Midnight Cowboy (1969): Schlesinger’s Oscar Winning Film

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In 1969, “Midnight Cowboy” won the Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director John Schlesinger, and Best Adapted Screenplay to 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 Paul Newman and Robert Redford, the old-fashioned musical, “Hello Dolly! with Barbra *Streisand in the lead, and Costa-Gavras’ political thriller “Z.”

By today’s standards, it’s rather conservative and mild. But at the time, the film surprised audiences with its candid view of graphic sex and daring dialogue, such as a scene in a Times Square movie house, and a gallery of secondary characters that included gay hustlers, prostitutes, and older patrons.  

In essence, the film tells a bittersweet, occasionally touching tale of a strange friendship between two victims of the American Dream.  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.

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 of the 42nd Street area long before it was Disneyfied.

Some film 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 of Tiffany’s and pedestrians who could not be bothered by the corpse.  Other reviewers complained that the relationship between the two men doesn’t go far enough; it is never overtly sexual, despite innuendos and homoerotic overtones.

Grounded in its socio-political context, there is a Greenwich Village hippie party that feels like an orgy and 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 human interaction and intimate companionship. The movie is sporadically moving and it certainly has energy to transcend the depressing context and awful surroundings. But by focusing on the squalid adjustments to loneliness and desperation, the tone is more morbidly exploitative than realistic or humanistic.

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 the tale, 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 (who previously directed “Darling!” with Julie Christie) 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.

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 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. “Midnight Cowboy” became first prestige movie to get an X in the new rating system, (which was initiated just seven months before its release.

“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).

“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” received got more Oscars (four) than “Midnight Cowboy,” which was nominated for seven Oscars, winning three.  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.”