Midnight Cowboy

(USA - 1969)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Jon Voight, Dustin Hoffman
Genre: Drama
Director: John Schlesinger
Screenplay: Waldo Salt based on the James Leo Herlihy novel
Cinematography: Adam Holender
Composer: John Barry, Jean "Toots" Theilemans, Harry Nilsson
Runtime: 113 minutes

Everybody's talkin' at me
I don't hear a word they're sayin'
Only the echoes of my mind.
People stop and starin'
I can't see their faces
Only the shadows of their eyes
I'm goin' where the sun keeps shinin'
Through the pourin' rain.
Goin' where the weather suits my clothes
Bankin' off of the northeast winds
Sailin' on summer breeze
And skippin' over the ocean like a stone...
"Everybody's Talkin'" by Harry Nilsson

This song fits Joe Buck (Jon Voight) perfectly because the most obvious fact about him is he sees what he wants to see. He doesn't process images like a normal human being, everything is filtered though the clouds of his hopes, dreams, wants, and delusions. Joe is a dumb Texas hick, oblivious to the ways of the world. However, this obliviousness comes more from being a product of his society than from not being able to spell a five letter word and believing he gets car sick on a boat from the fish smell.

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Joe is very much a daydreamer. The film is constructed with a series of flashbacks and dream sequences that are triggered by as much as an incident reminding Joe of something "similar" that happened to him and as little as the word Sally in a shop window making him think of his dead Grandmother Sally Buck (Ruth White). While these visions of his ideal life and nightmares of all his previous misfortunes are running through his head, the truth that stands before him is passing him right by.

Joe's biggest misstep is buying into the images and words he sees and hears. His worldview seems to have been formed through John Wayne's movies and The National Enquirer's brand of "facts." We listen to WABC radio from New York with him, and witness him disturb the bus by giving a good ol' Texas holler when he learns from an interview that he perfectly fits the local women's ideal of a man, which is as follows:

A man who takes pride in his appearance.
I think consideration first.
Tall, definitely tall.
Someone I can talk to in bed.
A good sense of humor, not afraid of sex.
A Texas oil man. Aggressiveness.
Outdoor type. A rebel.
Young. Youth.

Joe was a simple no ambition Dishwashing Cowboy on the road to nowhere. In this small nothing town he might have been the #1 stud with women falling all over him. Realizing "the only one thing I ever been good for is lovin'," he concocts this naïve idea that he's going to quit his job like a movie cowboy ("You know what you can do with dem dishes. And if you want man enough to do it for yourself, I'd be happy to oblige. I really would."), hop on a bus to the Big Apple, and immediately become The New York Gigolo. I wouldn't recommend boring yourself with Frank Sinatra, but Joe should have paid attention to the part of "New York, New York" that goes "If you can make it here, you'll make it anywhere." Obviously there's more opportunity in a big city, but if this new lifestyle was so easy why was Joe doing a minimum wage job rather than living off some rich women in Texas?

Joe thinks of himself as a John Wayne type, but seemingly a version with Cary Grant's mystical powers of entrancing women. He doesn't have anything that could be called a plan even by the loosest use of the word. He's just a macho narcissist drawn by the mystique of being a studly cowboy hustler because movies, television, print media, and radio have at least indirectly made such a lifestyle cool and heroic. They've glamorized these kind of images, and made them seem easy to achieve. He's built New York City up in his mind, but when he finally gets there it's nothing like he's imagined.

Midnight Cowboy is a movie that destroys myths and demonstrates the difficulty of trying to attain one's dreams. Joe's great misconception of media leads to broken dreams, promises, and hopes when Joe tries to live his version of the American dream. The film wastes no time in pointing out Joe's lack of intelligence, style, class, tact, quick thinking, brainpower and so on make him unable to succeed in a place he doesn't understand in the least.

John Schlesinger, one of Britain's most acclaimed directors of the 1960's whose last two movies Darling & Far From the Maddening Crowd had even received Academy Award nominations (Darling a good movie that utilized Schlesinger's background in documentary won 3 including an undeserved Julie Christie as best actress but Maddening Crowd, also a very good movie this time with typically brilliant cinematography by Nicolas Roeg, was not too well received at the time), chose Midnight Cowboy as his first American movie. Being an outsider like his main character, Schlesinger was able to give the movie the exact opposite feel you get from watching a New York movie by Martin Scorsese, who knows the city so intimately. You don't get a great understanding of why the people are the way they are, live as they do, but that gives you a strong feeling of alienation that works perfectly when the story is about a clueless shunned outsider.

Similar to Paul Verhoeven's RoboCop (the second American film by the Netherlands' director, but his first set in the US), one of the best things about the movie is the observations of an outsider who rightfully doesn't approve of everything he sees and certainly is unafraid to point it out. Schlesinger proves he has the guts to handle bleak, dark, dismal material from start to finish without coping out. He approaches all but the two main stars, which happen to be men hence the complaints of a fearfully one-dimensional depiction of women, with ruthless cynicism. He creates a cold, heartless, impersonal city of uncaring zombies that only associate with others when they need or at least want something from them.

The most biting commentary in a film built around moral and social decline shows the self-centered city dwellers nearly walking over a man who has passed out on the sidewalk in front of a jewelry store. Some of them are too busy to notice the guy exists, but most of them simply don't care. Joe is the only one that stops next to the man, but he's not exactly The Good Samaritan. He's created his image based on the myth of coolness, so rather than go against the grain (everything about him actually does but he can't see this), he decides that it's acceptable behavior to keep walking and leave the poor man to die or whatever. This commentary is practically mirrored at the end to show that it's not NY which is the cancer, it's the entire country.

The most famous scene in the film is when Joe & Ratso, not caring about anyone else that inhabits "their" street, walk through a Don't Walk sign. Ratso, nearly run over by a cab driver who as luck would have it was paying enough attention to his surroundings to stop just in time, pounds on the hood of the cab screaming "I'm walkin' here! I'm walkin' here!" as he points to "his" spot in the middle of the road and they begin swearing at each other. In addition to the callous selfishness of the unneighborly New Yorkers, a bit of Ratso's scheming persona is revealed when he mentions to Joe, "Actually that ain't a bad way to pick up insurance, you know?" What's weird about the film is you want to laugh at scenes like this and their various petty thefts, but they cease to be humorous when you realize they are simply the reality of this life.

Not only is Joe far from a natural hustler, he's not a quick student of the game. Mainly he just walks around the city with his Midnight Cowboy get up smiling toward people who don't notice him, or doing silly things like grabbing a kid's balloon from behind in a pitiful attempt to draw attention to himself. When someone does deal with him he makes crucial mistakes like expecting change when he gives the butler a large bill as a tip, getting taken for $20 "cab fare" because he held his wallet full of money open by an aging hooker (Sylvia Miles) he mistakenly picked up thinking she was one of those desperate woman that were going to pay him, paying Ratso twice for an introduction before he sees who he's introducing him to, and generally not "hustling" the people he's just "performed" for because he feels sorry for them. His ever-increasing guilt about his choice of professions grows that much more when he sees two people on TV making a living dressing up a dog to look like a child. The host, of course a hypocrite because he voices his distaste but his show is what's giving them their notoriety, asks, "Isn't this really a case of conning a lot of lonely people?"

Joe is not willing or able to see himself clearly. He can only concede that he's failing (miserably) because he doesn't have proper management. He meets Enrico Salvatore "Ratso" Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) in a bar. Quickly impressed by the way Ratso knows the ropes, and not taken aback by him snatching his last cigarette that was intended for a cross dresser that was trying to hit on Joe, Joe buys Ratso a drink and starts spilling his guts. When Ratso is a bit lost by Joe's escapade with the hooker, Joe says, "Oh hell, I'm a hustler. You didn't know that?" Joe's dream that a hustler was some glorious hip recognizable thing, perhaps the modern day cowboy, should have been crushed when Ratso kindly responded, "How am I supposed to know that? I mean, you gotta tell a person these things." Of course, Joe is slow and Ratso is not so kind. Seeing Joe is so clueless about the territory the slimy Ratso knows so well because he's been forced to learn the hard way, Ratso manipulates him into a meeting with a guilt ridden homosexual religious fanatic pimp. This bushy eyebrowed bald old buzzard named Mr. O'Daniel (John McGiver), who looks like he would have been a prime candidate for a bit part in the Twelve Monkeys insane asylum had that movie been made earlier, warns Joe in a twisted evangelistic way "I'm gonna use ya! I'm gonna run ya ragged!" but Joe happily responds with a cowboy yell.

The key to the film is the platonic friendship formed by Joe and Ratso, which recalls John Steinbech's Of Mice and Men. This outcast duo are not the iconography of the time period like Joe would like to think, they are the victims, the people this society would sweep under the rug if it wasn't too much effort.

Ratso is a sickly vagabond who would look like he was on his last leg even if he wasn't gimping around. When we see Ratso for the second time, a lot more than his hair is greasy. He's no longer sporting his nice clean suit that he probably stole from somebody. Instead he has holes in his socks and nothing to offer Joe but 64 cents worth of sticky coins and half of an already extinguished cigarette. He looks like a bum, but Joe still looks more out of place with his Stetson and spit polished boots.

Ratso as we see him now and throughout the rest of the film is probably as he always was, a man doomed to a life of doing whatever schemes and tricks he can come up with to scrape a living on the street. He is a survivor, but I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that he's only in this position because he wasn't going to work a legitimate low paying job like his father the shoe shiner.

"End up a hunchback like my old man? If you think I'm crippled, you should have caught him at the end of the day. My old man spent fourteen hours a day down in that subway. He come home at night, two to three hours worth of change stained with shoe polish. Stupid bastard coughed his lungs out from breathin' in that wax all day. Even a faggot undertaker couldn't get his nails clean. They had to bury him with gloves on."

While Joe looks at stealing as the last resort, we get the idea that Ratso wouldn't have it the other way. Trusting a man like this is a huge risk for Joe, especially considering Ratso screwed him over the first time. At this point, Joe really has nothing to lose though. He's cynical and skeptical of what Ratso wants from him, fearing he's a homosexual even though Ratso has already made homophobic remarks, but figuring he's tougher than Ratso and has no money left to lose, he accepts Ratso's invitation to "his" place, a dirty roach infested East Village tenement building. "The X on the windows means the landlord can't collect rent, which is a convenience, on account of it's condemned," says Ratso. In this run down building, their bond forms out of loneliness, destitution, and their common cause/will to survive. We see the kind side of Ratso as he does things like cook (not well) for Joe, and his beaten down side as he tries to cling to his last shred of self respect demanding Joe call him Rico in his own place, which Joe is unable to do until it's too late.

What makes their friendship so powerful is that their bond grows as things get bleaker and bleaker. Even though they are both (or at least think of themselves as) hustlers, they don't sell each other out for a couple bucks. Joe has a chance to desert Ratso to go to the psychedelic party of Hansel & Gretel McAlbertson (Gastone Rossilli & Viva), a couple of "fruity" experimental Andy Warhol type filmmakers who gather a disparate group of rejects to get some bizarre clips of them. However, Joe, the one who got his picture taken and the invitation, asserts to Ratso "I'll just tell em you want me I don't go nowhere without my buddy here." The party is definitely a highlight of the production, an exceptionally lit and colored visual feast capturing a carefree drug laden time, as well as a highlight for Joe, who with Ratso's management is able to secure his first paying client.

Joe is able to learn from Ratso, but as he finally gets some clue and is able to make a little money on his own, his growth is shown just as much by the way he tries to help out his increasingly more sickly friend who can barely walk. He takes on the role of the provider and caretaker as best as he knows how (which admittedly isn't particularly well), buying him medicine, trying to get him to stop smoking as he already has a deadly cough, and offering to try to pay for medical attention. The latter never happens because, aside from hustling, the one thing Joe & Ratso have in common is that they are dreamers. While Joe believed New York would be the answer for him, Ratso knew it sucked and dreamed of living easy on the beaches of Florida ("The two basic items necessary to sustain life are sunshine and coconut milk. Did you know that? That's a fact. In Florida, they got a terrific amount of coconut trees there. In fact, I think they even got 'em in the, uh, gas stations over there"). His belief in this dream is so powerful that his sickness (pneumonia?), which has made him helpless and harmless, will magically be cured if he gets there in time. As dumb as Joe is and as thrifty as Ratso was, it's Joe that is able to grow from their experience together and realize there must be a better and easier way to live.

The subjective dream and flashback sequences are remarkably presented. Utilizing hyper editing techniques that were way ahead of their time, we are treated to a dizzying trip through the psychedelic delirium of the protagonist's mind. What makes the scenes work so well is the images are stark and easily processable. They are only on the screen momentarily, but they register and have an impact that, even though you probably couldn't name everything you saw, mounts by the end of the scene. The best sequence is when a terrified Joe runs out of O'Daniel's house searching for Ratso who he's aimin' to kill. The real scenes of Joe running are in color while Joe's visions are in black and white, but there are also red gelled color scenes of Joe & his girlfriend getting raped that links the local boys lust for vengeful violence with his. The music and photography give the scene an interesting feel that would be like watching a '60's spy and horror film put together by some experimental drugged out director.

Instead of using a series of flashbacks with different women to establish him as a coveted lover, they only show his reassuring girlfriend Annie (Jennifer Salt, daughter of the screenwriter) who is nicknamed Crazy and winds up being pulled away from Joe and carted off to the asylum. Annie regularly says Joe is "The Only One," and we get the sense that they were both raped because the other men in town didn't liked being regularly shunned because she was only interested in loving Joe. The small problem with this is we don't know if Joe's dream of being coveted by all the rich, bored NY City housewives is based on one poor mentally unstable country girl being obsessed with him or if the women in cowboy country actually bought into his act and were begging for him. I suspect it's the former, but what's the point of inserting an add on detail like this if it's never going to be clarified? Much more importantly though is how can someone who suffered such traumatic incidents be so naïve and light hearted? One of the key themes is loss of innocence, but all these incidents suggest he lost it before he came to New York! They would likely have made him a cold, cynical, and jaded person before we met him. One kind of gets the feeling he's so nice just so the audience can more readily sympathize with him. However, his being overly nice can be defended because a big point is to show how much his style conflicts with the city lifestyle of the time. His ambition is not likely to endear him to many of these people, but neither does his positive qualities.

The whole homosexual issue is also poorly handled. There's regular gay bashing and homophobia, even by the principal actors who form as close to a homosexual relationship as you can have while keeping it in your pants. Their dire need for someone to help them would perfectly justify their relationship. They have hit the bottom of the pit of despair, so they take a chance on one another hoping two "providers" gives them a better chance to survive than one. That they are such polar opposites actually makes them work well together in their five and dime tricks, scams, and hustles. However, instead of going with this logical foundation of survival, we are treated to a series of flashbacks that I guess are meant to show Joe longing for a male companion because he didn't have a father, his mother didn't care about him, and his grandmother either left him to go screw around or did it in his presence. Meanwhile, Joe & Ratso visit the grave of Ratso's father to show that he too is lacking a male presence. All of this says nothing and just serves to distract from the points of the movie that say something that not only goes along with the characters present actions, but also make sense and works. This homophobia as well as the self-loathing and fear of religion established in the scene with Mr. O'Daniel manifests in a brutal murder that in my opinion is pointless in more ways than one. Although nothing shown is particularly inappropriate, I'd feel better about the film if the horrors focused on the prostitution or life in a condemned building without electricity, heat, etc. than being a supposed manifestation of a tacked on background.

In spite of there being a point to the frank and risqué material, and the sex scenes not being particularly abundant or explicit, Midnight Cowboy was originally slapped with an X rating. The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards though, becoming the first and only X rated movie to win Best Picture. John Schlesinger also won Best Director, and Waldo Salt won (probably not deservingly) Best Writing - Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium. Ironically, Jon Voight & Dustin Hoffman lost Best Actor to Joe Buck's hero John Wayne. I like Wayne and critics have definitely underrated him, but I watched True Grit less than two weeks ago and have already forgot the movie and his performance. Good stuff, but Voight & Hoffman have created characters that are indelibly etched into your brain. I think Voight is more deserving than Hoffman is because he's in the movie a lot more and he's created someone real while Hoffman has created a very interesting character. Voight's character also calls for more range, and he successfully makes a subtle yet shocking real transition from wide-eyed naïve cowboy to frightened and hardened hustler that, until there's a reality of new hope in Florida because he's changed his outlook on making a living, only retains a kindness and understanding for the person who earned it. Hoffman though deserves credit for risking his new found fame from The Graduate by virtually reversing the role. Sylvia Miles somehow garnered a supporting actress nomination for her two minutes of work, while Hugh A. Robertson was robbed of Best Film Editing.

The X rating was removed after these 7 Academy Award nominations. This would never happen today because the Academy has become a bunch of rating seeking pansies that shy away from anything remotely risky in favor of the undeserving big names and highly successful mindless popular movies. In my opinion, the best film of 1999 was The War Zone and the best film of 2000 was Requiem for a Dream. Both films made a stronger statement than Midnight Cowboy, pushing their topics - incest and drug addiction respectively - as far as they could possibly go in the process. They took no prisoners in displaying the brutal truth at it's grimmest to make the strongest preventional statement possible. The former was eventually granted an R rating, while the later was kept out of most theatres by sticking with it's guns and going unrated. Nonetheless, they had to make a watered down version so the puritanical Blockbuster would stock a version of it that undoubtedly is not worth renting because half the purpose is probably defeated. Each film could easily have garnered a similar number of nominations, but neither of them made any money, so forget about even the awards that should have been gimmes like Jennifer Connelly for Best Supporting Actress (anyone who says Damn Judi Denchers work in Lasse's dog Chocolat even approaches the stunning remarkably complex work Connelly did in Waking the Dead or Requiem must have the memory of Guy Pearce in Memento), Darren Aronofsky for Best Director, and Jay Rabinowitz for Best Film Editing. Between the two of them, there was one token nomination for Ellen Burstyn's performance. For the best actress performance in recent years, she got the honor of losing to popular poseur Julia Roberts.

While being a very effective time capsule of a certain decadent lifestyle filled with loneliness and emptiness during the disillusioned Vietnam War era, Midnight Cowboy is also a film which ages exceptionally well. Of course there will always be some people who are turned off by the changes in ideology, styles, and music, but in a slightly different way most of the films commentary is truer today than ever because values, morals, and conditions have largely declined in the interim. The songs are certainly from the period, but few movies having songs that fit their theme better and the harmonica of Jean "Toots" Theilemans really creates a feel for the scenes it's used in. Technically it's a remarkable achievement, shot excellently on location with the kind of artistry we see less and less of today as more and more movies rely on phony effects even for the sets. Schlesinger's films during his mid 60's to mid 70's heyday were ahead of their time for production values. Just look at how he embraced the new SteadiCam technology to make Marathon Man a more impressive film. In the end, Midnight Cowboy is a devastating movie like you expected all along unless you are used to today's Hollywood movies, which are afraid to not send the audience home happy. As a whole though, the film is hardly all gloom and doom because the friendship between Joe & Ratso and sequences that show their dreams shed some light on even the darkest of circumstances.


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