In 1969, “Midnight Cowboy” won the Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director for John Schlesinger, and Best Adapted Screenplay for Waldo Salt.
Midnight Cowboy was based on a respectable source material, the 1966 novel of James Leo Herlihy (who by the way committed suicide). Though tough and gritty, the movie, with the help of the Oscars, was quite commercially successful.
It was a year of mixed bags as far as the Oscar race was concerned. Released in the midst of the Vietnam War and Anti-War movement, Midnight Cowboy won over the flawed historical epic “Anne of the Thousand Days,” the stagy adaptation of “A Thousand Clowns,” the campy and exuberant revisionist Western, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” starring Newman and Redford, the old-fashioned musical, “Hello Dolly! with Streisand in the lead, and Costa-Gavras’ political thriller “Z.”
Midnight Cowboy surprised audiences with its candid view of sex and daring dialogue, though by today’s standards, it’s rather conservative and mild.
In essence, the film tells a bittersweet, occasionally touching tale of a strange friendship between two victims of the American Dream. The one, Joe Buck (Jon Voight), is a good-looking, uneducated, and naive Texan who, under the influence of radio and television commercials, fancies himself to be a stud. His ambition is to strike it rich by providing sexual services to wealthy women, only to discover that the image projected by his buckskin jacket and cowboy paraphernalia has appeal mainly in the homosexual market. The other character, Ratzo Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) is a crippled, ailing mousy scrounger, who lives in a vacant, decaying building, barely eking out an existence by his street smarts.
Some critics, such as Pauline Kael, found the movie offensive and inaccurate in its seedy portrait of New York City. The harshest, most disturbing image shows a man lying unattended on a Fifth Avenue pavement in front to Tiffany’s.
Other critics, such as Barrios, claims that despite the edgy surface, the film is at heart conventional, sort of “old wine in new bottle.”
But I disagree with both ot them. Reflecting the zeitgeist, the film tried to capture the ambiance of nightlife at Times Square and the area’s alienated and lonely creatures. In the process, it perpetuated the myth of New York as a sleazy, dehumanized, impersonal city. Schlesinger explored the Dante-like Inferno the 42nd Street area long before it was Disneyfied.
Grounded in its socio-political context, there is a Greenwich Village hippie party that feels like an orgy was a gesture toward the then fashionable kind of decadence.
The relationship between a flawed “innocent” and a cynical, moribund loser emerges out of their desperate need for some kind of human companionship. The movie is sporadically moving and it certainly has energy to transcend the depressing context and awful surroundings. The film focuses on their squalid adjustments to loneliness and desperation. The tone is more morbidly exploitative than honestly realistic–“or humanistic, for that matter. The relationship doesn’t go far enough; it is never overtly sexual, despite innuendos and homoerotic overtones.
Joe may have been America’s last unenlightened fool, a small-town bumpkin, unable to adapt to faster world and new markets. This comes across in most of his interactions, but particularly with Cass (Sylvia Miles), a restless ex-hooker who welcomes the excitement of Joe’s visit to the plush penthouse provided by her current protector. She is an aging floozy that Joe picks up under the mistaken interpretation that she is a society lady.
Moral ambiguity prevails throughout, specifically in the gratuitously brutal act Joe commits in an effort to realize the dying cripple’s fantasy about getting to hot-climate Florida.
Aesthetically, Schlesinger relies on rapid-fire cutting, distorted wide angle shots, crudely inserted flashbacks from Joe’s childhood, and other shock effects. He uses the spurious exuberance of mass media slogans as a counterpoint to joyless real-life encounters. Most critics found the fragmented flashbacks into the cowboy’s lurid formative years to be irritatingly ambiguous and incoherent too.
Indeed, ultimately, what the viewers cared about was not the frenzied style and visual pyrotechnics but the characters and the central friendship. The movie is about the awakening of affection–“and conscience–in two alienated young men, who discover for the first time in their lives what it is to care about another human being. Neither the cowboy nor his pal Ratso, the Times Square derelict who first cheats and then befriends him, has ever really “communicated” with anyone before.
The film catered to and reinforced the facile pessimism of the then young moviegoers, just as the facile optimism of the older generation used to cater to a simpler age. The film used freedom of expression with balancing responsibility and constructive-hopeful purpose. Indeed, it became first prestigious movie to get an X-rated in the new rating system, (which was initiated just seven months before its release.
Awards-wise, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid got more Oscars (four) than Midnight Cowboy, which was nominated for seven Oscars, winning three. Midnight Cowboy was nominated for Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, two Best Actors (Voight and Hoffman, thus canceling each other out), Supporting Actress (Sylvia Miles), and Editing (Hugh A. Robertson).
The acting of Voight and Hoffman was superb, and both were nominated for Best Actor, though the winner that year was John Wayne for the retro Western, True Grit.
It’s worth noting that “Midnight Cowboy” opened theatrically just weeks before the riots at Stoenwall, which would open the gates to a more vivid and candid potrayal of gay relationships.