Midnight Cowboy (1969)
Release Date: May 25th, 1969 MPAA Rating: X
Director: John Schlesinger Actors: Dustin Hoffman, Jon Voight, Sylvia Miles, John McGiver, Brenda Vaccaro, Ruth White, Jennifer Salt, Barnard Hughes
ovingly, artistically, and uncompromisingly directed by controversial subject aficionado John Schlesinger, “Midnight Cowboy” is one of the finest studies of human relationships in film, making use of masterly character development and the heavy-hitting rationalization of choices and consequences. A very real, heartwarming story is surrounded by the grittiness and filth of the impressionable New York street life – practically a character of its own – full of saddening poverty and colorful denizens, and a breeding ground for repetitiously poor decision-making. The only production in motion picture history to win an Academy Award for Best Picture after receiving an X rating from the MPAA (later reduced to an R), “Midnight Cowboy” also earned writing and directing Oscars, plenty of critical acclaim, and a spot on AFI’s Top 100 American Films list – twice.
Joe Buck (Jon Voight) decides to strike it rich as a playboy and male prostitute (“Midnight Cowboy” is slang for hustler) for the rich and famous – a job he believes will lend to a luxurious, lucrative lifestyle. Journeying to the Big Apple with little more than his cowboy hat and boots and a pack of chewing gum, he quickly locates an older woman to try out his charms. He soon realizes that he doesn’t have the knowledge or wherewithal to make money from lonely women (his first companion, Sylvia Miles, turns the tables on him in a classic scene that ends in Buck paying her for sex), and in an act of desperation, turns to selling himself to men – which also has its unsettling and unsuccessful outcomes. Later, after getting ripped off by scuzzy street-weasel conman Enrico Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), Buck forms an unlikely alliance with the thief, and the pair struggle to survive in the destitute reality of their high-rise dreams.
A one-of-a-kind film, “Midnight Cowboy” dwells on immensely tragic and morbidly serious adult situations, with Buck and “Ratso” Rizzo sharing one of the sincerest and most engaging heterosexual movie friendships. They are opposites in physicality and mentality, but comparable products of unwise judgments: Rizzo looks for the easy way out of following in his father’s penniless footsteps, while Buck, as witnessed through fascinating hallucinatory flashbacks, suffers from abusive, misunderstood childhood experiences and neglect. Buck is overconfident and naïve, and languishes for it; Ratso has street smarts but contends with a lack of social skills, mixed with paranoia and low self-esteem, chiefly derived from his crippled leg. But they are not inherently bad people and can easily garner sympathy from the audience.
Phenomenally sharing the screen in acting tours de force, Hoffman and Voight were both nominated for Academy Awards for Best Actor. Ironically, they lost to John Wayne (for “True Grit”), whose name is mentioned briefly in the film. “Midnight Cowboy” also boasts an outstanding soundtrack by John Barry and Harry Nilsson, which coordinates uplifting and upbeat tunes to wonderfully contrast the main characters’ weighty situations. Those scenarios (penned by Waldo Salt from a book by James Leo Herlihy) movingly visualize the idea that even in the most desperate of times, solace and contentment can be achieved through nothing more than simple companionship. Decades later, it’s still one of the most inspirational and important cinematic products of the ‘60s, capable of connecting with modern audiences through its powerful take on loneliness, amity, survival in fortuneless and uncharted waters, and perceptible sense of rousing hopefulness, even in the bleakness of mortal fragility.
– Mike Massie