Film Flick: Midnight Cowboy

Friday, September 13, 2013

A little trivia question for you- what was the only X-rated film to ever win the Oscar for Best Picture? With its then-very-frank display of sex, rape, homosexuals, poverty, and prostitution, Midnight Cowboy caused preview audiences to leave the theatre in droves, but raked in cash and critical acclaim once it hit the box office.  

The film starts in a dinky Texas town, where we meet Joe Buck (Jon Voight) all gussied up in new cowboy clothes and quitting his job at the local diner. He's heading east to New York City. As he puts it, he's not a real cowboy  but "one helluva a stud." Once he hits the streets of (the then quite grimy) Manhattan, making pay as a hustler isn't so easy.  He's offered some help from a local, Enrico "Ratso" Rizzo. What develops between them is an unlikely relationship as they work to survive the streets. 

Fresh off his success in The Graduate , it was unsure if Dustin Hoffman could pull off such a grimy character as Ratso, though producers were considering him on the basis of stage role. To put to rest any such doubts, Hoffman asked to meet John Schlesinger, the director,  near Times Square late one night. The director waited there twenty minutes...before the bum who'd been sharing the sidewalk with him finally got up and revealed himself to the be the actor all along. Hoffman was so committed to the part he put pebbles in his shoe to create a consistent limp. He also improvised the now famous line "I'm walking here!" when he yelled it at the taxi driver who tried to run the light while they were filming a take in the street.  Not that he was the only actor that committed to his role. Jon Voight, a relative newcomer, "auditioned" for the part of naive hustler Joe Buck by pretending to be a real "midnight cowboy" right off the street, and supposedly "celebrated" getting the part by taking a in a real homeless man. Though neither man had been the first ones considered for their respective roles, both were nominated for Best Actor, but lost out to a different type of cowboy- John Wayne. 

Voight attributed at least part of the magic of the film to its time, saying, " The studio system had gotten stale. Stars were fading, films were not making money, but all these new artists were coming up at the same time, all eager to make films more real, to express what we were seeing." This seems to be true; not only were the subjects of the film "scuzzier"- and, arguably more real- than many previous films, but the style of movie is far different than anything the studio system produced. With its flashbacks and clips of dream sequences, it owes far more to the New Wave movement. And it is this artistry, more than anything that draws you in,  allows you to begin to know the characters through seeing their wants and needs in this way. 

Today, some might argue it is not any edgier or harder than any other film being made present-day. Indeed, some might even say it seems decedent or quaint. But to do so would belittle the trip it took to make the film come to life.   Schlesinger  recounted that it was not always an enjoyable film to make (nor is it always enjoyable to watch), but that for everything they put in the film, they'd seen it on the street. They'd seen even worse than what was on the film. Still, what brought in the cash when they could have reasonably expected (and occasionally got) walk-out audiences, is the humanity and connection portrayed in the story that the beatnik generation- and all those since it- have been craving. 

Still not sure? Then go ahead, and find yourself a  Midnight Cowboy


  1. Very interesting! I've never seen this film...

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    1. I thought for sure you wold have because of your internet handle Midnight Cowgirl. It is touching and gritty at the same time.

  2. I love this film. I must have seen it 3 times and it is creepy, sad and touching all at the same time.


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    1. "Creepy, sad and touching all at the same time" pretty much nails it Suzanne!


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