The deconstructed gender roles of ‘Dog Day Afternoon’

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A hot day in New York City: dense traffic queues; mothers taking their children across town; civilians with umbrellas raised to block out the sun; Elton John’s love song ‘Amoreena’ coming from a dirty blue car waiting outside a bank. A truly dog day afternoon.

Dog Day Afternoon (1975), directed by Stuart Lumet, uses a naturalist lens to deconstruct gender stereotypes, focusing on a relationship between a bisexual man, Sonny (Al Pacino), and a transgender woman, Leon (Chris Sarandon), wherein Sonny attempts a bank robbery to fund Leon’s Gender Affirming surgery. Naturalism, the attempt to make cinema appear as real and believable as the real world, is paramount to the film’s dreary and stark storytelling. Lumet depicts the tragicomedy through a muted colour pallet of greys and beiges in a New York bank. The neutral colours and lack of a soundtrack deepen the film’s depiction of society’s constraints on gender, intensifying the sense that the film’s aesthetics are repressed in the same way its characters are.

Lumet stated that he “could not reconcile trying to convince an audience that this really happened (…) with putting a music score into it”, he necessitated a realistic portrayal of the true story. A soundtrack would have made it too fantastical. Al Pacino’s performance only intensifies this, providing an impassioned and poignant depiction of a queer man who desperately wants his lover to be free from her male body.

Dog Day Afternoon is held together by its captivating dialogue; for instance, three-quarters of the way through the film, Sonny is still stuck in the sweltering bank, surrounded by police, yet, he is allowed to call his loved ones. Lumet parallels two phone conversations, convincing the audience to compare the interactions; he repeats the phrase “I’m dying here” in both, presenting his frustration with himself and others. The conversations purposely lack visual diversity, with only repeated beige close-ups whilst dialogue keeps focus. Yet, like his most famous film, 12 Angry Men, Lumet does this superbly; what the characters say is the centre of our attention. The cinematography prompts the audience to focus on the character’s appearance: the sweat on Sonny’s head or Leon’s painted nails. The stillness of the shots deepens the characterisation, isolating the characters from their settings and each other, entrapping them within their emotions. The prominence of the writing, exacerbated by Pacino’s and Sarandon’s acting, allows the audience to recognise that the situation between these two people is genuinely tragic. This emotional aspect of their relationship challenges stereotypes at the time, wherein transgender people were seen as sexual deviants, and their identity lacking in emotion. Through Lumet’s focus on emotion over sex, he challenges the 1970s audience’s expectations of queerness; Lumet successfully undermines and subverts the status quo.

Lumet challenges the status quo in media, fighting the consistent misrepresentation of gender nonconformity

Lumet contrasts Sonny’s estranged cisgender wife (Angie) with Leon. Sonny’s relationship with Angie is characterised as highly dysfunctional, a dynamic with a lack of understanding and communication as she focuses on herself. Yet Sonny’s relationship with Leon isn’t much better. It is revealed Leon is suicidal, frustrated with her gender dysphoria, and wants to give up, and Sonny’s response is less than helpful. Lumet states that it was about Sonny and Leon “trying to come to grips with what is wrong in their relationship”. Furthermore, his presentation of this faulty queer relationship only humanises these characters more, maintaining the theme of imperfection which runs through the film. This orthodox realism reinforces that queer relationships can be as flawed and dysfunctional as any other relationship.

Dog Day Afternoon is laced with comedy; however, it subverts the media norms at the time, wherein queer people, specifically transgender people, were used as a tool for comedy, and their gender nonconformity was seen as laughable. Instead, Lumet interweaves comedy throughout the movie, yet never once laughs at a character for being queer; Lumet remains deeply respectful to the characters involved and their gender and sexualities. He challenges the status quo in media, fighting the consistent misrepresentation of gender nonconformity. Lumet also exposes the prejudice and hatred towards LGBTQ+ people, depicting the public’s reaction to Sonny’s sexuality and Leon’s gender and their cries of “he’s a queer!”.

Overall, Lumet’s use of naturalistic direction not only fleshes out this comedy with the harsh reality of a true story, but also breaks ground as a truthful and deeply honest depiction of queer identities – undermining the essentialist gender norms of the 70s. Through the presentation of Sonny and Leon’s relationship, Lumet subverts stereotypes of trans people, challenging expectations that they are sexual deviants, adding an intensely emotional aspect to queer lives. Dog Day Afternoon is a film which allowed queer people to become knowable within a heteronormative society.

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