Friday, July 04, 2014

Midnight Cowboy (1969)

USA, 113 minutes
Director: John Schlesinger
Writers: Waldo Salt, James Leo Herlihy
Photography: Adam Holender
Music: John Barry
Editor: Hugh A. Robertson
Cast: Jon Voight, Dustin Hoffman, Brenda Vaccaro, Sylvia Miles, John McGiver, Barnard Hughes, Bob Balaban

Midnight Cowboy has always been preceded by the dust cloud of its reputation, involuntarily turning into a lightning rod for social values by focusing on underclass characters. For its efforts it was rewarded with a scandalous X rating—based mostly on the existence of a delicately handled scene of an anonymous gay encounter—and then three gaudy Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay Adaptation) along with endless praise for its stars in Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight. Shortly afterward, the MPAA rating group approached director John Schlesinger with an idea for a compromise. Schlesinger refused to change a single frame. The rating group shrugged and reassigned it an R anyway. I'm not sure what the lesson here is.

Obscured in all this still is a very fine and subtle movie, rock solid in every particular, a showcase of film performance and direction, a wonderful profile of New York City in the '60s, and one of the best winter movies I know. It's also, always, a weird and unexpected picture. In a year of buddy movies (with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Easy Rider), Midnight Cowboy took the framework to hypersexualized and frenzied places it rarely goes, matching a strapping naïve Texas boy, Joe Buck (Jon Voight), with a tubercular Bronx con man, Enrico "Ratso" Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman). In the end, what unites them is the 100% will to survive. Before that, the mind immediately leaps to a thousand ways this goes wrong.

The picture opens as Joe Buck shakes off the dust of his grimy Texas dishwasher job because he has somehow embraced the idea that New York City is full of rich women who will gladly pay for his lovin'. Donning fancy new cowboy duds, off he goes to get there, on a long bus ride. In New York he attempts to meet women by stopping them in the street and asking how to get to the Statue of Liberty. He is in love with his new cowboy outfit, with mirrors, and with himself, in approximately that order. New York collectively sizes him up, and then opens its doors to him in order to pick his pockets.

Ratso Rizzo, along with just about everyone else Buck encounters in the big city, is happy enough at first to sit back and watch every second person make a fool and take advantage of him—and Rizzo takes his own turn at it as well. Buck is systematically pounded like a piece of meat by a tenderizer, losing everything one thing at a time for his own pure dumbness, yet he never loses his sunny disposition and optimism. At about the moment Rizzo takes pity on him, we realize we have too.

Schlesinger's style streams with swirling sounds and images, with narrative and backstory related glancingly, sidelong. The method to his madness is apparent in his best, such as Midnight Cowboy or The Day of the Locust. The scenes in Midnight Cowboy are built out of hours of rehearsal and improvs and used because they work. Some are bigger than life, as in Buck's encounters with a call girl played by Sylvia Miles ("In case ya didn't happen to notice it ... I'm one hell of a gorgeous chick!" she yells at him when he asks her for money). An encounter with a deranged evangelist played by John McGiver goes numerous directions you can't anticipate (my favorite detail is the neighbors pounding on the walls when he starts). The best scenes are quiet and unnerving, as one nearly wordless encounter that Buck has in a diner, at a moment when he is particularly down on his luck, with a strange woman and a cruel little boy.

There's a good deal of busy-work going on all through the movie in terms of establishing a complex backstory for Buck, in part to explain the words that haunt him: "You're the only one, Joe. You're the only one." It's arguable it's excessive as those words themselves and Buck's nature and behavior—and Voight's performance—flesh out this character as much as we need. For me, Midnight Cowboy works best as a series of meditations and set pieces in the present time, sharply realized yet whose greatest impact is only felt later, or with subsequent viewings.

In fact, the strongest elements of the movie seem intended for exactly that. Nilsson's haunting version of Fred Neil's "Everybody's Talkin'" plays constantly through the movie, like a refrain (made even more effective for me by all the associations I have of that song with exactly that time). The movie's version of New York City in the '60s already feels classic, with the down and out struggle of the hustlers contrasted with the high life lived by those who've made it. Taxi Driver and many others owe Midnight Cowboy very certain debts around the portrayal of the city.

There's a wonderful party scene late in the picture. It was modeled on events staged at Andy Warhol's Factory, and Warhol and some of his principals were involved in creating it. The people are gorgeous, the drugs are harmless and mind-expanding, and the music sounds like Stereolab (it's actually Elephant's Memory, with "Old Man Willow"). It's strange and beautiful, even as Voight and Hoffman continue to carry the show with their indelible characters in the surprising context of this beautiful vision of psychedelic '60s New York.

The ending, an amazing climax to the unlikely friendship, only becomes more affecting the more times I see Midnight Cowboy. That's when it's clear what John Schlesinger managed to do with Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight and this story. There's a beautiful symmetry in terms of bus rides and Joe Buck's cowboy costume, a totally credible (and totally heartening) change of character in Joe Buck, who allows to no one in particular that there has to be easier ways of making a living than hustling. With Rizzo by his side (what is it about Dustin Hoffman and buses and the ends of movies?), wearing his new store-bought clothes, Buck turns bravely to face the future. It's one of the greatest moments in all movies.

Top 10 of 1969
1. Midnight Cowboy
2. The Sorrow and the Pity
3. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
4. They Shoot Horses, Don't They?
5. The Sterile Cuckoo
6. My Night at Maud's
7. The Wild Child
8. The Wild Bunch
9. Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice
10. Eros + Massacre


  1. Richard Riegel here, Jeff. Thanks for recapitulating "Midnight Cowboy" for us. Teresa and I saw it when it came out in '69, and were quite impressed with it, but I don't think I've seen it again since then, and you've got me very interested in catching that psychedelic party scene, as I have no memory of that segment by now. Seriocomic sequel to that primordial viewing is that I related to my parents how much we'd liked "Midnight Cowboy", so then *they* went to see it too. My-mother-the-New-Deal-liberal was open to much of the '60s rebelliousness coming from her beloved "young people," but at the same time uptight about sexual matters (Catholic girlhood), and I didn't know how she'd take Joe Buck's chosen profession and the other characters' behaviors. She reported to me later that she was initially "shocked" by some of the scenes, but came to appreciate the way Joe and Ratso cared for each other, and thought it was a good movie. One of my first successes as a practicing critic . . .

    Also very glad to see "The Sterile Cuckoo" on your Top 10 of 1969 list. Teresa and I caught that one when it was new too, and liked it. I've seen it on TV several more times in recent years, and it gets better and better for me. It really captures what American college life was like in the very middle of the '60s, just *before* all the psychedelic liberation hit us. When some tabloidizat starts tut-tutting about Liza Minnelli's current state, I think, "But have you ever seen her amazing performance in 'The Sterile Cuckoo'?" She won me for good with that one. Interestingly, I ran across a copy of John Nichols' original novel of "The Sterile Cuckoo" in an antique store a few years ago, so bought and read that. It contains the basic plot of the movie, but all kinds of extraneous subplots and weird asides as well, and seems almost surrealist compared to the movie. It made me appreciate even more how screenwriter Alvin Sargent and director Alan Pakula were able to focus the movie so intensely on the poignant discovery-and-then-loss-of-first-love heart of the story.

  2. Thanks Richard! Yes, I was impressed by Minnelli in "Cuckoo" too, also always had a soft spot for that Sandpipers' theme song, "Come Saturday Morning." I didn't come back to Midnight Cowboy again until about five years ago and it really surprised me. It still feels really fresh and powerful, which I hadn't expected. Hope you like it the second time around too!

  3. Regrettably, it's almost impossible to come back to Midnight Cowboy with the right eyes after having seen SCTV's version ....

    Midnight Cowboy II