scenes. But both films wrestle, one explicitly and one implicitly, with gender, and how it was (and is still) perceived.
Rocky Horror starts with a pair of glossy feminine lips (Patricia Quinn/Magenta’s) lipsyncing O’Brien’s more masculine voice (in addition to his work behind the scenes, he plays Riff Raff). While the action starts in a satirically typical wedding, we’re soon at a foreboding castle, surrounded by partygoers, all anticipating the arrival of their host.
And what an arrival it is. Frank N. Furter is one of the most iconic characters of the decade, a corset-clad predator who wears sexiness like a shield and seduces with hardly an effort. He’s introduced as a “transvestite,” sings about wanting to be dressed just the same as Fay Wray, and dies in the arms of his creation, a scantily dressed, golden-haired muscleman. When Riff Raff tells Frank “your lifestyle’s too extreme,“ it’s hard to know just which part of Frank’s lifestyle has gone too far. The murders? The manufacturing of a fantasy man? The mind control? The fishnets? They’re all wrapped together in one fabulous, if somewhat toxic, package, and when Brad and Janet are returned to their “normal” lives, they realize they have been irrecoverably changed.
Dog Day Afternoon’s Leon, in contrast, just wants to be a normal girl, living a normal life with her normal boyfriend. Her problem is that her normal boyfriend is Sonny, a criminal who’s already married to someone else. She is in many ways utterly unremarkable, aside from her gender (in fact, when Chris Sarandon read for the part, he was told to be “a little less Blanche DuBois and a little more Queens housewife”). Her clothes are drab and ordinary, reflecting her recent circumstances as a mental patient. She’s not a gender outlaw. She just wants to live her life. Unlike Frank, who proudly wears the “transvestite” label, Leon sees herself as a woman and wants the world to treat her the same way.
But, of course, the crowd outside the bank (give or take a new faction of gay fans) finds even that too “extreme,” turning on Sonny when they find out the truth about his relationship (to be fair, Sonny is also a bigamist who abandoned his first wife and children). To its credit, Dog Day Afternoon doesn’t overtly condemn Sonny for his relationship with Leon. And the movie is clear that Leon is a sympathetic character who had nothing to do with the robbery, though it misgenders her pretty consistently (even giving the character, a fictionalized version of the real-life Elizabeth Eden, a man’s name). But sympathy only goes so far; it’s obvious that the creative team was made up of men, and they weren’t too concerned with the dreams or struggles of women, cis or trans. (Wojtowicz, the inspiration for “Sonny,” and his first wife both felt that the script and subsequent novelization treated Eden unnecessarily poorly. Carmen Wojtowicz was also poorly treated by the production as a whole, getting paid only $50 in 1975 dollars for her story).
Both Dog Day Afternoon and Rocky Horror have a rulebreaking, chaotic spirit that sympathizes with the criminals. Critic Christopher Null wrote that Dog Day Afternoon’s success came at “a time when optimism was scraping rock bottom and John Wojtowicz was as good a hero as we could come up with,” and Frank N. Furter is more cartoonish, but equally complicated and magnetic. But both movies find their outlaws paying a price for their actions, Sonny headed to jail (with his best friend and accomplice dead) and Frank leaving a beautiful corpse. Breaking the rules might be invigorating, but in 1975, it only got you so far.
The real Elizabeth Eden got her happy ending, for a time; Wojtowicz received a small cut of Dog Day Afternoon’s profits, and that helped pay for her gender reassignment surgery. She later married, then divorced, and appears to have lived a quiet and reasonably happy life before her death from AIDS-related pneumonia in 1987. O’Brien is still alive, married to his third wife and living in New Zealand. (He’s known to many youngsters as the dad on Phineas and Ferb.) For once, real life was kinder than the movies.
Fun fact: Chris “Leon” Sarandon was married to Susan “Janet” Sarandon when they were shooting their respective films. His memories of working on the film are worth checking out. (CN: some transphobic/era-appropriate slang)
Also recommended: this essay on the movie and a later theatrical production of the musical by a longtime fan and fan performer.
Special thanks to Anne Onymous for giving this essay a first look.