Monday, April 19, 2010

Review: Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger, 1969)

Midnight Cowboy, upon it's release in 1969, was originally received as a shocking and unsettling masterpiece and garnered enough controversy to be given an X Rating (equivalent of an R-Rating in Australia). It went on to become the first X-rated film to win the Best Picture Academy Award, also taking home Best Director for John Schlesinger, and Adapted Screenplay from the novel by James Leo Herlihy. Midnight Cowboy is the story of a naive Texas dishwasher, Joe Buck (in a breakthrough performance by Jon Voight), convinced that he has the looks and skills to be a working stud/hustler in New York. The film opens with him dressing in a cowboy get-up, packing a suitcase, leaving his job, and catching a bus direct to New York City. Joe believes that New York is home to wealthy women willing to pay for a good time, and that he is the answer to all their desires. In a series of flashbacks throughout the film, we are revealed that Joe once loved a young woman named Annie, and that she had assured him that he was 'the only one who had loved her right' and 'better than all of 'em'. With this motivation, Joe believes his path is set. It's on the bus to New York where he finds a channel interviewing New York women about the characteristics they attribute to the perfect man. Already anxious to arrive, Joe is overjoyed by what he hears, and soon hits the streets costumed as a cowboy to meet the women so desperate for his charms. Midnight Cowboy is perhaps most memorable for Harry Nilsson's 'Everybody's Talkin' which plays during a montage where Joe wanders wide-eyed through New York's streets and nervously approaches a series of women, and also returns during later sequences. Joe is invited to the apartment of a wealthy socialite for sex and then is conned into paying for the sexual favors after he brings up the nature of his business interests. Ignorant to the ways of street hustling and feeling sorry for her when she breaks down and screams at his request, she takes twenty dollars to cover her cab. He becomes disillusioned and retires to a bar, where he meets Rico 'Ratso' Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman). Ratso is a sickly, greasy, unshaven bum who was also an adept pickpocket and conman. After discovering the nature of Joe's interests in New York, he decides to represent him as his street-smart manager. Once Joe's money has run dry and he is evicted from his hotel room, Ratso welcomes him to stay at his place, and the two form a close bond and struggle to survive through the Winter.
Some of the sequences are unforgettable. With Joe desperate for money, and with no place to go, he picks up a young homosexual teenager and they go to a cinema. The pained expression on Voight's face during that film as the boy holds him is heartbreaking. When the boy reveals he has no money for the favors, Joe threatens to steal his watch, but ultimately lets him go. Distraught, Joe sleeps in the theatre. The Warhol-esque club party that Joe is invited to is also a highlight. Greeted admiringly Joe sweeps the party looking at the women. He unknowingly puffs on a joint and then takes an ecstasy pill, sending him into a hallucinogenic state. He leaves with a woman, where he is unable to perform, likely due to the drugs. When she teases him about being gay, he angrily pushes her onto the bed and they have wild, passionate sex. The next morning, she calls a friend and arranges another date for Joe, finally starting the career he has struggled with for so long. But his friendship with Ratso and his swift requirement of medical treatment force Joe to abandon his career, and the pair head for Florida at the conclusion of the film. On the way, Joe disposes of his costume and buy both of them some Hawaiian themed shirts. But nearing Miami, Ratso dies of his illness, and the film ends with Joe holding him compassionately staring out the window at the passing palm trees. It is an unforgettable conclusion and the end of a very sad tale of two men living at the margins of society filled with the hope of living their dreams, which are ultimately abolished due to societal shunning and it becomes a struggle for them to survive.

Another buddy film, a fun, comedic on-the-run drama, also released in 1969, was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (starring Robert Redford and Paul Newman). George Roy Hill's film has since received equal commendation, and like Midnight Cowboy, is considered a revolutionary classic. It is interesting to see a film like Butch Cassidy, normally the obvious choice for the Academy, beaten by Midnight Cowboy that was originally banned and then edited to eliminate certain graphic sequences that slowed its circulation. Nonetheless, both are fantastic films, and I guess what separates the two are the outstanding performances of Hoffman and Voight. Voight is likable and charismatic as Joe Buck, a man in love with himself yet always expressing the appropriate naivety and ignorance for a man with his dreams. His reactions to his failures are incredibly heartbreaking. Hoffman's second career performance is brilliant. Sickly, and crippled with polio, Ratso hobbles, sweats profusely and coughs uncontrollably throughout the entire film. His greasy, unshaven appearance, a polar opposite to his clean-cut performance in The Graduate (1967), garnered him a second Oscar nomination. Buck's tall, lean, cowboy attired appearance and Ratso's hunched limp and nervous mannerisms are flawlessly relayed by both performers.
Midnight Cowboy presents a gritty underbelly of New York City. Ratso's slum dwelling, which has his own private entrance (a broken wire fence), doesn't have a refrigerator and their beds are mattresses on the floor and dirty blankets. Joe and Ratso are pushed to the limits to survive. It also offers an insight to 60's popular culture at the party and some brief references to homophobia and it's reception in society. But for a late 1960's film, the sexual and drug content is very explicit, and it is never restricted by censorship, which makes it a very daring achievement. Fueled by an excellent adapted screenplay, fine direction, impressive montage editing and a pair of moving performances, Midnight Cowboy is captivating, groundbreaking cinema.

Overall: 4 1/2 Stars

1 comment:

  1. Great review!

    We're linking to your article for Academy Monday at

    Keep up the good work!