MIDNIGHT COWBOY (1969)

  • Director: John Schlesinger
  • Writers: Waldo Salt, based on the novel by James Leo Herlihy
  • Starring: Jon Voight, Dustin Hoffman, Sylvia Miles, John McGiver, Brenda Vaccaro, Ruth White, and Jennifer Salt
  • Accolades: 2007 AFI Top 100 list (#43), 3 Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director – John Schlesinger, Best Adapted Screenplay), 4 additional Oscar nominations (Best Actor – Dustin Hoffman, Best Actor – Jon Voight, Best Supporting Actress – Sylvia Miles, Best Film Editing)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on HBO Max, Buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

I came into Midnight Cowboy expecting it to really, really not be my kind of movie, and I was pretty much correct. Which isn’t to say that don’t both sympathize with the movie’s aims and, for the most part, see what many other cineastes see in it. It is really an exercise in radical empathy, with nothing to offer the audience besides its two very broken lead characters. In 1969, it was an enormous ask by this movie for its audience to sympathize with a male prostitute and his friend slash pimp, and it wasn’t really a surprise when the movie received a “X” rating from the nascent MPAA for its “homosexual frame of reference.” Much more of a surprise was that the movie became a big hit and a cultural touchstone, to the point that Dustin Hoffman’s “Ratso” Rizzo character inspired a Muppet that’s still around to this day, and it went on to become only X-rated movie ever to win Best Picture. Its success inspired further tweaks to the rating system, and only two years later Midnight Cowboy would officially be re-classified with an “R” rating.

Jon Voight, in his first major role, stars as the amusingly named (to me) Joe Buck, a young man from Rural Texas who decides that he is going to take a bus to New York City and make his living as a “hustler,” by which he means by prostituting himself to older women, who he believes will be unable to resist him. For the most part, this does not prove to be the case. He is eventually first conned and then befriended by Rizzo, a greasy New York low-life with a bad cough and a limp who lives in an abandoned building. Hoffman isn’t just acting in this role, he’s ACTING, and your mileage may vary. I was not willing to put in too many miles, I have to say. The movie’s most famous line comes when a car bumps into Rizzo while he’s jaywalking across a Manhattan street, and he responds by angrily banging on the hood and yelling, “Hey, I’m walkin’ here! I’m walkin’ here!” It turns out this line was not in the script, it was improvised by Hoffman after he actually did get hit by a car while the camera was rolling, and still didn’t break character.

Voight and Hoffman’s characters develop a caring relationship as they trundle through the seediest bits of Manhattan (which in 1969 were basically the seediest bits of the world), a milieu that hadn’t really been seen in a major movie before. Joe transitions from trying to bed middle-aged ladies to trying to bed men, with decidedly mixed results. We eventually learn through a series of flashbacks that both he and his then-girlfriend were raped by a bunch of hicks in rural Texas, though honestly I’m not sure what this adds to the movie. Meanwhile, Rizzo’s health deteriorates, for reasons that, other than a complete lack of medical care, are not 100% clear to me. Joe eventually steals money from a male client (John McGiver) to buy him and Rizzo bus tickets to Florida, where Rizzo has often talked of going. But by the time the bus gets to Florida, Rizzo is dead. In perhaps the single bleakest ending to any movie I’ve ever seen, the bus driver says there’s nothing else to do but drive on to Miami and deal with him there, so Joe is left there, bereft, with his arm around his friend’s dead body, while the bus keeps driving.

Midnight Cowboy is one of a series of extremely dark movies depicting the underbelly of New York City of this era, perhaps culminating in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. It is a world where good people are chewed up and spit out almost immediately. At the time, it might have been an interesting look into this world, but today I just find it depressing. Again, these were types of characters that hadn’t been seen in a mainstream movie like this before, but today they’re in every other indie movie, it seems like. No other character is in more than a few scenes, though Sylvia Miles did receive an Oscar nomination for her role as a kept woman on the Upper East Side who invites Joe up to her apartment for sex, but then when he asks for money loses her temper.

Unlike Scorsese and at least some of his contemporaries, director John Schlesinger was an outsider to the New York scene he depicts. This was his first Hollywood movie after a series of successes in his native England, none of which suggested a talent for the gritty realism he shows here. Despite this cinema verite quality, Schlesinger does make some interesting directing choices that Vittorio De Sica would likely have scoffed at, like showing the sex scene between Miles and Voight as a close-up on her TV, the channel changing repeatedly between vacuous advertisements as they apparently keep bumping into the remote control. Schlesinger was gay himself, and is likely primarily responsible for pushing the movie through the editing and rating process without significant cuts in terms of its “homosexual frame of reference.”

Voight went on to a long career, including a Best Actor Oscar for his role as an injured Vietnam veteran in 1978’s Coming Home. During his old age, he has found the time to become one of Hollywood’s few “conservative voices.” In one recent tweet he expressed support for President Trump’s attempts to overturn the recent election results and noted, “we all know what REALLY happened.” Over the past several years he has expressed regret for the activism of his younger days, which is ironic considering he got his big break playing one of the most explicitly queer characters in the movies up to that time, and later received his Oscar for a movie he made as part of his anti-war activism.

If you read the brief description of Midnight Cowboy, watching the movie itself is probably not going to surprise you. It’s a well-made movie that broke down barriers in Hollywood, but it’s not a movie that I’m ever going to purposely watch again. It’s not just that depressing things happen in it, it’s that the movie takes place in a world without hope. Everybody we meet in Midnight Cowboy except for the two main characters is unrelentingly terrible, and the two non-terrible characters never overcome this at all. Bad things keep happening to them, then one of them dies, the end. I am all for empathy, but this isn’t a world I want to spend more time in.

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