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Monday, December 31, 2012

Dog Day Afternoon With Charles Durning

Here we are at the end of 2012, and what a year it’s been.  On a personal note, the year began quite nicely, got a little bit depressing around the spring months, was great during the summer, lost a really dear friend in the fall, and as of December 31, I kind of have a mediocre opinion of 2012.  Not the best year, but far from being the worst.

I know people are looking at 2012 as being a rather bipolar year, and to be completely honest, I agree with you.  Some of the terrible moments of 2012 included several shootings in public places, a hurricane bearing down on several major U.S. cities, and countless talk about the American economy plummeting over the edge of the fiscal cliff.  But, there were also a lot of good things that happened in 2012 as well.  We saw the celebrations associated with the 2012 London Olympics.  We witnessed Felix Baumgartner break the sound barrier unassisted by machinery...and we survived yet another apocalypse!

So, really, 2012 has been kind of a mixed bag of sorts.

2012 has also been a rather good year for this blog.  When the year began, the blog had, on average, five thousand page views a month.  As the year ends, that number has doubled!  And, really, it’s all thanks to all of you for showing interest in this project.  I’m excited about 2013, and celebrating the second anniversary of this blog in May!  I hope all of you will stick around for the ride!

Now, as we close off the year that Barack Obama got re-elected, the Queen celebrated her Diamond Jubilee, the Costa Concordia sank off the coast of Italy almost a hundred years to the date of the Titanic disaster, and Kate Middleton and Prince William announced her pregnancy to the world, we welcome a brand new year with brand new promise.

For today’s blog entry...the last one of 2012, we’re going to be looking at a movie that garnered a lot of critical acclaim, and is widely considered to be one of the best movies of the 1970s.

And, there’s a particular reason why I have decided to choose this particular film.  It’s because one of the stars of the film was the late Charles Durning.

As I mentioned in Friday’s entry, Charles Durning passed away last Monday...the same day that television/film star Jack Klugman died.  On Friday’s entry, I promised that I would do a feature on Durning as well, so I thought, why not today?

Charles Durning was born in Highland Falls, New York on February 28, 1923, the fourth of ten children!  Sadly, of the ten children born to James and Louise Durning, their five boys (including Charles) lived to adulthood.  The five girls all passed away in their infancy due to smallpox.

Durning ended up getting his first taste of what it was like to be an actor in a rather unorthodox place...he was working as an usher in a burlesque house when he was asked to fill in for a comedian who had a little too much to drink.  So, Durning filled in on the spot, and when he received much laughter from the audience for his impromptu act, Durning knew that this was what he wanted to do for a living.

It did take some time before Durning ended up getting his wish.  After all, he did sign up for military duty right around the same time that World War II was in full swing.  Did you know that Durning was one of the participants in the event known as D-Day in Normandy on June 6, 1944?  It was such an historical event that we learned about in our history classes.  Who knew that a future Hollywood star ended up playing a huge role in that battle? 

Durning ended up being wounded by an S-Mine just nine days after D-Day, but recovered quickly and was back on the battlefield that December...only to be wounded again.  He was eventually discharged on January 30, 1946 with the honourable rank of Private First Class.

For his services to the United States Armed Forces, Durning earned the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, and the World War II Victory Medal, as well as receiving the National Order of the Legion of Honor in April 2008.

Charles Durning, I salute you!

Anyway, it was after his discharge from the army that prompted Durning to go into a career in acting.  He started off small, participating in various stage productions around the New York City area, but by 1973, Durning had landed his first major role in the 1973 motion picture “The Sting”.  He played the part of Lt. Snyder, a corrupt police officer who hustles con artists and criminals.  The role proved that Durning had the acting chops to take on a supporting role in the movies, but one could argue that while this role helped Durning get into the movie scene, it would be his next role that would keep him there.

And, that movie was the 1975 film, “Dog Day Afternoon”...the final topic for 2012.

That movie was released on September 21, 1975, and in addition to Durning, also starred Al Pacino, Chris Sarandon, John Cazale, and James Broderick.  The movie was made on a budget of almost two million dollars.  By the end of the screen run, it had made a profit of $48 million! 

Oh, and one more added note on its popularity?  It holds a 97% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  I’ve been on Rotten Tomatoes before, and for a film to score a 97, you know that it must be fantastic!

It seemed to garner a lot of buzz in the awards circuit as well.  Did you know that “Dog Day Afternoon” was nominated for a grand total of seven Golden Globes (winning zero), and six Academy Awards (winning the one for Writing – Original Screenplay)?

Charles Durning himself won an NBR Award for his participation in the film!

Oh, and it also won the honour of having the eighty-sixth most memorable film quote in the AFI special “100 Years...100 Movie Quotes”.  Have a look (but keep in mind that the scene is rated PG for strong language).


(  Got a wee bit caught up in the moment.)

Now let’s talk a little bit about the plot (and by little bit, I do mean little bit, as I don’t want to give away spoilers to movies here in this blog).  Did you know that as bizarre of a plot that “Dog Day Afternoon” seems to have, the plot was based off of a real-life event?

Going back in time a bit to the summer of 1972, the film was based on a bank robbery that took place on August 22 of that year.  Masterminded by John Wojtowicz and his partners Sal Naturille and Robert Westenberg held up a branch of the Chase Manhattan Bank in Brooklyn, New York.

(You might have guessed from the above clip of Al Pacino standing in front of a bank cursing and shouting like a madman armed with a gun that robbery may very well have been the motive.)

What makes the story interesting is the motivation behind the standoff at the bank. 

I suppose that it’s okay to talk about it without spoiling the plot too much, because according to Wojtowicz, the film is only 30% accurate. 

Wojtowicz needed the money to pay for a surgery for his romantic partner, Ernest Aron.  That surgery was to be a gender reassignment surgery so that Ernest Aron could become Elizabeth Debbie Eden.  As if the surgery itself wasn’t controversial enough given the time period, but in addition, the surgery was worth a lot of money to perform...more than Wojtowicz had.

Hence the planning of the Chase Manhattan bank heist, which set the stage for the main plot of “Dog Day Afternoon”, which only ended up getting made after Wojtowicz sold the rights to the story for $7,500, plus 1% of all the film’s profits, ensuring that he could have the money needed to give Aron his gender reassignment surgery.

Obviously, most of the names were changed in “Dog Day Afternoon”, but here’s how the movie story went.  Sonny (Pacino, who was supposed to represent Wojtowicz), his friend Sal (John Cazale), and a second accomplice approach the fictional “First Brooklyn Savings Bank” to put the robbery plan into motion, but almost immediately the plan hits a snag when the accomplice flees the scene before the robbery takes place after being spooked by a police car (the same thing happened with Westenberg, who fled the scene as well in the real-life version).

Once inside the bank, things go from bad to worse, and the movie makes it appear as though Sonny is the most inept criminal in the world.  It’s bad enough that the very day they plan their robbery was after the cash pick-up was already done for the day.  When Sonny attempts to steal traveler’s cheques and attempts to burn the bank’s registers to prevent the cheques from being traced, the smoke that billows out of the building causes the standoff to take place, drawing attention from the entire neighbourhood!

Initially, Sgt. Eugene Moretti (Durning) tries to diffuse the situation before anyone gets hurt or killed, and succeeds in getting Sonny to release a hostage, but it quickly gets out of control when Sonny starts his “Attica” protest chant, and the crowd that has gathered to watch the scene starts cheering for Sonny!

As the movie progresses, we end up learning more about Sonny’s motivation behind the crime, and we also learn that he may have been committing a criminal act, but inside he does have a heart, as he arranges to feed the hostages inside the bank during the standoff (which according to real-life accounts of the incident lasted fourteen hours).

And, yes.  That’s all that I’m going to say about the movie because I think it’s one that you have to see for yourself.  But, here’s a little bit of an epilogue for you all as to what happened to the real life players of the story.

Wojtowicz ended up being convicted of the charges brought against him, and was sentenced to a 20-year prison sentence.  He was eventually released after serving only six years, and lived a relatively quiet life until his death from cancer in early 2006.

Ernest Aron ended up having his gender reassignment surgery shortly after the release of “Dog Day Afternoon”, and as Elizabeth Debbie Eden, spent her remaining days in New York State.  She passed away from AIDS related complications in September 1987.

As for Sal...the eighteen year old who served as Wojtowicz’s accomplice in the plan...well, the decision that he made to join him meant that he had to pay the harshest sentence of all.  But, as I said before, I won’t spoil everything.

TRIVIA:  In the movie, Sal was meant to be in his late teens.  The actor who played him was almost 40!

But, you know, the reason why I chose this movie was partly due to the talent and the wonderful story that was told in the film...and it was also to honour the memory of Charles Durning, who really made an impact with his supporting role in this film.

Of course, other film roles followed after “Dog Day Afternoon” for Durning, and also appeared in “Queen of the Stardust Ballroom”, “Captains and the Kings”, “The Choirboys”, “North Dallas Forty”, “Attica” (appropriately enough!), “The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas”, “Tootsie”, “The Man With One Red Shoe”, “Dick Tracy”, and “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”.  He also had several guest appearances on “Everybody Loves Raymond”, and had a regular role on “Evening Shade”. 

One of his final roles was in the television series “Rescue Me”, which starred Denis Leary, and it was in that role that he earned his eighth Primetime Emmy Award nomination.

So, in addition to being a decorated war hero, he was also an accomplished actor who earned every single accolade he received.  No wonder he was so well loved.

He’ll definitely be missed.

Charles Durning

And, that wraps up 2012! 

Have a safe and happy New Year’s Eve.  Don’t drink too much, and don’t be afraid to rely on designated drivers or calling a cab home.  Remember, the best kind of parties are ones in which you arrive alive.  So, play it safe tonight, okay?

I will see you in the New Year!  J

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