Midnight Cowboy (1969)

“Do you really think anyone’s going to pay money to see a movie about a dumb Texan who takes a bus to New York to seek his fortune screwing rich old women?” – John Schlesinger

The answer to that question is, yes. On a $3.2 million budget, the film grossed more than $40 million on initial release. Initially, the fear that the film was dark and downbeat, had too much nudity, fornication, erotic perversion, rape, drug use, and general moral decadence was legitimate, but tapped into audiences that lined-up around the block to see it. Apparently, America was in need of those things. This was not the first film that offered up twisted sexual stories and morally broken characters, Midnight Cowboy might provided the most frank presentation of this subject matter without the heavy dose of over-baked melodrama.

This blog originated from a terrific book, Shooting Midnight Cowboy, by Glenn Frankel, that covers in great detail the development and production of Midnight Cowboy, and also the social significance of the film. After finishing the book I needed to view the film again.

Midnight Cowboy is the only X-rated film to be presented the Academy Award for Best Picture of the Year. In those days, X did not mean pornographic. The adult film industry commandeered the X rating. What was intended to be adult subject matter became associated with graphic sexual matter.

According to Frankel’s book, the Motion Picture Association of America gave the film an R rating, but it was United Artists (the production studio) and the filmmakers, that wanted the X rating. Later on, UA asked the MPAA to change the rating from X to R. Interesting. Apparently, those in power at UA decided the film’s adult themes were too menacing for young minds and might have led them down the path to perversion. Frankel references, the film’s homosexual frame of reference, as cause for great concern. Yes, seriously. Adults were equipped to resist the gravitational pull of homosexuality, but children need protected from making a dire choice.

The Production Code, which was really the censorship arm of the studios, had just bit the dust. It was replaced by a ratings board that slapped a G, M, R or X on films to guide the public about subject matter in the film. If a filmmaker distributed a film bypassing the ratings board, local advertisers would not likely publicize the film and that was box office poison.

In case you have not seen Midnight Cowboy recently, there are elements of homosexuality in the film, but the story is not focused on that, nor is it really about sex either. Those are story elements, and there is a frankness about them that for the time was quite unsettling to many. For me, the film is really about two males, from very different worlds, navigating broken dreams.

While Midnight Cowboy and The Boys in the Band opened the door in mainstream film to deal explicitly with homosexuality, America was a long way from accepting it. In Midnight Cowboy, homosexuality is hidden away in restrooms, movie theaters, hotel rooms, and joked about in a coarse manner. Very underground, even in the boiling cesspool of NYC. The main characters recoil at the suggestion of it, even though Joe Buck winds up in several very uncomfortable male encounters that turn violent. Sexual freedom came with risks.

The sexual subject matter in Midnight Cowboy is not sugarcoated, it is that realism that was shocking and unsettling. A male prostitute who wants to service rich women, he’s proud of his vocation and his talent. The sexual mores of the 1960s were changing, among them the openness about sex, the pill, women feeling more control over their bodies and sex lives.

The film mainly takes place in New York City, at the time when the city was a magnet for crime, prostitution, decay, homelessness and economic decline. It would get worse before the city rebounded and cleaned up a lot of problems it was known for. The city is a character in the film: gray, cold, violent, impersonal and fear inspiring. Joe Buck quickly discovers his naïve dream is turning into an ugly nightmare. What he has to offer is not Park Avenue, rather Times Square.

Jon Voight, Dustin Hoffman and John Schlesinger

Joe Buck (Jon Voight) is the bright-eyed, naive, ill-prepared, hustler who is out-hustled by the city and nearly destroyed by the hard reality he faces. Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) is a small-time conman who is really a hustler. Life has destroyed him, he just does not know it yet.

Although Joe Buck appears in every scene, this is really a buddy-film like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, also released that year. The dreams of both Buck and Rizzo fail to materialize in New York. For Buck, it is the end of his prostitution career, for Rizzo it is the end of his life. Buck and Rizzo form an unlikely alliance, and eventually, a friendship.

Buck has an undistinguished career as a male prostitute. He’s clearly out of his league. When he arrives in NYC, he stays in a ratty hotel and immediately tries his luck in Manhattan where he gets out-hustled by Cass (Sylvia Miles), a kept woman who wrangles money from Buck. Soon, Buck is cruising seedy streets where hustlers like Buck were everywhere. Rizzo clearly tells Buck that his cowboy thing was nothing special.

Buck and Rizzo come together because they both need each other. It is a fragile partnership in the beginning, after Rizzo scams Buck out of $20 and makes a fool of him. Rizzo is devious and Buck has a violent side when he is backed into a corner. Like Rizzo, Buck has endured a hard life, but unlike Rizzo, Buck’s scars are emotional ones. Buck’s New York City dream is mostly a failure. By the end of the film, he and Rizzo are on a bus to Florida, pursuing Rizzo’s dream, and Buck has shed the idealism of being a hustler, settling instead for reality.

Director John Schlesinger, writer Waldo Salt and editor Jim Clark use extensive flashbacks during the film to revisit Buck’s painful past and flashforwards to project his future fantasy/reality.

Photos above: Flashbacks of Buck’s earlier life, being abandoned by his mother and raised by his single grandmother; his tormented relationship with the town slut who is raped by a juvenile gang.

Schlesinger uses very contemporary camera and editing techniques to convey the energy of the period and to move the story forward efficiently – but the film does not feel dated, other than in the fashions. This is a film that hits on many of the same beats fifty years later. The commentary by both Schlesinger and producer Jerome Hellman on the Criterion edition of the film was helpful in understanding the imagery and texture of the film. Hellman passed away last month at age 92. Midnight Cowboy was the biggest film in these filmmakers’ careers.

I have not mentioned the music, which is very important to the style and pacing of the film. The songs, “Everybody’s Talkin'” and “I Guess The Lord Must Live in New York City” are perfect for the film. John Barry (James Bond films) wrote some instrumental music, including the theme from the film, which included the memorable harmonica by Toots Thielemans, received extended radio play. Nilsson and Barry each won Grammy Awards for the film.

Midnight Cowboy was one of a handful of films released in 1967-1969 that were not really representative films of the 1960s, they were clearly blazing new trails and breaking subject matter barriers. Bonnie and Clyde, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Rosemary’s Baby, In Cold Blood, The Wild Bunch, Medium Cool and Easy Riders were the others. Stay tuned for another blog in this subject.

One thought on “Midnight Cowboy (1969)

  1. I revisited the movie a few months back, and found it dated. I saw it in 1968 on the big screen. For that time in American film, it was controversial, but by today’s lack of standards, it’s fairly tame. The music is the best part of the film. Sweetwater Texas doesn’t look much different now, except for a new Walmart.


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