Midnight Cowboy (1969)

Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman are an odd couple in the Big Apple in Midnight Cowboy

Director: John Schlesinger

Cast: Jon Voight (Joe Buck), Dustin Hoffman (Enrico “Ratso” Rizzo), Sylvia Miles (Cass), John McGiver (Mr O’Daniel), Brenda Vaccaro (Shirley), Barnard Hughes (Towny), Bob Balaban (Young Student), Ruth White (Sally Buck), Jennifer Salt (Annie)

Even today it still feels like an odd Best Picture winner: two down-and-outs in the slums of New York, both trying to hustle, develop a strangely symbiotic relationship part brotherly, part semi-romance. It’s even more bizarre when you remember the year before the Academy had given the Big One to the super-safe family-friendly charms of Oliver! Still the only X-rated film to win Best Picture (though it looks hilariously tame for such a rating today), Midnight Cowboy is both the first step towards the fresh, modern film-making of the 70s and also a dated landmark of a particular era of film-making.

Joe Buck (Jon Voight) is the would-be Cowboy, escaping the hum-drum life of dishwashing in a run-down restaurant in Texas (not to mention a backstory darkly hinted at of a childhood of neglect and traumatic sexual encounters of the past) to make the trip to the Big Apple to find a new career – as a gigolo. After all he “ain’t a for-real cowboy. But [he is] one helluva stud”. Sadly making a career of sleeping with rich women for money ain’t half a lot harder to pull off than you might think. Not least when you are quite the naïve rube, certainly compared to more practised hustlers like “Ratso” Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), a crippled, seriously ill born-and-bred New York who lives a hand-to-mouth on the streets desperate for each coin he can find. Both hustlers team up to try and make their wealth from Joe’s attractions – but life is tough for the desperate underclass of American society.

Released in 1969, the film stunned the States with Brit John Schlesinger’s insight into the dark underbelly of the American dream. Schlesinger, in a way few film makers before had, focused on the scuzzy poverty of the American loser, the two dreamers who fantasised about turning their lives around into the American ideal, but instead met failure and depression at every turn. This was a million miles from the “poor boy made good” vision of past films, or the sort of Capraesque spin of small-town guys winning out in the big city due to their inherent pluck and honesty. There’s none of that in Midnight Cowboy

Throw in Schlesinger’s style – the way his camera immerses you in New York with its “on the hoof” immediacy (Schlesinger couldn’t afford to get the streets closed, so simply shot the actors in medium or long-shot in real streets and locations, with real people) – and you got a vision of America you hadn’t seen before. The use of locations gives triumphant shots – Jon Voight emerging head and shoulders above the New Yorkers as he walks through bustling streets – and also moments that hum with authenticity. Most famously Hoffman’s “I’m walkin’ here” outburst when the actor was nearly mowed down by a taxi mid-shot while crossing a road. Midnight Cowboy takes you down in the gutter with these characters, and makes you feel part of their world. When we see the freezing poverty they live-in – in an abandoned apartment block – you practically shiver with them.

Throw in with this Schlesinger’s (and Waldo Salt’s fabulous script) careful and sensitive exploration of the bonds between the two men. Starting as strangers, both Ratso and Joe slowly find themselves drawn together in a symbiotic way that’s part soul mate, part unspokenly romantic. It’s implied throughout that the two characters feel a connection towards each other that they lack both the emotional and intellectual language to understand. But it’s there for the audience to pick up on, even if the sexuality of the two characters is something they seem barely able to understand (Joe’s sexuality is certainly far more fluid than he can even begin to grasp, while Ratso hurls around homosexual slurs so often you can tell he doth protest too much). These characters become inseparable, tending to each other (at one point an ill and soaking Ratso loosely embraces Joe, while Joe uses his shirt to dry his face and hair), sharing dreams and hopes for the future, forming a bond that goes way beyond questions of sexuality. For both of them it’s more than clear that an emotional bond like this is something alien to them both, a connection they have long feared in a cruel world.

Both actors excel in the two roles. Voight – in a career making performance – is understanding as a man who is naïve, easily fooled, caring but distant, who slowly begins to replace his wide-eyed innocence with a greater understanding of himself. Joe is a hopeless hustler – a failure as a seducer of women, and twice reduced to tragically mismanaged male prostitution, a stud who ends up paying his first customer to spare her feelings. The film carefully sketches in a backstory of emotional frigidity which adds context to a character who is charmingly selfish but learns to make a connection with another human being.

Hoffman was equally keen for the role, desperate for a part that would be the polar opposite of Benjamin from The Graduate. While Voight plays with a grounded naturalism and unaffected genuineness, Hoffman’s performance pushes the envelope of quirk. There is no end to the affectation of the role – scruffy, limping, sweaty, loud, twitchy – it’s a show-off of a role, with the moments of emotional vulnerability seized on with an actorly relish. But it still works because, despite it all, Hoffman communicates a genuine empathy and sorrow in the role, and because the performance bounces so well off Voight’s stiller, more balanced work.

The film works less well when it drifts away from this central pairing. The “marks” get short shrift, with the women in particular either hornily manipulative (Sylvia Miles, receiving a generous Oscar nod for five minutes work) or serenely wise (Brenda Vaccaro as a woman with more insight into Joe’s fluidity of sexuality than himself). Joe’s male marks are a tragically ashamed young student (Bob Balaban in an effecting debut) or full of messed up self-loathing (Barnard Hughes). 

Similarly, Schlesinger’s directorial flourishes may have looked like modern cinema verite at the time, but don’t half look like dated, heavy-handed touches today. Joe’s backstory – told in wordless sequences with different film stock – not only seem tiresome and alienating but also flimsy in the extreme in their psychological insight. Schlesinger’s satire on the Warholesque arty high-life of New York is heavy handed in the extreme, and its filming style outrageously clunky. The film’s psychological depth is thin and insight often blunted, while Schlesinger’s analysis of character often seems dependent on actors (some overindulged) rather than a true vision.

But despite that, Midnight Cowboy works because the characters are so rich and the insight into the life down-and-outs in New York still feels real. Voight and Hoffman (for all his indulgence) are excellent and the sexless romance between the two characters is intriguing and, by its conclusion, carries real emotional weight. While dated and lacking in as much insight as you might wish, it’s still a film that reflects on the damaging gap between dreams and reality, and the difficulty of casting the former aside.

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