Nearly fifty years after its release, it’s clear Midnight Cowboy pulled off a neat trick. Its story of a naïve “Texas longhorn bull” hustler and a low-rent con man is of its time and timeless, a mod urban Of Mice and Men, and a cinematic thunderclap that amplifies the human heart.
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By several estimations, Midnight Cowboy (1969) should not age well. Director John Schlesinger employed multiple trendy late 1960s devices: fractured linear time, multiple film stocks, Harry Nilsson pop tunes, and even a party scene that could only come from the Warhol era. Midnight Cowboy’s sheer “what’s happening now” vibe ought to render it more valuable as history than as enduring cinematic art, likening it to compatriots Alice’s Restaurant (1969) and Easy Rider (1969). But it doesn’t. Nearly fifty years after its release, it’s clear Midnight Cowboy pulled off a neat trick. Its story of a naïve “Texas longhorn bull” hustler and a low-rent con man is of its time and timeless, a mod urban Of Mice and Men, and a cinematic thunderclap that amplifies the human heart.
Schlesinger was the somewhat unlikely maker of a Hollywood Renaissance masterpiece. A British gay man who came of age professionally making documentaries for the BBC, he emerged as a leading British New Wave director with A Kind of Loving (1962), Billy Liar (1963), and Darling (1965). There were clues he had it in him to make Midnight Cowboy and guide Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman to career-best performances. His early films are smartly observed personal dramas edited with a skittish energy and a dedicated ambivalence to dreamers, opportunists, and misfits.
Midnight Cowboy isn’t a gay movie per se, in that it doesn’t set out to preach, condemn, or make a fuss. Instead, it was part of Schlesinger’s quiet revolution in homosexuality on the screen. Darling includes a gay character whose active sexuality (he shamelessly cruises and picks up a waiter before our very eyes) is woven into the story as no big deal. In Schlesinger’s triangular Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971), a gay man has an affair with a bi man who has an affair with a straight woman. In Midnight Cowboy, gay themes come without the slightest whiff of sensationalism. Homophobia is in service to plot and character, and is absent the 1960s cinematic expectation that any glint of same-sex desire requires subsequent torture and death. The film is further set apart in Schlesinger’s early canon as an American creation enriched by the penetrating gaze of an outsider. He didn’t hesitate to put on film what he saw, no matter how ugly. The unconscious (or is he dead?) man on Fifth Avenue was a cauterizing movie moment in 1969. How could we grow so inhuman as to pass him by unattended? Of course, today such city visions are as common as parking meters, empty hypodermics, and ATMs.
Midnight Cowboy is probably the most honest buddy movie ever produced in America. Plenty has been said about the performances of Voight and Hoffman as an unlikely duo whose emotional retardation resulted from confined notions of masculinity. As limping and consumptive Ratso Rizzo, Hoffman, fresh from The Graduate, could have destroyed his career with an off-pitch performance. The then-unknown Jon Voight could have done likewise as Joe Buck, a new kind of anti-hero who pushes the boundaries of sympathy. But as city discards, they’re thrilling to watch, spectacularly enabled by Schlesinger to explore, embrace, and fly as actors. Schlesinger “wanted to be surprised” said Hoffman in a documentary nestled in Criterion’s yummy extras. While Voight finds Joe by twiddling the dials of his transistor radio, Hoffman as Ratso checks payphone slots for stray dimes. Such are the actors’ character discoveries that bring a smile to Schlesinger.
For all of Hoffman’s showy brilliance, Midnight Cowboy is Voight’s movie. He is Dorothy to Hoffman’s (pick one) Scarecrow, Tin Man, Cowardly Lion he meets along the way. It is Joe’s story and transformation that propels the film, and Waldo Salt’s screenplay is charged with finding his troubled core. Every line of the screenplay adaptation from James Leo Herlihy’s novel seems to expand and humanize the characters. Salt called Joe’s moments of remembrance not flashbacks but “flash presents,” as they appear when the past is conjured in Joe’s present. When New York is replaced by Florida, Joe sheds the cowboy drag and becomes infinitely more beautiful. A woman flirts with him; it goes nowhere. Joe has found another kind of love, not necessarily gay, but a love born from basic human affection. His transformation makes the finale all the more shattering.
There is a lot more at play than two great performances. Midnight Cowboy’s camera is fantastically peripatetic, freely moving from diners to bars, pawnshops, hotel rooms, bathrooms, theaters, grocers, and hotel lobbies. It is shot through with quick cuts of TV, billboards, and crawling light boards screaming for consumer attention. Times Square is here a seedy fleshpot, not the vertiginous light show of malignant Capitalism it would become. Indelible characters ring Voight and Hoffman, from John McGiver’s religious zealot to Brenda Vacarro’s savvy partygoer, Bob Balaban’s timid young man on the prowl, and Sylvia Miles’ crass strumpet. Even the speechless extras are perfect. Stealing shots with long hidden lenses, Schlesinger and director of photography Adam Holender caught self-important drones pushing themselves through the city.
Midnight Cowboy came out when the ratings system was new, and it got slapped with an X. Anyone paying attention knew it wasn’t pornography, and it went on to become a commercial and critical hit nominated for seven Academy Awards. With the recent conservative Best Picture choices of The Sound of Music (1965), A Man for All Seasons (1966), and Oliver! (1968), Midnight Cowboy wasn’t favored to win. But it did win Best Picture, along with statues for Schlesinger and Salt. Those are Academy choices that hold up. The ghosts of Joe and Ratso are still out there in the shadows, going no place in particular to the sounds of a lonely harmonica.
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All images are screenshots from the Criterion release of Midnight Cowboy.