Midnight Cowboy Revisited

By Tom Samp

In a year of great transition for American movies, when filmmakers had the freedom to take chances and explore more mature subject matter, perhaps no film was more risky, inventive, and enduring than Midnight Cowboy, the high point of the late-1960s movie revolution. 

Jon Voight as Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy

The story of naïve Texan Joe Buck, who travels by bus to New York City to hustle wealthy women, only to find himself sharing a room in a condemned building with sickly con man Enrico “Ratso” Rizzo, was an unlikely crowd-pleaser, especially since its X-rating prohibited viewers under the age of 18 to be admitted. A movie about male prostitution and loneliness, that reflected the era’s urban turmoil and frankly depicted a darker side of homosexuality, was not yet the stuff of Hollywood blockbusters.

Despite the age restriction, and the film’s bleak outlook, it was a popular and critical adult hit, becoming the second-biggest box office draw in 1969. Midnight Cowboy looked honestly at the people on society’s margins, the lonely, forgotten, offbeat characters that movies rarely featured.  It also boasted cutting-edge technical virtuosity in every department. 

Joe Buck has dreams of fortune as a high-priced gigolo. He learns hard lessons during a number of bizarre encounters, and loses everything before forming an uneasy alliance with Ratso Rizzo.  The film gets darker as Ratso’s health deteriorates, and Joe tries to find a way to get both of them to Florida. Along the way, Joe often seems to wonder, “What have I done to get here? And what do I do now?”

Waldo Salt’s adaptation of James Leo Herlihy’s episodic novel centers mainly on Joe and his descent into a seamy, dangerous New York City.  Salt creates an intricate journey, moving the plot effortlessly, finding humor and pathos in the material. Salt’s contribution to the film’s power and pacing is often overlooked, and it is key to its success.

Jon Voight, unknown to American audiences when he landed the role of Joe, is physically different from the dark, lanky drifter in Herlihy’s original creation. Yet the blonde, blue-eyed Voight inhabits the role like a natural, appearing in every scene, carrying the film with an expressive, good-old-boy charisma that barely hides the horror of Joe’s past.  Voight created one of American cinema’s most unforgettable characters.

Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy

Following his sensational turn as a clean-cut idealist in The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman brought a ready-made popularity to Midnight Cowboy as Ratso.  Hoffman is unrecognizable as the limping, street-smart petty thief, in a showy and impressive performance, which drew well-deserved attention and critical acclaim. The role of Ratso is one of Hoffman’s most fully-realized characters, played without self-consciousness, and with a depth of emotion that is alternately humorous and heart-wrenching.

British director John Schlesinger’s vision is bold and uncompromising.  Here, he applies the same sharp eye to American culture as he did to swinging London in Darling (1965).  There is not one wasted scene in Midnight Cowboy, and Schlesinger provides time for us to absorb the movie’s unique characters and milieu.  He also tackles some unusual, emotionally fraught material in this film. 

Openly gay himself at a time when coming out was uncommon in the US (and career suicide in Hollywood), Schlesinger treats the gayness in the material matter-of-factly, interpreting its effect on Joe in cinematic terms; what he cannot depict explicitly (even with the X rating), he portrays creatively, and trusts his audience to decipher the material.  

Some sequences, like one in which a desperate Joe brings a pathetic student for a furtive rendezvous in a theater balcony, is shocking and disturbing. The word “fag” is uttered by both Joe and Ratso at various times, and its casual use is brutally realistic, even jarring, to modern sensibilities. It can be argued that both characters are in deep denial, and use language as a shield against their true natures, in what is still the enduring ambiguity of the film. 

Joe, raised to equate virility with images of the American West, dresses in the garb of the American cowboy. He refers to New York men as “tutti-fruitis” to make himself feel more masculine.  Ratso, who knows that he himself is unattractive to either gender, uses his frail, abrasive asexuality to protect himself; and when Joe questions Ratso’s sexuality, Ratso never answers him directly.  Amusingly, when Joe and Ratso argue over Joe’s appeal to women, Joe mentions none other than John Wayne as a paragon of masculinity. (Ironically, Wayne won the Best Actor Oscar for True Grit that year, defeating both Voight and Hoffman, who were also competing in the category.) 

A major issue addressed by Midnight Cowboy is the idea of masculinity, in an era when gender fluidity was misunderstood, let alone accepted.  In American culture then (and to some degree today) being gay was seen as something less than manly, and therefore less valued. Those unable to hide their natures, or conform to expected American gender roles, faced homophobia, anti-gay laws, and religious damnation; in 1969 the medical community still labeled homosexuality as an illness. 

The film was fortunate to be released in a time of enormous changes. Midnight Cowboy was not itself responsible for the Gay Liberation movement, nor for the uprising at Stonewall; nevertheless, it is a sobering reflection of the world before Stonewall, and of the attitudes that fostered the loneliness, desperation, and self-loathing that kept people on the margins and in the closet, or to take drastic measures to find companionship.  The Stonewall protest took place in Greenwich Village one month after the film’s release and exploded into the Gay Pride Movement that we celebrate today. It was a rebellion in part against the marginalization of gay people depicted in Midnight Cowboy. Schlesinger portrays this world without judgment, giving the unpleasantness its due, while focusing on the unlikely and poignant friendship at its center.

Music adds much to the film’s tone.   Harry Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talkin’”, a quietly upbeat tune, establishes a sense of hopeful anticipation and fleeting dreams; it’s like Joe’s inner monologue.  John Barry, who composed some of the finest and most popular movie music of his era (including “Born Free”, Dances with Wolves” and the original James Bond intro) wrote the melancholy theme for Midnight Cowboy, featuring a plaintive harmonica solo by Toots Thielemans.  An instrumental recording of the theme was a smash hit.

Special mention goes to the film’s edgy, New-Wave editing, with intricate, dream-like flashbacks, an infamous party sequence, and a hilarious sex scene in which a pesky TV remote control gets in the way. Film editor Hugh A. Robertson deserves a tribute; each new viewing reveals more.  (Incidentally, Robertson became the first black Film Editor to earn an Academy Award nomination in that category.)

Sylvia Miles earned an Oscar nomination for her brief, lusty appearance as Cass, a shrill hooker who fleeces Joe.  A young Bob Balaban shows a quiet intensity as the closeted student in the theater balcony. John McGiver is wonderfully creepy as the cheap evangelist Mr. O’Daniel.  Brenda Vaccaro is Shirley, an elegant “alley cat” who becomes Joe’s first legitimate prospect. Barnard Hughes plays the complex character named Towny, who is Joe’s final pickup in a brutal scene that occurs late in the film.  When Joe is trapped into committing a violent act, and goes too far in his desperate attempt to save Ratso, the viewer is given no easy emotional release.

At the Academy Award ceremony for 1969, Midnight Cowboy won Oscars for Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Picture of the Year, a first for an X-rated film (soon after rated R).  This heralded the film industry’s (short-lived) openness to a more mature American cinema, and was a fitting recognition for what I think is a masterpiece.

Chris Ayers