John Schlesinger began the 1960s making excellent British social dramas, such as A Kind Of Loving, Billy Liar and Darling. By the end of the decade he was working in America, and had picked up the Best Director Oscar for Midnight Cowboy, his hallucinogenic take on the age-old fish-out-of-water tale. Adapted from James Leo Herlihy’s novel of the same name, the movie also won Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay in 1969, and earned nominations for three of its actors, Jon Voight, Dustin Hoffman and Sylvia Miles (who received her nod despite only appearing on screen for five minutes).
Voight plays Joe Buck, a simple Texan who moves to New York City with the hope of earning money as a prostitute, targeting rich older women. His naivety is a severe hindrance, however, and he is swiftly taken for a ride by another prostitute named Cass (Miles) and, shortly thereafter, by a street-smart lowlife named Enrico ‘Ratso’ Rizzo (Hoffman, cementing his burgeoning reputation in the wake of The Graduate). Joe is soon homeless and penniless, but a chance second meeting with Rizzo sees the two become unlikely friends and business partners, and Joe gradually increases his client base while Ratso teaches him how to survive by hustling on the street. Sharing a derelict apartment, Joe buys into Ratso’s dream of leaving New York and moving to Florida, but health issues and funds complicate their progress.
There are no hippies in Midnight Cowboy, but there is a timely end-of-the-1960s vibe to the film, and there are echoes of the death of the beatnik dream throughout, or at least an acknowledgement of the instability caused by the social change taking place in the US at the time. The three highest grossing movies of 1969 were Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, Midnight Cowboy and Easy Rider, all of which end on a downbeat note with the deaths of main characters, and their popularity could easily be seen as a reflection of the mood of America at the end of the decade. (Each of those three films, incidentally, focuses on two male friends. The companionship in Midnight Cowboy is the least likely and, in my opinion, the most interesting as a result.) Joe and Ratso may not necessarily be the characters that first spring to mind when the 1960s are mentioned, but purely in terms of the history of cinema, they are symbolic of the changes that took place in Hollywood at the time: Joe represents Hollywood’s innocent, western-heavy 1950s and early 1960s, whereas Ratso is the first in a series of streetwise male New York characters that would define the early-to-mid 1970s, a predecessor to Popeye Doyle, Sonny Wortzik, Johnny Boy, Travis Bickle, John Klute, John Shaft and Frank Serpico. Their friendship is a crossover, of sorts.
Schlesinger’s movie is filled with disturbing ‘bad trip’ style visuals, with one nightmarish sequence depicting Joe chasing Ratso across the subway system and another set at a drug-fuelled party in Andy Warhol’s Factory (in all but name, anyway; many of Warhol’s late 1960s associates appear), all faces coming out of the red mist and terrifying pretentiousness. Clever editing at other points plays with the viewer’s sense of time via uncomfortable flashbacks, and though these scenes help to create the film’s occasional darkly-psychedelic tone, they often clash with its gritty realism. Midnight Cowboy almost certainly influenced Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell’s Performance (Roeg was Schlesinger’s DP on his earlier adaptation of Far From The Madding Crowd) and its fast cut montages, designed to highlight Buck’s disorientation, have been imitated many times since.
Whether the sudden and overpowering visual segments are really necessary is a moot point. You could argue that they add to the movie’s sense of time and place as they clearly have a flavour of the late-1960s about them, but time and place would probably be clearly defined in Midnight Cowboy anyway without all the Warholian Technicolor extravagance. In his second review of the film Roger Ebert pointed out that ‘[Schlesinger] took those two magnificent performances and dropped them into a trendy, gimmick-ridden exercise in fashionable cinema. The ghost of the Swinging Sixties haunts “Midnight Cowboy”, and robs it of the timelessness it should possess.’
In his defence, it’s possible Schlesinger saw Joe Buck’s journey east as being somehow representative of the peace movement’s end-of-decade transitions, in which case all that ‘swinging sixties’ imagery would make slightly more sense. The Texan cowboy get-up Buck sports is a joke from the beginning: he’s no rodeo man or cattle farmer; he’s a blue-eyed dreamer, an innocent, and what little machismo he has seems to surface only when he is at his most frustrated. His naivety arguably makes him a personification of the early hippie subculture, and any small-town purity within him is seemingly destroyed by the cold, harsh reality of New York. (And even that concept of small-town purity, really, is shown to be nothing more than a romantic sham. The worst thing that happens to Joe Buck in this film is shown in flashback – he and his old girlfriend Crazy Annie (Jennifer Salt) are both raped by a group of men – and this occurs in Texas, not New York.) Real life knocks all the innocence out of Joe Buck, and he must adapt if he is to prosper (financially at least). There’s nothing quite as alarmingly prophetic as the deaths of Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda’s easy riders here, but what happens to Joe Buck in Schlesinger’s hands is, arguably, an allegory for the changes to the hippie movement post-Woodstock, when more and more baby boomers opted back in to ‘straight’ society in order to experience the comforts in life afforded by well-paid corporate jobs. In short, many stopped trying to change the system and changed themselves to fit within it, just as Buck adapts to his new environment in order to survive.
Still, there is much sense in Ebert’s complaint. At its heart Schlesinger’s film is a well-written, well-acted tale of an odd couple, and the two central performances are so strong it doesn’t really need all the psychedelic flourishes. Whether it’s a stronger work because of them is a matter of personal taste.
Voight’s early scenes are a little shaky, but he finds his feet eventually and the screen time he shares with Hoffman is highly enjoyable. His character struggles to come to terms with his own homosexuality, and unfortunately the script tries to explain away Joe’s preference for men by pointing backwards to the time he was raped, and the fact that his mother abandoned him when he was young. The idea presented here, that abuse (or a deficiency in sex-role modeling as a child) accounts for a gay man‘s sexual orientation, is a myth that has been debunked by leading experts in the years after Midnight Cowboy‘s release, but even at the time some critics were angered and insulted by the film’s simplistic suggestions. The more Joe struggles with his sexuality the better Voight’s performance gets; he’s less convincing as the cheery, rosy-cheeked man-child sitting on a bus at the beginning of the film.
Hoffman, however, nails his character from the outset. It’s one of the great, iconic performances of the period and it’s unsurprising that his Ratso has entered folklore as one of the foremost representatives of street smart New York attitude, which is surprising considering that Voight is the native New Yorker and Hoffman hails from Los Angeles. (The description of Ratso as ‘scuzzy’ in the film is actually the first recorded use of the word.) Hoffman went to the trouble of keeping pebbles in his shoes throughout so that the character’s limp would be consistent, and put so much effort into one of Ratso’s coughing fits that he ended up vomiting. Rizzo’s famous line ‘I’m walkin’ here’ – delivered as a taxi nearly knocks him over in the middle of a street – was improvised, although producer Jerome Hellmen disputes this on the DVD release. However Hoffman later explained on an episode of Inside The Actor’s Studio that they had timed the scene so that they could cross the street without any traffic getting in the way, and it was unplanned. The taxi ignored a red light and came out of nowhere, nearly mowing down the two actors, and Hoffman almost blurted out ‘We’re shooting a movie here!’ before delivering his legendary split-second ad-lib.
The soundtrack is similarly iconic. Harry Nilsson’s version of Fred Neil’s Everybody’s Talkin’ fits well with the themes of loneliness and alienation in the big city, and of memories and moving on. John Barry’s plaintive harmonica-led score also works perfectly, and it’s surprising that he never received an on-screen credit for his work. Bob Dylan wrote Lay Lady Lay for the movie too, but failed to complete it in time.
Midnight Cowboy may primarily be remembered for its soundtrack and that famous line, but the movie is filled with scenes that were quite shocking at the time, and these received far more attention upon its release; Hoffman later revealed that at the first preview screening audiences left in droves after Joe’s first gay encounter with Bob Balaban’s young student in the cinema. Midnight Cowboy remains the only X-rated film to have won an Academy Award, and is only one of three that have ever been nominated in any field (the others being A Clockwork Orange and Last Tango In Paris). By and large it’s a forward-thinking, boundary-pushing work that still resonates today thanks to its excellent performances, screenplay and soundtrack, and is rightly viewed as a classic of American cinema.
Directed by: John Schlesinger
Written by: Waldo Salt, James Leo Herlihy
Starring: Jon Voight, Dustin Hoffman, Sylvia Miles
Running Time: 113 minutes