Two Movies That Show Why Society Turns Criminals Into Celebrities

The lessons of the recently deceased screenwriter Frank Pierson's classics Cool Hand Luke and Dog Day Afternoon ring profoundly after the shootings in Aurora.

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Renowned screenwriter Frank Pierson—a three-time Oscar nominee who died in Los Angeles earlier this month—is best known for two films, Cool Hand Luke (1967) and Dog Day Afternoon (1975), that present us with anti-heroes on opposite sides of what might be called the celebrity spectrum. At one end, we have a prisoner who fights the system (and fate) for the sake of his freedom and integrity. At the other, we have a hostage-taking bank robber who risks lives because he craves admiration. Taken together, these two films, made nearly a decade apart, say a lot about whom society and the media pay attention to—and about how they're happy to pay attention to the dangerous or reprehensible.

Both Paul Newman as Luke and Al Pacino as the stick-up artist treat us to exceptional performances. But it's Newman who's in the more enduring film. Quite possibly the best prison drama ever made, Cool Hand Luke follows a man, incarcerated for drunken petty vandalism, who has so much fight in him that he continuously finds a way to beat the odds. That tenacity is dramatized in an early scene during which Luke manages to win a poker game despite having been dealt some terrible cards. ("Sometimes nothing can be a real cool hand," Luke says, thereby giving the character his nickname and the movie its title.) Luke triumphs, often, because he perseveres. Even in the corrupt place where he's imprisoned, he carries himself with dignity. Sure, he engages in the not-especially-dignified stunt of eating 50 eggs to win a bet—but more significant than that, he refuses to ingratiate himself with either the guards or the intimidating kapo, Dragline, who calls the shots among the prisoners. In the process, Luke becomes something of a spiritual beacon for the other inmates. At various points in the movie, it's even hinted that he's a Christ-like figure.

Getting his peers to worship him isn't Luke's goal, however. He rebels against the unjust world he's trapped in not to impress anyone but because he has to answer to his inner god. In fact, his celebrity status in prison can feel like an unbearable responsibility; his awareness of how much he embodies hope for the other men weighs on him, suffocatingly so at times. At a certain point in the film—shortly after he's recaptured following his second escape from prison—Luke is sprawled out on his back, physically bloodied and spiritually bowed, shackled hand and foot, as his fellow prisoners are gathered around him, clamoring for the next show of his incredible will. Unable to muster it, he shouts, "Stop feedin' off me! ... I can't breathe! Give me some air!"

You could say that Luke has a "self-destructive" streak (and that Christ had one too). But it is inextricable from his self-respect; he'd rather live—and die—on his own terms than accept an eviscerated existence. Luke is engaged in a daily existential battle for his soul—and as the boxing scene helps to demonstrate, he's one hell of a heroic antihero.

You can't say the same for the man at the center of Dog Day Afternoon, a true-crime movie that's very true to the story it's based on. The film recreates the events of August 22, 1972, the swelteringly hot "dog day" afternoon in Brooklyn when John Wojtowicz, a married father of two, held seven Chase Manhattan Bank employees hostage for 14 hours after he and his accomplice, 18-year-old Sal Naturile, fouled up a heist. Wojtowicz (who's named "Sonny Wortzik" in the film) is a screwball charmer who is so very entertaining, that we, the movie viewers (and, it seems, the viewers who watched in real time as his crime unfolded) tend to forget or overlook the fact that he's not worthy of respect or admiration—far from it—even if he might be worthy of empathy.

Wojtowicz—a Vietnam vet who wanted money to pay for his male lover's sex-change operation—seems to have been as much of a character in real life as his fictional double, captivatingly played by Pacino in what was apparently a realistic portrayal. (Wojtowicz, at least, was impressed. "Al Pacino's performance has to be called 'out of sight,'" he wrote. "His characterization was flawless.") In the Life magazine story that informed the screenplay, writers P.F. Kluge and Thomas Moore remark on Wojtowicz's "flamboyance" and his "reputation as a ... swaggering exhibitionist." They quote bank teller and hostage Shirley Ball as saying: "If [the robbers] had been my house guests on a Saturday night, it would have been hilarious ... Especially with John's antics, the way he hopped around all over the place, the way he talked. ... I really liked them both. They tried to be nice—except when they were cornered. Such aboveboard guys, they even told us they would kill us if they had to." Bank manager Robert Barrett told Wojtowicz, "I'm supposed to hate you guys, but I've had more laughs tonight than I've had in weeks." Rarely has Stockholm Syndrome sounded so appealing, huh?

The Life writers also remark on Wojtowicz's motives. "Deserted [by his lover and] low on cash," they write, "Wojtowicz groped for one master stroke that would provide for his wife and kids, regain the esteem of [his lover], and enable him to spend whatever time he had left living, as he had always wanted to live, 'high on the hog.'"

Wojtowicz—both as played by Pacino and, it seems, in actuality—was an ingratiating person who so much wanted to be liked that he was willing to rob a bank to ensure that he would be. And because he's a captivating character, we are much more forgiving than we would otherwise be about the way he broke the social contract and the law; about how he endangered lives and drained the resources of the police force in a dangerous city for what boiled down to very selfish ends. Though he's a man of terrible judgment and questionable morals—who, let's not forget, would've killed someone if he had to—he becomes something of a folk hero and media darling mainly because he has a lot of personality. (These days, there's a steady stream of people with terrible judgment and questionable morals who become media darlings. They're called reality-TV stars.)

As the movie emphasizes, Wojtowicz recognized that the news media and its rubber-necking audience was helping to make him a celebrity, thereby imbuing him with a power he wouldn't have had otherwise. That power served as a kind of life insurance, virtually guaranteeing that the FBI would handle him with kid gloves. As the Life writers noted, Wojtowicz told Barrett, "I want people out there, I want reporters out there; they're what's keeping me alive."

Kept alive he was. Towards the end of the long siege, Wojtowicz demanded that the FBI provide him with an airplane so that he and Sal could escape the country with their hostages. Wojtowicz was overpowered and arrested at Kennedy Airport. His young partner, shot and killed on the tarmac, didn't get off so easily. (Perhaps it was just a coincidence that he didn't have nearly as much charisma as Wojtowicz; perhaps it wasn't.) Luckily for Wojtowicz and everyone else involved—and it really did have a lot to do with luck—the death count wasn't higher.

In his 1975 review of Dog Day Afternoon, Roger Ebert made an important point about Wojtowicz's apparent motives. "Criminals become celebrities because their crimes provide fodder for the media," he wrote. "Many of the fashionable new crimes—hijacking, taking hostages—are committed primarily as publicity stunts."

Earlier this month, Ebert again made that point, but under much grimmer circumstances. James Holmes, the shooter who killed 12 people at a screening of The Dark Knight Rises, may "have been drawn to a highly publicized event with a big crowd," the critic wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed. "In cynical terms, he was seeking a publicity tie-in. ... I don't know if James Holmes cared deeply about Batman. I suspect he cared deeply about seeing himself on the news."

The media has dug into all aspects of Holmes's personal life, from his dating-website profile to his high-school hobbies, even though research has shown that doing so only encourages copycats, and history has shown that violent people—all the way back to fourth-century-BC Greece—often do terrible things in search of notoriety. Dog Day Afternoon provides another example of how society fixates on, and thereby rewards, its bad actors. And though Pierson's two great film characters, Luke and Wojtowicz, both get classified as antiheroes, the events in Colorado should make our culture rethink its terms and its fixations. Luke, who ends up an inmate icon by rebelling conscientiously without harming others, deserves to be called some kind of hero. He's worthy of attention. But people who hold civilization hostage, harm others, and manage to grab publicity in the process aren't worthy. They're just villains.

In a 2008 look back at Cool Hand Luke, Ebert wrote, "Rarely has an important movie star suffered more, in a film wall-to-wall with physical punishment [and] psychological cruelty [than Newman did] ... [S]uch a film could not possibly be made in more recent decades, not one starring Brad Pitt ... or other actors comparable to Paul Newman's stature. It is simply too painful. I can imagine a voice at a studio pitch meeting: 'Nobody wants to see that.'" He seems to be right. These are dog days indeed.