Screenplay : Waldo Salt (based on the novel by James Leo Herlihy)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1969
Stars : Dustin Hoffman (Ratso Rizzo), Jon Voight (Joe Buck), Sylvia Miles (Cass), John McGiver (Mr. O'Daniel), Brenda Vaccaro (Shirley), Barnard Hughes (Towny)
"Midnight Cowboy" is many things: an astute character study, a buddy picture, a human comedy, a stark drama, and an honest and straightforward depiction of the seedy world of male prostitution in New York. What is most amazing about the film is its refusal to age. It won the Best Picture Oscar in 1969, but viewing it twenty-five years later seems to have done nothing to undermine its impact. It is still just as raw and potent as it was when it was first released with an X-rating (it has since been re-rated R without any cuts).
The hero of "Midnight Cowboy" is Joe Buck (Jon Voight), a slightly dim, but ambitious young man who leaves his job as a dishwasher in a small Texas town to be a hustler in New York. After putting on his new boots and checking himself in the mirror, he gathers his one suitcase and makes the long bus trip to the Big Apple with naive dreams of seducing beautiful women and getting paid for it. "Hell, the only thing I ever been good for is lovin'," he claims.
But dreams will be dreams, and Joe Buck's ideals are shattered once he arrives in the city that never sleeps. He quickly learns that turning a trick is not as easy as he thought, and once he does manage to seduce one obnoxious, somewhat overweight and unhappily married New Yorker (Sylvia Miles), she is absolutely indignant when he asks her for money. "I'm a good lookin' chick!" she tells him. In a sad and ironic turn, Joe, being the soft heart that he is, ends up giving her money for taxi fare.
The first half of the film is a downward spiral into urban hell, and Joe is eventually reduced to selling himself on 42nd Street to a latent homosexual college boy who later confesses he has no money to pay him. Joe, too tired and beaten down by the destruction of his dreams, doesn't even have the energy to take the kid's watch.
Enter Enrico Salvatore Rizzo, also known as Ratso Rizzo. As brilliantly played by Dustin Hoffman, Ratso is the exact opposite of Joe. He never seemed to have any dreams or illusions, so they could never be shattered. Ratso is a sickly, crippled, small time crook from the Bronx, who first cons Joe out of money by promising to set him up with a pimp, but instead delivers him into the hands of Mr. O'Daniel, a religious nut. They later make amends and becomes friends and companions. They share an apartment in a condemned building, and somehow form a partnership and alliance that makes this movie an unexpectedly endearing love story.
English director John Schlesinger made "Midnight Cowboy" as his American debut, and because he was not native to New York, he was able to bring an outsider's viewpoint that redefined the city and America. Schlesinger lets cinematographer Adam Holender's camera linger over the neon signs, arching skyscrapers, and eclectic assortment of people that most Americans take for granted. Holender's camera turns the city itself into as much of a character in the film as any of the people, and we begin to recognize its many traits. If Park Avenue is the place where dreams are made, then 42nd Street is where they are shattered.
Schlesinger is a sure-footed director who employs a variety of cinematic techniques to achieve astounding results. Most of the movie is filmed with deadpan realism in muted colors, but Schlesinger often incorporates complex flashbacks, black and white photography, and symbolic imagery. He also makes extensive use of pop culture American iconography such as cheesy science fiction movies, Andy Warholesque drug parties, taxi cabs, run-down tenement buildings, penthouse apartments, board games, fur coats, billboards, commercial jingles, pawn shops and neon signs.
Both Voight and Hoffman are brilliant in their respective roles, and they have a charm and chemistry that overcomes their destitute existence. Jean "Toots" Thielemans' haunting score with its lonely harmonica punctuates the lowest aspects of the film, while Nilsson's memorable ditty "Everybody's Talkin' At Me" is used consistently to remind us of Joe Buck's aspirations, and what it means to still have dreams. By the end of the film, he has newer, more down-to-earth longings, but by that point, you have to wonder if his experiences haven't somehow ruined him. The end of the "Midnight Cowboy" is one of the saddest, most heart-felt moments I have ever seen, and it is the kind of scene that sticks to your gut for a long time. It doesn't try to force any answers because, with the kind of questions this film raises, none would suffice.
©1997 James Kendrick